The Dude wants to burn one, but the driver doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
The Alamo Drafthouse has rented a car to take Jeff Dowd (inspiration behind the pot-loving protagonist in “The Big Lebowski”) from Denver to Fort Collins, where Odell Brewing Company will present him with a beer crafted in his honor. Crowds of Lebowski superfans (also known as “Achievers”) would be served this special beer at The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema later that night, where Dowd hosted a screening of the movie that turned him into an icon.
“No smoking” signs decorate every surface of this rented vehicle, but Dowd dismisses them, saying “they don’t mean pot” (never mind the Colorado legalities). His massive nest of frizzy gray hair narrowly escapes combustion as he simultaneously lights a joint and turns up the stereo. I feel bad for the designated driver, since I’m the one who gave Dowd the cannabis.
I’m here as a journalist, but I might as well be one of the countless little Achievers who are always bringing Dowd joints and offering to buy him White Russians. Like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” or “Withnail and I,” screenings of “The Big Lebowski” tend to attract religiously devoted fanatics who like to dress in bathrobes with Jellys sandals and quote along with the movie. It’s even worse at conventions like Lebowski Fest, where Dowd says his daughters will often ask him, “How did they all get your clothes, Daddy?”
Smoking pot in an inappropriate place is a very Lebowski thing to do, and it instantly makes me curious about where the lines are drawn between this man and cinema’s favorite stoner detective (and whether those lines have blurred over the years). “The physicality is around 80 percent me,” Dowd later tells me, adding that he’s been called The Dude since sixth grade, where classmates would “twist around the name Dowd. And in Irish-Gaelic my name actually is Duda, and was later switched to Dowd.”
At the moment, though, I can’t understand a word he’s saying.
Dowd is correct that his physical mannerisms are very Lebowski, but he speaks with a pace and urgency that is very un-Dude. He’s turned around in the front seat as we fly down the road, talking to me while maniacally switching songs on his iPod, changing the volume up and down as he interrupts himself with story on top of story, speaking like Keith Richards with a mouthful of pudding. It’s 11:30 a.m., I am profoundly stoned and we’ve just listened to The Band’s “The Weight” for the fifth time in a row. Dowd has finished telling me a story about his good friend Huey Lewis selling yogurt in Berkeley in the ’60s, or at least those are the only details I could understand, and asks what I think while switching on “The Power Of Love.”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention,” I want to say, but resist the temptation of a one-liner for the first of many times that day.
Watching him makes me think of an interview with the Coen brothers I once saw years ago, where writer/director Joel Coen said that “The Big Lebowski” was born from the idea of putting their friend Jeff Dowd in the role of a Bogart-like character in a noir detective story. Co-writer Ethan Coen added: “It seemed interesting to us to thrust that character into the most confusing situation possible — the person least equipped to deal with it.”
Despite appearances of living up to the sloppy pothead mythology of Lebowski, Jeff Dowd has lived an impressively ambitious and storied life. After years spent as a radical anti-war activist in the Northwest (where he was once arrested with a group known as “The Seattle Seven,” an incident briefly referenced in Lebowski), Dowd relocated to Los Angeles in the 1980s and became a renowned producer of independent films. He would go on to work on an eclectic roster of movies like “Zebrahead,” “Desperately Seeking Susan” and “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest,” but it was his work marketing a film called “Blood Simple” — the debut feature from a pair of unknown brothers — that would forever change his life.
As we pull up to the Odell brewery, I ask Dowd about the conflict between his ambitious lifestyle — which to this day includes political activism, writing a book, philanthropy and, yes, public appearances — and Jeffrey Lebowski, the kind of man who pours beer on his crotch to put out a fallen joint and was “possibly the laziest man in all of Los Angeles.”
“When the Lebowski is saying, ‘What day is it?’ and all that stuff, that’s Joel and Ethan going to the extreme,” Dowd says. “When you ask them how they write, Joel will say, ‘I make things bad for the character,’ and then Ethan will say ‘I make it worse.’ And then sibling rivalry will drive them to take it further and further.”
Dowd adds that Jeff Bridges also brought a lot to the character, like the unforgettable Jelly shoes. “Jeff Bridges and I are born within a week of each other,” Dowd says. “Same year, same state. So whenever a new Beach Boys or Beatles song came on the radio, we were likely hearing it on the same day.”
In that same Coen brothers interview, Ethan mentioned that Bridges would often approach him or Joel before a shoot and ask, “Do you think The Dude burned one on the drive over here?” They would often nod that he probably did, and Bridges would “rub his knuckles in his eyes,” says Ethan. If our trip to the Odell Brewing Company is anything to go by, the Coens were accurately portraying how The Dude gets around.
Actors speak up
A half-dozen of the Odell team, along with several other tipped-off drinkers, beam with excitement as Dowd makes his way around the brewery, shaking hands and posing for pictures. We are all presented with mugs of “Goodnight Sweet Prince,” a milk stout crafted specially for that night’s screening at the Alamo.
Odell brewer Kevin Bosley later tells me that the beer is both an attempt to make a kind of “White Russian Stout” while also infusing a slight coffee flavor as a nod to the Donnie’s Ashes scene the beer gets its name from. “Naming this beer was my favorite part,” says Bosley, who phrases his love of Lebowski in the neurotically precise manner often used by cinematic fanboys. “The Big Lebowski is my desert island, number one movie — not the best movie ever, not my favorite movie ever, but it would be the one I’d choose if I could only choose one.”
Bosley once created a beer dubbed “The French Hop Connection” for a screening of the Gene Hackman film at The Alamo Drafthouse theater in Austin, Texas. Alamo organizers are fond of bringing in special guests and themes with various culinary and mind-scrambling goodies for their events. Like earlier this year when they hosted director Paul Thomas Anderson on a cannabis-fueled party bus that circled Denver for a few hours before a screening of “Inherent Vice” in their Littleton theater. They’re always exciting, wholly memorable nights, yet interacting with your heroes in this way can be slightly disappointing.
I can see the Odell team searching Dowd for the character they know so well, just as I was doing earlier. He’s in there, but there’s also a whole hell of a lot more to Jeff Dowd than just the bowler who wants his rug back. For most of the 30 minutes we’re sat at the table, Dowd goes on a breathless diatribe about Walmart, FDR, LGBT rights, Iran, the Pope, the CIA, Obama, alcoholism, Millennials, pharmaceuticals, advertising and “the virus of male brutality.”
Dowd pounds the table to punctuate every other sentence, giving him an intensity that betrays any notions that he’s a laid-back L.A. pacifist. In reality, The Dude is a tightly wound coil of politics and intoxicants. Spending the afternoon with him has been exhausting, and I’m tempted to stand up and proclaim, “This aggression will not stand, man!” But instead I suggest we go smoke more weed.
Someone from Odell suggests we should go off of their property, and so we share a joint on the shoulder of a busy road, causing us to resemble teenagers skipping study hall to go get high.
We continue smoking on the drive home, and I attempt to get an interview out of Dowd. While it’s difficult to understand more than every three or four words he speaks, there are moments of clarity where these brilliantly vivid phrases will tumble from his lips. “Lebowski is Joel and Ethan trying to make a noir film on nitrous oxide,” he tells me, and I try and deduce whether he’s saying the aesthetic of the film is like the 1940s viewed through a haze of laughing gas, or if he’s implying that the Coens were literally huffing nitrous at the time. But I’m too drunk and stoned to ask, and after absorbing nearly six hours of Dowd’s sermons, I’ve learned that interjecting with questions is futile.
The car has reached my house, ready to drop me off and take The Dude to his waiting cadre of little Achievers. But Dowd won’t let me leave until he gives me one last piece of wisdom about the fictional character he’s come to represent.
“The Dude is a holy fool,” he tells me. “The jester in the king’s court was a holy fool; the one motherfucker who told the truth, in stupid and silly ways. In a world where most of us have to put on masks all day long — like if you work in a fucking office you’ve got a mask on — The Dude tells it like it is, and he doesn’t wear a mask. And that’s why people love him.”
Just as I’m walking in the door, The Dude rolls down his window and asks if he can use my bathroom. He stumbles out of the car, missing one shoe, his pants unzipped, unbuttoned, and held together only by what looks like the strap of a fanny pack. As he ambles his way up my porch steps, I think that while he may be terribly rude and narcissistic, there is something thrilling about being in the presence of someone who truly does not wear a mask.
Even when they refuse to wear the mask they helped create.