The Big Picture
- The Big Lebowski is not based on a true story, although the character of The Dude is partly based on a real person named Jeff Dowd.
- The Coen brothers met Jeff Dowd while working on promotional material for their film Blood Simple and were inspired by his mannerisms and outlook on life.
- Some parts of The Big Lebowski are based on real events, such as Dowd’s preference for White Russians and a scene involving a stolen car and a student’s homework.
“The Dude.” These two, simple words conjure up so much within the minds of moviegoers, and specifically, fans of the Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan Coen have created some of the most memorable characters in the history of film. From H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) in Raising Arizona, to Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men, to Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in Fargo, the two have combined to capture some of the quirkiest, most idiosyncratic, and compelling roles. But maybe none have been as spectacularly inept as The Dude in The Big Lebowski.
Jeff Bridges‘ portrayal of Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude,” the lovably unmotivated realist is one of the finest of his career, and alongside John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Turturro, you could very easily make the case that the story of The Dude and his back-asswards downward spiral into the middle of a kidnapping scandal is the best collection of talent that the Coen brothers have ever assembled. The Dude has real-world problems like bills to pay, a car that is breaking down, and friends who sometimes don’t give him the sagest of advice. He loves a good White Russian, bowling, and an occasional joint as well. He seems like the guy who might live upstairs from you and have a waterbed that is leaking and dripping into your bedroom. So, naturally, it begs the question; Is The Big Lebowski, and the story of The Dude, based on a true story?
Is ‘The Big Lebowski’ a True Story?
We can confirm that the brilliant Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski is a fictional story, except for a few scenes (more on that later). We were really hoping to discover that it is based on a true story because the idea of a collection of screwballs existing out there in the real world like Jeffrey Lebowski, Walter Sobchack (Goodman), and Jesus Quintana (Turturro) being alive is a fascinating proposition. Sobchack and Jesus are two fellows you’d want on your bowling team, right? But the good news is that The Dude is at least partly based on a real person named Jeff Dowd. And to make things even better, Dowd also really does prefer a well-made White Russian, stating, “It’s essentially a liquefied ice cream cone that you can buy in a bar.” We couldn’t agree more! But what else about the man the Coen brothers chose to base The Dude on is fact, and what is fiction?
How Did the Coen Brothers Meet Jeff Dowd, the Inspiration Behind the Dude?
The Coen brothers met Jeff Dowd in 1981 while he was working with Robert Redford on creating the now enormously prestigious cinematic launching pad known as The Sundance Film Festival. The Coens were in the early stages of working on promotional material for their thriller Blood Simple. After working closely with Dowd for weeks putting together a marketing campaign for the film, they found out that Dowd’s nickname was actually, “The Dude.” That’s pretty awesome in itself, but after being around the quirky Dowd for an extended period, the Coens began to pick up on the somewhat strange mannerisms, traits, and unusual outlook on life. They stayed in touch and crossed paths several more times in the 80s as Dowd was a fairly prominent marketing executive. More than a decade later, the directors would make a movie about their experiences and time that they spent with Dowd and the end result is the cinema goodness that is the 1998 film, The Big Lebowski.
Which Parts of ‘The Big Lebowski’ Are Real?
As we mentioned, Dowd does enjoy a good White Russian. Does he drink them to the exclusion of all other alcoholic beverages? Not quite. Dowd addressed the White Russian motif in the film saying that although he won’t turn down the cocktail when offered, he doesn’t drink them all the time. He said in an interview with HuffPost, “I drank White Russians the same way when you were in college, one month or one season was Tequila Sunrises and the next time was Harvey Wallbangers and then White Russians.” The Coen brothers decided to focus on the White Russian because they could have more fun with it than something more simple like a vodka soda.
According to the 2009 documentary The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans, another real anecdote from the film was Dowd telling the Coen brothers his thoughts on how a small rug he had just acquired for his home “really pulled the room together” — an unforgettable line in the film. Finally, the sequence in the movie where The Dude and Sobchack go to retrieve Lebowski’s stolen car from a police impound lot is also loosely based on real events. When they reclaim the car, they find an eighth grader’s homework in the backseat. According to The Achievers, this actually happened to a colleague of the Dowd’s, and as portrayed in the film, they go to the boy’s house to confront him believing he had stolen the car. The part where Sobchack presents the boy’s homework in a plastic bag as evidence really did happen!
What Is Jeff Dowd Doing Now After the Success of ‘The Big Lebowski’?
When The Big Lebowski hit theaters in 1998, it was not a big commercial success, making just over $5.5 million on its opening weekend, but since The Dude went on to become a cult fan favorite of misunderstood slackers all over the world, Dowd has gained more and more recognition. Over the last several decades, he has gone on to capitalize on the popularity of the character by traveling the country and headlining speaking engagements in front of die-hard fans of the film that ironically, call themselves “The Achievers” (hence, the name of the documentary, The Achievers). Dowd has also used his platform to highlight his political activism in the 70s, including a Vietnam War protest as a part of “The Seattle Seven.” In the film, The Dude mentions his participation in the political uprising to Julianne Moore’s character as they lie in bed next to each other. This sounds like it requires way too much motivation than Jeff Bridges and the Coen brother’s version of The Dude would be willing to invest, but is a true story, nonetheless. If you have a little over six minutes, do yourself a favor and check out this clip of Jeff Dowd and what he is up to these days. Until then, remember, “The Dude abides…”