ARCHIVE: The Dude Ties the Room Together

004minerbi_change (29)By TOM CHESEK (First published on RedBankGreen April 16, 2008)

Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude. 
Sam Elliott as “The Stranger” in The Big Lebowski

When the filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen scooped up an armful of Oscars last February, many of us imagined that the golden statuettes were being awarded not to No Country for Old Men, but in winking recognition of one of the century’s strangest cultural phenomena — a little picture called The Big Lebowski.

Blessed with a savvy, salty script by the Coens and some vivid characters brought to life by a never-again cast of Hollywood mugs, the 1998 release — has it actually been 10 years? — grafts a Raymond Chandler sort of noir thriller plot onto a mellow-paced mood piece that substitutes an unemployed underachiever (Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski) for the hardboiled gumshoe. He’s an aging former activist whose only real passions are bowling some frames with his buds and sucking down White Russians.

An underachiever at the box office, Lebowski was one of those pictures that built its momentum in the lucrative cable/rental afterlife, becoming a touchstone to countless line-quoting aficionados (including a heavy armed-services contingent). It’s also spawned an annual Lebowski Fest that’s shone a public spotlight upon the man who inspired the protagonist, played by Jeff Bridges.

Well, meet Jeff “The Dude” Dowd. Really. He’ll be at the Count Basie Theatre this Saturday, when he’ll screen Lebowski, spin stories from his upcoming book The Dude Abides! Classic Tales and Rebel Rants, answer questions and host a cash-bar afterparty.

Although he’s done much to reinforce his connection to the cult-fave flick, The Dude is far from a Kenny Kramer figure conducting bus tours of Seinfeld landmarks. He’s farther still from the accidental hero of the Coen’s script. In fact, he’s an LA-based writer-producer, a go-to authority on marketing, distribution and exhibition who’s been described by the Wall Street Journal as “a Hollywood jack-of-all-trades who’s largely unknown to the general public, but in the rolodex of nearly every Hollywood power broker.”

Dowd’s been intimately involved with the success of such films as Chariots of FireGandhiThe Black Stallion and The Blair Witch Project. He’s produced or co-produced projects ranging from Zebrahead to Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and has taken an active role from the start in the Sundance Institute and its famous film festival.

The man speaks, too — speaks, as it says in the bio, “all over the globe about film, politics, activism, entrepreneurial business and culture.” In the course of a more than two-hour call from his home office in Santa Monica, CA, Dowd spoke with redbankgreen of many things — of green revolutions and cultural devolution, of electric cars and private bars, of kidneystones and kings.

In short, unlike his celluloid counterpart, this Dude is most emphatically not “takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.” And he’s got something else he needs to get off his chest.

“I’m really not a bowler,” the Dude says, explaining that the Coens only saw him in kegler mode at a premiere party he arranged for the brothers’ debut feature Blood Simple.

Still, the Dude’s got fans to cater to, and when his old acquaintance, Middletown resident Tom Bernard — the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics who said of Dowd, “Nobody knows more about the marketplace” — suggested he step up his schedule of personal appearances, The Dude obliged.

“Tom set it up to prove that I should be out there doing these things,” Dowd says of his stand-alone lecture-and-Lebowski program at the Basie. “I’m doing it to pay down some medical bills for myself and my daughter, since I’m one of those 250 million uninsured people that Michael Moore talked about.”

“So yeah, I’m not gonna see a nickel… but it’s gonna be a lot of fun!

“I’m gonna touch upon things like the Seattle Seven; tell some classic tales from my book, which has kind of been written by demand. I’ve been telling these stories orally for years.”

There’s plenty of film talk as well, with Dowd opining on filmmakers and writers. “Great writers,” he says, “will write a character into a corner, and then see where the situation takes them from there.” Sounds like a pretty good compression of what he Coens did to the Dude.

As for anyone who’s hesitant to come out and pay cash to see Lebowski for the umpteenth time, The Dude offers that “it’s great to see it on the big screen with a lot of people. Plus they have a bar!”

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