Jeff Dowd inspired ‘The Dude,’ but truth is stranger than fiction

By Stephanie Case

Jeff Dowd (with Jeff Bridges on the set of “The Big Lebowski” at lower center) thrives on the exuberance of the Venice Boardwalk
Photos by Maria Martin (Middle bottom Photo: Courtesy of Jeff Dowd)

It’s easy to mix up two Jeffs.

Just ask the Coen Brothers, who centered their cult-favorite film “The Big Lebowski” on the confusion between Jeffrey Lebowski, the movie’s titular millionaire, and Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, an easygoing stoner.

Or, you can ask me. In my own Coen-esque comedy of errors, I bumped into Jeff Dowd — the real-life inspiration behind “The Dude” — at an annual house party in Venice called “Jeffest.”

To my naive eye, all signs pointed to Dowd being the host: the words “EL JEFE” printed in bold across a sign by the bar, cans of The Dudes’ Brewing Company beers for sale, and a whisper or two as he moseyed through the crowd.

It took me 20 minutes (and one can of The Dudes beer) to realize that the man behind the party was Jeff Gilbert, a local musician. Dowd, like his cinematic counterpart, was just a guy at the center of a coincidence.

Dowd came to Jeffest for a fun Saturday night. (“It’s a great opportunity to Jeff it up,” he jokes.) He biked to the party from his place, wearing red Chuck Taylors, lime green gym shorts and a tropical shirt, hair mussed like a mad scientist.

Dowd’s “Lebowski” link is a fun fact that follows him everywhere, especially at parties like this. But as I came to realize, it’s — give or take — the twelfth most interesting thing about him. This is a man that has gotten stoned with the Stones; tripped on acid with Allen Ginsberg, Stokely Carmichael, and Artie Lange; marketed dozens of hit indie films; helped Robert Redford launch the Sundance Institute; made national headlines for skinny dipping in Mexico; was arrested for a Vietnam War protest; spent nights in county jails and months in federal prison; funded a trek through South America with his bail money; was homeless; and nearly died — twice.

Epic experiences are Dowd’s currency, and they’ve made his life rich. He’s collected stories across continents — from Florence, Italy to Cusco, Peru — but Venice is his current home.

Dowd lives enviably close to the sand, a stone’s throw from the boardwalk. The white walls of his pad are decorated with posters, showcasing the greatest hits of his eclectic film career — “FernGully: The Last Rainforest,” “Hoosiers,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” — plus a life-size promotional shot of Jeff Bridges in his Dude garb.

Sit down on Dowd’s couch — a vintage, terracotta-colored one that really ties the room together — and he’ll tell you that Albert Einstein, a friend of his socialist stepfather, often took naps on that exact cushion.

“Maybe if you nod out on this couch, you too will come up with E=mc² in your dreams,” he smiles.

* * *

Dowd was born in Oakland, but spent most of his youth in suburban New York, where kids’ main source of entertainment was sneaking out late and taking neighbors’ Cadillacs on joyrides into the city.

As a high schooler in 1966, he watched all of his upperclassmen friends catch the Vietnam bug, shipping off as soon as they graduated.

“It was a sociological phenomenon,” Dowd says. “This was the same reason John Kerry and Oliver Stone went to Vietnam. Sure, there was patriotism, but it was like an adventure.”

In an attempt to hop on the bandwagon, Dowd tried to enlist as a 16-year-old junior, but recruiters said no.

Within months, Dowd found himself on a different overseas trip — one that would permanently alter his political mindset. His father earned a Fulbright scholarship in Bologna, Italy, and he and his stepbrother came along for the ride, studying poetry, partying with Europeans and experiencing life outside the American bubble.

“I was there for a year in a totally changed world,” Dowd recalls. “This was going into the Summer of Love, which was the exact opposite of the tough, male war mentality. The cool men had long hair and were amorous. Fate l’amour, non la Guerra — make love, not war — was a big slogan in Italy.”

When they weren’t studying, Dowd was bumping into interesting people left and right. On a trip to Florence, his stepbrother met filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, who then begged him to star in his upcoming “Romeo and Juliet,” calling their house once a day to convince him to take the part.

When the Rolling Stones came to town, the brothers dropped off a coded note at the band’s hotel, signing their names as Jeff Grass and David Score. (“We didn’t want to say hash; the Italians would know what hashish was,” Dowd says.)

Later that night, the Stones’ road manager invited them upstairs, where they all listened to the latest Otis Redding record, “Otis Blue,” jammed for hours and wrote a song about getting high.

Dowd spent that summer in London, watching the Stones make music at nearby Olympic Studios by day and hanging out with a wide crew of artists and activists at night.

When he finally came back to the United States, Ithaca felt small.

“It was a little absurd to be back as a high school senior, coming off the Summer of Love,” Dowd says. “Going back to the cliques and everybody trying to be cool, it was absolutely insane.”

Early into the school year, “the English teacher was making some point about the Beats and Allen Ginsberg, and I said, ‘That’s not really what he was about.’

“She was like, ‘How would you know?’

“I said, ‘Well, I was taking LSD with him two weeks ago in London, how
about that?’”

* * *

Dowd arranged to spend the rest of the year at nearby Cornell University. There, he joined the swelling student resistance against the Vietnam War, taking a stand against the same fight he — just one year prior — had wanted to join. Large swathes of college kids were giving up their student deferments, turning in their draft cards and refusing induction, all to make a political statement.

“We were really influenced by what Catholics call ‘moral witness,’ where you are willing to make a sacrifice — like go to jail when you didn’t have to — in order to make a point,” Dowd says.

But before his court date, Dowd was charged with a bigger offense. On Feb. 17, 1970, he and six other peace activists were arrested when an FBI-infiltrated antiwar protest outside a Seattle courthouse turned violent.

The group was hit with conspiracy charges and dubbed “the Seattle Seven.” Dowd and the six other defendants spoke out during the trial, using it as an opportunity to practice moral witness and bring light to the horrors of the Vietnam War. Their outspokenness fueled a contentious relationship with the presiding judge. He ultimately declared a mistrial and gave the Seven contempt of court, which Dowd says was a purposeful move to squelch their case.

“That’s when I decided it would be a good thing to do something that would make the front page of the papers,”
he says.

An artistic friend from the Seattle Repertory Theater made them a massive, homemade Nazi flag. To sneak it into the courtroom, an attorney wrapped the flag around his body, underneath
his coat.

When it was their turn the next day to make speeches about their contempt, Dowd and his crew unfurled the over-
sized flag, holding it for all to see, and accused the judge of being a good German. Dowd knew full well the splashy act of rebellion would land them jail time for further contempt of court.

“We wanted to f–ing go down fighting,” he says. “We didn’t want to roll over.”

* * *

Dowd ended up with a six-month sentence. When he got out, he stayed in Washington, splitting his time between grassroots organizing and a budding interest: organizing in support of independent films.

“When you’re doing elections or the Vietnam War stuff, this is really deep, complex, personal stuff,” he says. “When you’re giving away tickets to a movie that’s really good, how easy is that?”

Dowd worked with Seven Gables Theaters in Seattle, putting together free public screenings of indie flicks with promise, using the test runs as laboratories to hone the marketing message. He eventually established himself as a go-to guy behind the scenes, someone that could give a film the TLC it needed to garner buzz and get distribution.

Dowd was in town for the 1983 New York Film Festival — dressed, uncharacteristically, in a jacket and tie — when he first met Joel and Ethan Coen.

“They were chain smoking, walking in circles around the conference room, telling me about this picture that was still in [post production]” — a dark comedy called “Blood Simple.”

“It wasn’t a particularly great moment. I’m looking like the suit from Fox, right? So, they kind of give me this halfhearted ‘See ya later, maybe we’ll show you the movie when we’re done.’”

A few hours later, Dowd was walking through Greenwich, looking a bit more like himself, when he bumped into them on the street. They grabbed coffee, crossed paths again at a late-night East Village party, and a friendship blossomed.

Eventually, the brothers approached Dowd about a special project: a “Raymond Chandler-esque film noir, set in L.A.” They decided to base their unlikely hero — the bowling, joint-rolling Dude — on Dowd himself.

“The story is not about me,” Dowd clarifies. And while he and Jeff Bridges’ Dude shares a few unmistakable quirks — a shaggy look and a role in the Seattle Seven — most of it is creative license. (“You can get more jokes out of a white Russian than you can out of a vodka soda,” he says.)

But what most closely ties the on-screen Dude to the off-screen Dowd is their shared role in the universe.

“The key to the whole Lebowski thing,” Dowd says, “is that the Dude is a holy fool — the jester in the Royal Court who tells it like it is, like most comedians, in a world where many of us put on masks every day.”

Both the fictional and actual Dudes are take-no-crap truth-tellers in slacker packaging, comedic voices of clarity in a world that could definitely use some.

“There’s a strong feeling that we’re stuck politically,” Dowd says. “I don’t see the politicians leading the way that much, nor have they ever. It was never the politicians that have led the way; they followed the movements.”

Dowd’s big push now — his “mythological call,” as he puts it — is for people to share their personal stories, ones that can inform and inspire younger generations who are grappling with many of the same struggles elders have before them.

He’s currently at work cataloguing his own experiences, and sourcing stories from others, as part of an ambitious transmedia project in the works: “Our Classic Tales to Fuel the Future.”

“The ultimate challenge for people — particularly young people, but pretty much everybody,” Dowd posits, “is this: how ridiculous is it to live our lives in second gear?

“I don’t think the stuff I’ve lived is because I’m an exceptional person. I did have some opportunities that some don’t have, but I think a lot of cool things happened in my life because we sought it out. We went to where the action was. We didn’t just sit back. … So, I would hope some of the ‘Classic Tales’ stuff will inspire people to live life to its fullest.”

Follow Jeff Dowd’s adventures on Twitter @jeffthedudedowd and Instagram @jeffdowd.