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The Man Who Was The Inspiration Behind The Dude

"I am not Mr. Lebowski. You're Mr. Lebowski. I'm the Dude."

With these words, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski forever cemented his legend. The Big Lebowski is over 20 years old, meaning if it were a person it could drink White Russians. While it was not a box office hit when it was released in 1998, The Big Lebowski has since reached iconic status. "Cult hit" doesn't do it justice — the film has fan festivals dedicated to it, has been declared one of the funniest films ever, and even spiked the popularity of a certain cocktail. Who needs to break box office records or win Academy Awards when you have that level of cultural achievement?

While Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the greatest filmmakers alive (with Oscar gold to prove it), their biggest and perhaps most lasting contribution to our culture is The Big Lebowski. How awesome is that? The directors for Fargo and No Country For Old Men will be immortalized by the adventures of an aging hippie just trying to rescue his rug?

Part stoner comedy, part Raymond Chandler-esque neo-noir, there are many reasons to love Lebowski. But just like whole milk in a White Russian, the key ingredient is to the film is the Dude. What's amazing is that the character of Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski wasn't born in the Coens' imaginations. He is real, and his name is Jeff Dowd. Meet the man who was the inspiration behind the Dude.

More about "His Dudeness" (a.k.a. "El Duderino")

In case you've been living under a rock (or been seriously stoned), The Big Lebowski is the story of Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski, played effortlessly by Jeff Bridges. The Dude is mistaken for a millionaire also named Jeff Lebowski by a group of thugs who urinate all over his rug. The Dude simply wants restitution for his rug (it really tied the room together), but gets caught in a web of mystery, mayhem, and intrigue so intricate it makes Raymond Chandler's detective novels seem like coloring books.

The movie's entire cast is stellar (John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliott... yeah, it's great). But the Dude steals the show. Jeff Bridges doesn't so much perform this role as he personifies it. Despite an Oscar-winning career that goes back to the 1970s, Bridges will be forever defined as the Dude, and he's cool with that, because's he's awesome. The Dude is a lazy, laconic oaf who desires nothing more than to bowl with his buddies, talk existentialism with cowboys, get high, and drink White Russians with... anybody. His lethargy is truly larger than life. The Dude seems like a character who couldn't possibly be real. 

Oh, but he is.

The Dude is the Dowd

Yes, the Dude is really the Dowd. Jeff Dowd is a film producer, movie marketing executive, former political activist, and current beach bum living in Santa Monica. As The Big Lebowski's legend has grown, so has the public's desire to learn more about the man it was based on. The Dowd's been profiled by a "who's who" of major media players, including Huffington Post, All Things Considered, and The Atlantic. He was even the subject of a documentary short and a piece on USA Network's "Character" series. The Dowd does not disappoint — he's just about everything you would hope the guy who inspired the Dude to be, and so much more.

Born on November 20, 1949 (just 14 days before Jeff Bridges), Dowd said of his youth, "The reason I'm not an actor is because in fourth grade I played a f—king tree in a play and I blew my lines." Instead of becoming an actor, he became a radical. He was part of the Seattle Liberation Front, or SLF, a radical anti-Vietnam War movement in the early 1970s (we'll get back to that in a moment). After briefly serving a few months in prison for contempt of court, Dowd did what any left-wing radical coming out of the slammer would do: he moved to Hollywood! It was here that he met a couple of cinematic wiz kids named Joel and Ethan Coen.

The Blood Simple beginnings of a beautiful friendship

Joel and Ethan Coen made their feature film debut in 1984 with Blood Simple. Joel was credited as director and Ethan as producer, with the Minnesota-born brothers sharing screenwriting credit. While the Coens have split screen credits this way for most of their movies, their collaborators agree they share filmmaking duties. Some have even said the Coens have "a two-headed brain." Since Blood Simple, their filmography has reached legendary status, ranging from quirky comedies like Raising Arizona and Hail, Caesar! to off-beat experiments like A Serious Man and The Man Who Wasn't There to certifiable American masterpieces like Fargo and No Country For Old Men.

The Dowd had been in the film business since the 1970s. By the time Blood Simple came around, he was a marketing executive (though imagining him in a suit with the title of "executive" is just wrong). Anyway, Dowd knew from only a few minutes of watching Blood Simple that the Coens were something special and would be major players for a long time. What he couldn't have imagined then was that 14 years later, he would inspire arguably their most famous character.

How the Dude is like the Dowd

"[The Coens] spent a lot of time with me and I'm a real easy target," the Dowd told the HuffPost. Of course! How could they resist? 

"They called me up and said we're doing this movie," Dowd said. "I said, 'Oh, sh—t' because... at that point I was a little heavier and the thought was that it would be [John] Goodman or some larger-than-life buffoon, some Hollywood ne'er-do-well buffoon. They said, 'No, don't worry, Dude. It's Jeff Bridges. We're playing it the other way.'"

Like the Dude, the Dowd's speech is disorderly to the point of being flat out inaudible at times. He goes on tangents like a tenured Sociology Professor who no longer gives two bleeps about what other people think. His long-winded rants range from random to funny, from baffling to profound, sometimes in a single sentence. But yeah, mostly they're just random. 

The Dowd even moves like the Dude, with all of the grace of a hungover Great Dane who still has no conception of how big he is. Basically, he's kind of like your favorite cool uncle who the family has always disapproved of. "The body language is one hundred percent me in the movie," said Dowd. He also praised Bridges' casting. "It wasn't a stretch for Jeff to play me. In terms of philosophically, spiritually, all that kind of stuff, that's who he kind of naturally is."

The character wasn't a radical departure

"Did you ever hear of the Seattle Seven?" the Dude asks. "That was me... and six other guys." To be honest, the idea of the Dude doing anything in the '60s or '70s besides 9 Pound Hammer or Pineapple Express is a bit of a stretch. But the reference is there because of the Dowd, who really was a radical activist.

Dowd was involved in the SLF, which protested America's involvement in the Vietnam War. The most famous members of this collective were the Seattle Seven, including — you guessed it — the Dowd. The Seattle Seven were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot following a violent protest outside of the Seattle Federal Building. During the trial, the prosecution's case was floundering, in part because one government witness testified that they would "go to any length" to stop the radicals. Some of the "Seattle Seven" might have gone free if not for making catcalls during the trial (including, according to Dowd, comparing the court to Nazis). The judge ruled a mistrial and the Seven served three months for contempt of court. But hey, there's always show business!

The Dowd goes by "The Dude"

The biggest similarity between the Dude and the Dowd is the nickname. Jeff Dowd actually refers to himself as "The Dude," and he has since the sixth grade. It was given to him by a couple of friends as a play on his real name. The nickname stuck and in fact, other acquaintances "gave" him the nickname throughout the years for the same reason, unaware of the fact that he already had it.

And what a perfect nickname it is. "The Dude" fits both Dowd and the movie character like a beloved bathrobe. It represents the laid back "yeah man, whatever" attitude that forms the core of their shared ethos. It's also just fun to say. Who wouldn't want to be known as simply the Dude? Well, besides Mr. Lebowski, of course.

Still, despite having similar attitudes, body language, and even nicknames, there are some ways the Dowd is not like the Dude.

The Dowd doesn't like what?!?!

Hope you have a box of extra-strength tissues handy, because some of these differences are a little heartbreaking. For one, while the Dowd enjoys a tasty blend of Kahlua, vodka and cream every now and then, he doesn't drink White Russians with the same careless abandon as the Dude. "I drank White Russians the same way when you were in college," he said. "One month or one season was Tequila Sunrises and the next time was Harvey Wallbangers and then White Russians. The reason it was White Russians is you could have a lot more fun with a White Russian than you can with say, a vodka soda."

Okay, we can respect that. However, there is one difference between the Dude and the Dowd that is truly disheartening: he doesn't bowl often! The real Dude... doesn't bowl? It's true. The Dowd claims to have only bowled around a dozen times in all of his 69 years on this Earth. Less than 20 times? That's how many times the Dude bowls in a month!

While we can see the Dude sipping on a Tequila Sunrise every so often, the Dude not bowling is impossible to even fathom. Fortunately, we don't have to. The Coen Brothers were brilliant enough to realize that even if the Dowd didn't bowl, the Dude 100% would.

The Dowd is kind of a boss

Despite the character he inspired, the Dowd is not a slacker. Far from it. In fact, he might have been a "Little Lebowski Urban Achiever" (though probably not TIME Man of the Year).

In addition to being an accomplished anarchist and anti-war radical, Dowd is also the marketing mind behind some of the most successful independent movies of all time. His filmography includes the 1981 Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire, The Blair Witch Project (the most profitable film of all time), and the milestone lesbian romantic comedy Kissing Jessica Stein. He's also worked with several music documentaries, including Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

Honestly, we can't see Bridges' Dude having enough of a work ethic to even watch these movies, let alone develop a marketing strategy for them. But unlike the Dude, the Dowd isn't a lethargic n'er-do-well, he's kind of a boss — an accomplished, sometimes fast-talking Hollywood exec. He just happens to have some expensive eccentricities, like favoring nice silk Hawaiian shirts shirts (the Dude prefers cheap, stained bathrobes). Life's about balance, man.

The Dude's not the only character based on a real person

It has been said that an artist paints the world around them. If that is the case, then The Big Lebowski proves that the Coen Brothers live a very interesting life indeed. In addition to the Dowd inspiring the Dude, there are other nuggets of reality that made it into the film.

John Goodman's trigger-happy, handgun-toting, short-fused, lovable lunatic Walter Sobchak is said to be partially based on a real person. Frankly, we find this fact terrifying beyond comprehension, but at least it's only partially. The "real" Walter is reported to be Peter Exline, a script consultant who is also a professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Professor Walter Sobchak? This is awesome or horrifying, we're not sure which.

The other part of The Big Lebowski plucked from reality also concerns Exline: the Dude's beloved rug. The Coens were attending a dinner party at Exline's home when their host pointed out his living room rug, which his neighbors left when they moved out and Exline "appropriated." On more than one occasion throughout the party, Exline became distracted by the rug, saying it "really tied the room together."

Yes, the truth is indeed stranger than fiction. No word on if Exline ever pulled a pistol on the Coens or yelled at them that they were "out of their element."

The Dowd continues to abide

So, what's the Dowd up to? The ever-expanding legend of The Big Lebowski has given the Dowd a second act of sorts. He gets to be a star attraction at Lebowski fan fests and even is invited to speak at college campuses. But it's not just Lebowski fanboys and fangirls who want to abide with the Dowd — major movie stars do too.

"Virtually every actor who's ever met me, from Redford to whoever, they all like to do 'The Dude'," Dowd told HuffPost. "Harrison Ford comes up to me at some event and goes, 'Wow, I heard you were here! I want to meet you.'" Imagine being so cool that Han Solo wants to me you. Frankly, the idea of Indiana Jones and the Dude joining forces is the most spectacular fan fiction idea ever.

Speaking to (and partying with) college students well into your 60s. Being actively sought out by some of the biggest movie stars of all time. Seems pretty rad. But it's not the accolades that Dowd most appreciates — it's the relationships. "[The Big Lebowski has been] a great gift to me," he says. "I can go anywhere in the world and when people see me, I'm automatically their friend."

You, too, can be the Dude

It's that last part that is the biggest piece of wisdom that both the Dude and the Dowd can impart. We live in a dog-eat-dog world where "being successful" is often defined as running over others before you're run over first. Or, to use a more Lebowski-appropriate analogy, lots of folks out there will take a proverbial pee on your rug or throw a ferret in your bathtub. 

There's a lot to admire about both the the Dude and the Dowd's laid-back, laissez-faire, "hey man, let's all just be friends" lifestyles and atti-dudes. There's something simple, poignant, and even timeless about them. Both the Dowd and the Dude represent the mythic archetype of the Holy Fool, one who subverts conformity in order to point to the truth. While being a slacker stoner isn't necessarily recommend, when it comes to being comfortable with yourself and cool with others, we should all strive to be like the Dudes

"People come up to me and say, 'God, well, thank you, cause the movie's about you.' And I say, 'Well, what do you like about the Dude so much? He's a f—king slacker,'" Dowd told HuffPost. "They say, 'He tells it like it is and he is loyal to his friends.'" Preach, Dude, preach. 

Jeff Dowd... long may he abide.