The Dude abides: Jeff Dowd, the inspiration behind the The Big Lebowski's lovable lead, comes to Tampa for Lebowski Fest Feb. 25-26

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Dowd met the brothers for the first time in a 20th Century Fox conference room in Manhattan in the early ’80s. The Coens — “shaggy-haired, chain-smoking brothers who completed each other’s sentences” — were looking for help promoting their first film, Blood Simple, and they’d heard via a mutual friend of Redford’s that they should meet with Dowd, who was in town promoting Heart Like a Wheel at the New York Film Festival.

The Dude was uncharacteristically dressed in a jacket and tie at the time, and the meeting was uneventful. But afterwards, a chance encounter changed everything.

“Later that night I was in Greenwich Village,” Dowd recalled. “I had on my leather jacket on and bumped into them on a street corner. We talked for 5 or 10 minutes and it was a whole different vibe. At 1 in the morning I bumped into them again at a rooftop party in the East Village for an independent feature. It was clear at that point that destiny of some sort was at work for us.”

Dowd used his connections to help the Coens get Blood Simple exposure at film festivals and remained friends with the brothers, visiting them often on the sets of their productions. Joel and Ethan tag-teamed Dowd during conference calls, taking turns shouting, “Dude!” “Duder!” “El Duderino!” The dorky exchanges — and the character of The Dude himself — lived on in the script of The Big Lebowski.

The real-life Dude traces his nickname to his childhood, when kids on the baseball diamond shouted “Dude” as a twist on “Dowd.”

The Coen Brothers borrowed more than his nickname. In The Big Lebowski, Bridges’ Dude says, "Ever heard of the Seattle Seven? That was me. Well, me and six other guys." The Seattle Seven was a real group of protesters connected to the Seattle Liberation Front, a famous anti-war movement, and Dowd was in fact a member.

He stuck around Washington after that to participate in state politics, helping unseat incumbent governor Dixy Lee Ray, the woman Ralph Nader called Ms. Plutonium (1980). “It was an environmental campaign to get the anti-environment governor out,” Dowd said. He eventually left Seattle, calling it a haven for retirees in their 30s.

Dowd was influenced by his dad, Douglas Dowd, a professor at Cornell University and civil rights activist in the early ’60s. He helped several African-Americans register to vote for the first time and influenced Jeff to be a mover and shaker. But young Dowd was as incorrigible as he was gifted — he claims that his principal told him to test out of his senior year early because of all the disruptively long debates he’d stir up with his teachers.

When asked what he was like in high school, Dowd replied, “I was like every teenager — young, dumb and full of cum.”

The Dude can talk. Speaking in a diluted New York accent spiked with California surfer, Dowd chatted with CL on the phone from his home in Santa Monica for an hour and a half. He’s apt to launch into long sermons on subjects like the recurrent themes of buddy movies and the mythological connections in The Big Lebowski, recalling the film’s perpetually pontificating Walter played by John Goodman (Dowd thought Goodman, not Bridges, was going to play him when he heard he had inspired a character in the film). But when Dowd goes off on tangents and forgets what point he’s making, he sounds much like Bridges’ weed-smoking Dude.

Speaking of pot, don’t call Dowd a stoner. The divorced father of two girls — one daughter a teen and the other a college-age singer in Austin — said he no longer touches the stuff.

Nowadays, Dowd is a kaleidoscope of contrasting qualities; he’s not your typical movie mogul in an Armani suit — “I’m not dressed for success, let’s put it that way,” he said with a chuckle — but he will schmooze like a studio exec about a movie project. These days Dowd is promoting the animated feature Strange Frame, a 29th-century sci-fi adventure that he says has strong potential for a cult following. (As movie critic Roger Ebert once commented, Dowd’s projects are more than projects — they’re causes.)

Dowd works diligently, but by his own internal clock, in his own fashion. He’s been saying he’s almost finished with his book, The Dude Abides! Classic Tales and Rebel Rants, for the past two years. Yet, he is fastidious about other details such as the spelling of names — which he spells back to you like an airline reservationist — and he is equally conscientious about confirming appointments by e-mail.

“Everybody thinks I’m a total SOB,” he said with self-effacing sarcasm.

“Actually,” he adds, “Everyone says I’m a friendly bear, a loveable bear.”

Dowd says he’s excited to visit “Tampa Bay-Clearwater” for the first time when he appears at the Lebowski Fest in Ybor City this weekend.

He was skeptical of the Fest at first, comparing it to the Trekkie phenomenon. “It reminded me of the SNL sketch when William Shatner tells the Star Trek dweebs to ‘Get a life!’”

But he’s since developed respect and affection for Lebowski fans, describing them as “hip and fun people who get the comedy and satire of the Coen Brothers movies.” He has appeared (for free) at nearly every Lebowski bash since Scott Shuffitt and Will Russell held their first fest in Louisville in 2002.

“The Dude [Dowd] is great at getting the crowd hyped up,” Lebowski Fest co-founder Russell said. “He loves meeting the fans and has mastered the art of hanging out. He brings the fans together and plays a big part in making sure everyone feels included. The Dude really ties the fest together.”

Dowd recalls with special fondness the Lebowski Fest that featured both him and Bridges — in Los Angeles in 2005. He says he and the other Jeff share many traits beyond their first names; they both like to wax philosophical and go off on tangents. Their birthdays are close, and they have a similar slacker fashion sense.

“The jelly shoes: that’s him,” he said of Bridges with a laugh.

Dowd, however, denies ever having gone out in public in a bathrobe.

Read more words of wisdom from Jeff Dowd in our interview outtakes.

How Lebowski Fest got Big — and why Tampa just got cooler.

Click here for Big Lebowski merch that would make The Dude proud.

During the scripted intro of 1998’s The Big Lebowski, cowboy narrator Sam Elliott proclaims with a slow drawl: “He is the Dude. His rumpled look and relaxed manner suggest a man in whom casualness runs deep.”

The prophetic line doesn’t just speak volumes about the film’s lead character. It also describes the real-life Dude, Jeff Dowd, who inspired Joel and Ethan Coen to create a cinematic icon.

The film in turn spawned the pop phenomenon known as the Lebowski Fest, a nationwide circuit of fan events that arrives for the first time in Tampa Feb. 25-26.

Dowd, 61, like Bridges’ lead character in the beloved psychedelic comedy/Raymond Chandler knock-off, is himself an amiable, philosophical and laid-back fella nicknamed “The Dude.” A Hollywood producer/ promoter and champion of independent films, as well as a onetime environmental and antiwar activist, Dowd helped get both the Seattle Film Festival and Sundance off the ground. It was Robert Redford who indirectly brought him and the Coens together.

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