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Abiding in Action

Jeff Dowd may be the inspiration for “The Dude,” but the decades-long activist, freethinker and film polymath is no slacker

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The real descriptor is surely “somewhat biased.” That’s how Jeff Dowd has described his being the inspiration for Jeffrey Lebowski—“The Dude” or “His Dudeness … Duder” … or “El Duderino.”

If, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Yet in conversation, Dowd isn’t into brevity; he speaks expansively and insightfully on topics like activism and film consultancy. Focused views on myriad issues refocus, as non-linear and tangential sidestreams zip and bounce from civil rights to Hendrix stories; even endearing advice on how to keep an altweekly thriving in the social media and anti-news environment.

Jeff Dowd is “Power to the People” at maximum power.

During an hour-long interview, Dowd doesn’t talk only about The Big Lebowski. In fact, he seems to want to get it out of the way to dig into more real-life ideas. The Coen Brothers’ ’98 film is a monumental cult flick, making Dowd a household name—well, a house where folks quote whole scenes, usually unprompted. Rabid fans call themselves “Achievers”—it refers to a fictitious, nonprofit youth organization in the film.

On June 30, Dowd appears at Sun-Ray Cinema for two screenings celebrating the 20th anniversary of TBL. At each screening, he’ll introduce the film and then follow with a Q&A.

“Do you want me to do your homework for you?” laughs Dowd, telling about the same questions he gets at most Q&As. He rattles them off: “‘How did you meet the Coen Brothers? Do you bowl? Do you drink White Russians? How much is true?’ Those are in the top 10.”

Dowd believes much of the appeal of TBL is that the Coens made a Raymond Chandler-style film noir movie.

“They just did it on nitrous oxide and weed,” he laughs, taking a break in his SoCal office. “But it’s noir; it’s a buddy movie, a crime movie. Pretty much every [Coen] film features a crime gone wrong. I think if Joel and Ethan [Coen] didn’t have a creative outlet, they’d be throwing chipmunks into wood-chippers.”

In TBL, The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is on a darkly comical journey, usually with pals Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny Kerabatso (Steve Buscemi). A sadsack victim of circumstance, The Dude falls into a multi-tendril’d conspiracy of mistaken identity, nefarious millionaires, self-professed nihilists, auto theft and even a near-romance with artist Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), daughter of the film’s “Big Lebowski”—all “tied together” in his quest to find his stolen rug. Plenty of bowling, White Russians and stoned pontificating counterbalance the wormhole of crime and chaos.

Dowd believes his and Bridges’ parallel lives contributed to Bridges’ masterful immersion into the character of The Dude. “Bridges and I were born within about 10 days of each other and both in California. What that means is that culturally and politically, our experience was the same: we were in the same grade when JFK died, when civil rights, The Beatles and Motown happened. Jeff obviously has an incredible range. But his homework for this wasn’t like he had to research a role for a 17th-century story.”

Dowd says that what draws so many to The Dude’s personality and plight is the archetype of the Holy Fool. It’s a term describing lives of some Christian saints and heroes, and those breezily inured to the world’s demands, jongleurs and ramblers, often seen as shallow yet they can be complex and radical.

“‘The Holy Fool’ is a court jester subtly telling the king to fuck off,” says Dowd. “People tell me they like The Dude because he tells it like it is. We live in a world we have to wear masks; at work or in life. The Dude doesn’t even have a job. So he’s liberated to be a free thinker.”

For 40 years, Dowd’s had a rewarding off-screen life. As an on-demand producer, distributor and consultant, he’s vetted scripts and funded and marketed films, including the Coens’ ’84 debut, Blood Simple, and consecutive Best Picture Oscar-winners Chariots of Fire and Gandhi. Last year, Dowd and indie producer Alex Nohe started a film consultation agency, Blood Sweat Honey.

Dowd says the biggest success factor travels from person to person, not focus groups and promotional hype.

“Look, one tool I’ve discovered is that successful films usually have really strong word-of-mouth. With a film, all you really want to do is get that first opening week and then word-of-mouth carries it from there.”

That same word-of-mouth has raised The Big Lebowski to an exalted place in cinema.

Most of The Dude is a buffoonish exaggeration of Dowd, but one scene is based on what is surely the crux of Dowd’s life.

During a post-coital afterglow, The Dude briefly relates some of his backstory to Maude. He tells her he was co-author of “the Port Huron Statement” and then asks her, “Ever heard of The Seattle Seven? That was me … and six other guys.”

That was Dowd. At age 18, the now-69-year-old Dowd joined the radical antiwar group the Seattle Liberation Front. Dowd and six others were arrested, charged with “conspiracy to destroy government property” and “crossing a state line to incite a riot.” During their trial, the seven draped a Nazi flag over the judge’s bench. For their efforts, they were charged with contempt and all seven did a stint behind bars.

Nearly a half-century on, Dowd remains a diehard activist.

He calls one of his most passionate philosophies Major Systemic Change. “Look at the world. Everything is changing rapidly. Take how communication is changing through the hardware, software and how it affects you.”

Dowd believes the “change” is occurring—and positively charged—through, in part, movements like the Million Woman March, #metoo, #timesup, Dreamers, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, #neveragain, ecological and alternative fuel organizations, and addressing increasing student debt.

Dowd, along with 18 Nobel Peace Prize winners, is involved with PeaceJam, a global initiative that mentors at-risk youth.

“These programs work! We’ve helped more than a million kids and have had a zero recidivism rate of them getting in trouble or arrested,” Dowd says proudly.

“It’s all the same thing,” he says of dysfunctional systems including global finance, the approach to addiction treatment and drug prohibition, and mental, physical and spiritual well-being. “And there are solutions for all of this. It’s up to us to suggest, create and do things that are solution-based for what the problems are. The good news is that most actually already have a solution.”

To change the world can seem daunting, especially when you don’t know which spoke to grab to spin the wheel. The same dude who sparked the creation of an onscreen stoner who writes a 69¢ check is, in reality, an erudite, complex dude who’s a vigilant, optimistic, freethinking activist.

“There’s social hurricane happening now everywhere. I think it’s hard to wake up in the morning and live in that hurricane without friends and allies. My recommendation is to constitute a team. Who’s on your team? Find people to compliment each other: one can cheer you up; one might help start a business, another might help you mobilize. Get five or 10 together. If you don’t have a team you can trust and who care for one another … you’re going to be depressed. That depression is where violence and destruction begins; usually against oneself, then [goes] outward. So everyone remains sick. So get a team; that’s where real change can occur.”

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