Meet the (Other) Dude Who Helped Inspire ‘The Big Lebowski’
For 25 years, fans of The Big Lebowski have quoted the lines, shared the memes and shit-talked the Eagles with reckless abandon. Such die-hards definitely still abide the Dude, and so do we, which is why we’ll be spending the next five days celebrating a quarter century of Lebowski. So grab yourself a White Russian, lay back on your favorite rug and take it easy — just like, you know, the Dude.
Peter Exline is very good at telling The Story. He’s good at telling stories in general.
“I love stories,” he says over lunch on Presidents’ Day at a L.A. cafe. “I love storytelling. I think I’m a good storyteller, but I think I also throw in too many details.”
The Story is his best tale. It’s the one that’s partly about his friend Lew Abernathy. “He’s a big guy from Texas, 6-foot-4, redhead, bad teeth, heavy. He was actually in Titanic. He’s friends with Gale and Jim.” He means Gale Anne Hurd and James Cameron, the former married couple who also used to be creative partners. (She produced and co-wrote The Terminator, as well as producing Aliens.) Abernathy was a detective and a writer and a Vietnam vet, and he’s the guy Exline turned to when he discovered his car had been stolen. “Lew is a former sniper, and he said, ‘You’ll never find your car again. You live by the 405 freeway. Somebody stole a car in San Diego, they ran out of gas, (then) they stole your car and they’re going to dump it.’”
But Abernathy was wrong. Ten days later, Exline got a letter from the City of Los Angeles: He owed $260 in parking tickets because his car had been parked illegally somewhere. Exline and Abernathy went to the lot where his car had been towed. “The car is pretty beat-up and the left front tire is gone,” says Exline, who often tells his stories in the present tense, as if they’re happening right now. Admittedly, it’s a good way to give a story an immediacy and unpredictability. “The back seat is filled with fast-food wrappers, Burger King and a Hard Rock San Francisco sweatshirt. Lew reaches underneath the passenger seat and he pulls out a kid’s homework. Jaik. J-A-I-K Freeman.”
The Story is long and detailed, so I won’t go into all of it. But Exline tells it well: How he tracked down Jaik Freeman’s mom and went over to the family’s house with Abernathy; how Abernathy had the incriminating homework in a plastic file holder to show the kid as damning evidence; how they were shocked to discover an old man lying on a hospital bed in the living room. If all that sounds like a scene out of a movie — a beloved cult comedy from the 1990s, specifically — that’s because it ended up being in one. Exline has gotten really good at telling The Story over the years, and he did an especially good job telling it to two filmmaking brothers in the late 1980s.
“When I told this story, Joel and Ethan almost fell down. They are laughing so hard. They’re barely able to stand.”
He’s talking about the Coen brothers, who used it as one of the inspirations for The Big Lebowski.
Beloved films get turned into stories. Every element of their making gets encased in amber — every anecdote is repeated with the reverence of legend. For The Big Lebowski, many of the behind-the-scenes tales revolve around Jeff Dowd, the film producer and all-around colorful character who was the basis for “The Dude,” Jeff Bridges’ White Russian-loving, Eagles-hating antihero. But Peter Exline also plays a small part in the movie’s genesis, and Exline himself would be the first to insist it’s a very, very small part. He loves talking about the stories he told the Coens that ended up in The Big Lebowski, but he doesn’t want credit for the film — and he’s certainly not the foundation of any of the movies’ characters, although sometimes people assume he’s partly the basis for John Goodman’s hair-trigger Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak. Exline is just a guy who’s buddies with the Coens. He’s retired and in his late 70s, a former Hollywood executive and film school professor. He’s both a self-described showman and rather modest. And he’s come around on a movie he initially didn’t think was very good.
Exline grew up in Oklahoma. “I was an athlete, I was a stud,” he tells me. “I loved to read. I wasn’t a big movie fan, but my mother was an intellectual and took me to movies. I’m six years old, she took me to The Wild One with Marlon Brando. I wanted to write, but I could never figure out how to do it.”
I ask him what kind of kid he was. “I was a cool guy, I was a funny guy, I was a popular guy,” he replies. “I wasn’t an athlete after junior high — I wasn’t good enough to compete in high school, but I was always popular, high-profile. And,” he adds, with a chuckle, “I was clueless. I didn’t know what it took to be a writer — I didn’t know how you became a writer. I didn’t know how you’d go to Hollywood — I didn’t imagine anybody like me would ever wind up in Hollywood.”
He ended up fighting in Vietnam, which angered his mom. “I was trying to figure out what to do, and I decided this was a good war because we were defending democracy,” Exline explains. “My mother said, ‘If you go to Canada, I will take care of you, don’t worry.’ Big lefty. She said, ‘I think it’s a civil war, and we don’t belong there.’ And I’m thinking, ‘We’re saving the world from Communism, mom,’ because that’s what I'd been fed.” He woke up right quick once he was shipped over there. “In 48 hours, I knew we didn’t give a shit about these people in Vietnam. Most of us were there to save our lives and get back home. I was totally unsophisticated and naive in my reasoning.”
Eventually, he got back to the States, attending NYU with an interest in working in the movie business. Shortly after graduating, he started as a production assistant on the 1979 Walter Hill action movie The Warriors. But in short order, he became disillusioned about working on sets. “I thought, ‘The director’s got an interesting job, the actor’s got an interesting job, the cinematographer has an interesting job. Everybody else is just there to make sure those three have the best job.’”
He started gravitating toward another gig he had, which was reading novels for Warner Bros. and writing coverage, which is essentially providing an analysis of the story with a recommendation for whether or not it should be turned into a movie. “I was going into Warner Bros. Friday mornings at 11 and picking up a novel. It usually took me about nine hours to read the book and about nine hours to write the coverage. I got paid $50. They offered me a job, so I took it. I thought, ‘Look at me: Three months after I graduated, I’m working for a major Hollywood studio.’ Then a year later, I get fired. I figured out New York is not the place to be — if you’re in the movie business, you want to be in L.A.”
As we sit outside at this cafe, Exline telling me stories, I’m struck by the fact that he doesn’t just like talking to me — he likes talking to everyone. The people at the table next to us have a dog who sniffs around Exline’s chair, getting his attention. The dog’s owner apologizes, but Exline just smiles. “I thought he was going for my wallet,” he jokes to them, before adding almost as an aside, “It’s in the other pocket.” He engages the waiter when he brings our food. A couple hours later when Exline and I say our goodbyes, he admires a classic car that pulls into a parking spot nearby us. Sure enough, once I walk away, I turn around and see he’s chatting with the driver. He asks me plenty about myself during our time together. He’s just one of those guys who likes conversation.
But when he’s telling a story, you have to interject every once in a while, just to inquire about the details he glosses over. For instance, why did he get fired?
“I pissed off my boss,” Exline replies. “I have no political sense. I’m not very politically smart. That term ‘unconscious bias’? Well, I have unconscious political ineptness.” Here’s what happened: He had asked for a raise, and his boss gave him a measly one. “I told her, ‘That’s not enough — you should be able to get more money.’ At her first opportunity, she fired me.”
Three months later, he was out in L.A. working for Mace Neufeld, a talent agent who went on to produce or executive produce movies like The Omen and the Jack Ryan films. “I was like, ‘Wow, a year and a half out of film school, here I am in Beverly Hills.’ Beverly Hills is a trip. Every day’s Halloween in Beverly Hills.” That’s where he worked, not where he lived — his place was on the Eastside, just like his buddies who had similarly moved to the West Coast to find film gigs.
But Exline also kept in touch with those who had stayed in New York, including Barry Sonnenfeld, a chum from film school. Sonnenfeld was going to be the cinematographer for these brothers from Minnesota who were putting together their first movie. Soon, Exline met Joel and Ethan Coen. “They were like long-haired hippie kids,” Exline recalls. “Ethan would not speak to me — he would talk to Joel, and (then) Joel would say, ‘Ethan says blah blah blah.’” He still remembers them inviting him to a party being thrown by a hairdresser, which amused Exline since he considered himself a hotshot Hollywood executive too big for something like that. “But that was their circle,” he says. “They’re very egalitarian — they’re not snobbish. I didn’t realize how smart they were — I still don’t probably understand how smart they are.”
Even after all this time, Exline still seems a bit mystified by these two men who were then just starting out, trying to raise the money to make a darkly comic crime film called Blood Simple. When he worked in Hollywood, Exline prided himself on knowing what made a successful mainstream film: “I could read the scripts. I had the taste. I could work the room. I could meet people.” The Coens’ brains operated differently than Exline’s. “Their instincts are not that commercial,” he says, “but they don’t seem to care. I don’t know who they’re making their movies for — when they sit down (to write something), who do they think is going to go see this? Some of (their movies) are unwatchable, in my opinion, but I love Blood Simple.”
The three became friends in those early days, the Coens hanging out at Exline’s place when they’d visit L.A. He remembers them sitting on his couch, smoking and depressed, frustrated by how difficult it was for their ideas to gain traction in Hollywood. It was around then that they dubbed him “The Philosopher King,” “because they thought I really knew what the fuck was going on, and because I worked for a producer in Beverly Hills. The only connection they had was Sam Raimi, who was an innovative filmmaker.”
Did Exline himself think he knew what the fuck was going on? “I didn’t know anything about the independent market,” he admits. “All I knew was Hollywood — I thought I knew it. I always think I know it — I look like I know stuff. I’m tall, I’m a reasonably good-looking guy and I’m pretty smart. So people think, ‘He knows.’” He laughs at himself. “I was always an arrogant fuck who thought everybody would look up to me or think I was pretty sharp.”
For the record, Exline is 6-foot-2 and, even now, carries himself with authority. He’s a guy who does seem like he understands how life works, even if his memory is starting to fail him. (“I’m 77 years old, I can’t remember anything,” he confesses at one point.) Nonetheless, the Coens trusted him. He adored their follow-up film, Raising Arizona, and they all grew closer. If Joel’s wife Frances McDormand was in town for an audition, he’d spend time with her. Maybe they’d catch a Truffaut film in revival at the New Beverly. “I’d take her to dinner, or I’d take her over to a friend’s house and we’d do charades,” Exline tells me. “Or we’d go to the Rose Bowl.”
When I first emailed Exline to ask about interviewing him, he included in his reply a question: “Do you know about the dinner in 1989?” It’s a crucial element to The Story. The Coens were in town working on a film, and he had them over for a dinner party. McDormand wasn’t there, and neither was Tricia Cooke, who Ethan married in 1990. “I don’t know where they were,” he says. “But I invited some friends over — writers mostly, two writers, a married couple, a writer and his wife who’s primarily an alcoholic.”
At the party, Exline mentioned his rug. “I live in a little complex,” he says to me, setting up the backstory for something that’ll be pertinent in a moment. “It’s a duplex and then a house.” The house was empty — the residents had moved out — and that’s when Exline spotted something. “They’ve left behind this fake Persian rug, so I roll that up and I take it and I put it in my living room. I lived in New York (where) you have people decorating entire apartments with furniture and things they found on the street — so this is perfectly legal. And then I’m barbecuing and I’m entertaining (at this dinner party), and I was talking about, ‘Do you guys see this rug? Look at this rug. This rug ties the room together.’ Everybody laughs.”
Exline knew that joke would kill, but he had no idea it would become an iconic line in The Big Lebowski. He also didn’t know that the other story he told — the one about his buddy Lew and the stolen car and the homework and the elderly man — would inspire one of the film’s memorable sequences. He was just telling his guests some funny stories.
A few years later, Joel called Exline. “He told me, ‘Oh, listen, I wrote a script about your buddy Lew, but I changed his name — I didn’t want to embarrass him. Do you want to read it?’” This was an unusual request from Joel. “I’ve never been asked by him, ‘Do you want to read a script?’”
Exline has never forgotten the screenplay’s opening scene: “It starts out with a guy in a grocery store, and he opens a carton of milk and drinks it, and then goes up and writes a check.” But his reaction to the script was unequivocal: He didn’t like it. Not because it had incorporated his anecdotes — such borrowings are fair game, as far as Exline is concerned — but because he thought it didn’t work as a story. “I write notes (to the Coens) on how to make it better from the Hollywood perspective,” Exline recalls. “‘Try to make it more sympathetic. Make it more active. What’s (the Dude’s) personal involvement?’ That’s always my note: ‘What’s at stake?’”
What was their response to his feedback? “Never heard a word.”
Cut to the late 1990s. Exline, who’d remained friends with the brothers, gets an invitation from Joel to see their forthcoming picture, The Big Lebowski. “I go to the Writers Guild (theater), and I’m watching this movie and it’s just like the script. I’m like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ It’s, like, every time (the Coens) get bored, they invent a new character — now they got the naked artist who throws paint, what the fuck is this? ‘That’s not writing,’ I’m thinking.”
Still, there were moments in the film that made him smile. During the Gulf War of the early 1990s, Exline had had dinner with the Coens, complaining about the ease in which U.S. troops had won that war, as opposed to what he endured in the quagmire that was Vietnam. “I tell them, ‘Guys, you got to understand: It’s a lot easier to fight a war in the desert than it is in a triple-canopy jungle.’ Joel started laughing so hard at this defensive Vietnam veteran.” Suddenly, there at the Writers Guild theater watching The Big Lebowski, he heard Goodman’s Walter repeat his line. “I start laughing,” remembers Exline. “I look over my shoulder at the door, and Joel is standing there looking to see (if I noticed), and he’s laughing.”
It was hardly a surprise to Exline that Joel and Ethan were making The Big Lebowski. “I went to the set — there was a hanger in Santa Monica Airport and they were shooting the (fantasy) bowling scene and all these dancers. Tricia Cooke said, ‘You picked a good day to come,’ because all these cute girls were there and dancing — and the Saddam double.” This was right after the success of Fargo, which had been nominated for Best Picture, with the Coens winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The seemingly uncommercial filmmakers had finally broken through with the Hollywood establishment. Standing on that set in the airport hanger, Exline was amazed by how far his friends had come: “(Joel) said, ‘I never thought this would happen — this is totally unexpected. The world makes no sense. When Fargo (is up for) Best Picture, the world no longer makes sense to me.”
The Big Lebowski did not enjoy the same reaction as Fargo did. When it was released on March 6, 1998, the comedy wasn’t a massive hit or necessarily a critical sensation. But its fandom grew over time, with audiences falling in love with the Dude and his blissed-out worldview. Both festivals and religions were launched in honor of the movie. In 2017, the BBC polled critics to pick the greatest comedies of all time: The Big Lebowski ended up at number 11. Many who initially were cool to the film eventually came around, including Exline. Years later, he rewatched The Big Lebowski, “and I’m thinking, ‘This is kind of funny. I don’t remember that. I don’t remember…’ Now I’m starting to appreciate it.”
By the time the film opened, Exline had moved on from Hollywood, teaching story analysis and the industry at USC. He thinks his love for telling stories helped him as a professor. He mentions those sites where college students can rate their teachers. The comment he would get a lot? “If you want to hear a lot of stories, you should take a class with this guy…” That memory makes him chuckle. “I think the stories are illustrating a point and driving it home.”
In his classes, he’d talk about his connection to The Big Lebowski, but he’d always leave it until the end, lest he come across as making more of his association with that movie, or the Coens, than was appropriate. “But then people would say, ‘That’s the lede! That’s your lede!’” It’s a tricky balance that film school teachers have to walk: They want to prove to their students that they have an impressive résumé, but they also don’t want to seem like they’re clinging to past glories. “I wanted to be a formidable teacher that you took seriously,” Exline says. “I had a reputation at USC. He has no favorites. You will always be entertained. You will never be bored in his class. He’s a pretty tough grader.”
I ask him what he would use The Story to illustrate in his film classes. With a mixture of pride and self-mockery, Exline replies, “The point and lesson is, ‘I’m Peter Exline. I’m friends with Joel and Ethan, and I am your professor. And I’m pretty fucking funny.’”
As the years went by, students started to seem increasingly familiar with The Big Lebowski. “Some of them knew it by heart,” he tells me. Exline would explain to them that, no, he’s not Walter. “Looking at the movie, I don’t see anything of Peter Exline in it. “I think Walter Sobchak is John Milius more than Peter Exline.” He laughs sheepishly before admitting, “The (only) thing I see about me in it is that, for years, I could not go 10 minutes without mentioning Vietnam. I kept bringing it up. I was like a guy who’s like, ‘I was the high school quarterback!’ I was like a unicorn. At one point, there were only three people I knew in Hollywood who went to Vietnam: me, Oliver Stone and this lawyer who ran HBO Movies for a while.” He laughs some more. “Somebody said, ‘I didn’t know you were a Vietnam veteran’ — and one girl (responded), ‘Anybody who knows Peter Exline for 10 minutes knows he’s a Vietnam veteran.’ So that’s the only thing I see about me and Walter Sobchak.”
Every once in a while, he has to correct someone’s inaccurate impression that he was part of the inspiration for the Dude. “I’m like, ‘I am not the Dude, okay? I’m not the laziest man in Hollywood.’” Although I’ve never met Dowd, my sense is that he (unlike Exline) has really milked his connection to The Big Lebowski, sometimes shamelessly. “He enjoys the association with the movie and Joel and Ethan” is how Exline puts it. “He gives a fuck about Peter Exline — I’m nobody.”
Although Exline no longer works in the business or teaches, the part of his brain that spent many years breaking down scripts — figuring out what made them work, helping a writer who was stuck — doesn’t just go away now that he’s retired. “Last night my wife put on No Time to Die. I’m thinking, ‘This is absolute shit. How did this guy get to direct?’ That’s what (my friends and I) talk about — we talk about stories. How did this get made? Why did they make this?”
He still sees the Coens from time to time. “Joel texted me: ‘Hey, I’m going to be driving cross-country. I’ll be in L.A. in January, let’s get together.’ So we got together at Canter’s (Deli) for breakfast.” Not that long ago, Exline was in New York, and he reached out to the brothers to hang out. “It got all screwed up, but Ethan and I had breakfast. (Afterward) Ethan texts, ‘Don’t ever change. Stay the way you are.’”
Exline has been to Lebowski Fest. He was interviewed in the book I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski, where he recounted The Story in all its glory. (A few details were different from how he told it to me, though: In the book, he says it was a Hard Rock shirt from Las Vegas that was in the back seat of his stolen car.) When he was teaching at USC, the school would direct calls to him from people looking for “the Lebowski guy.”
I, of course, wondered whatever happened to that rug. “The rug wound up at an ex-girlfriend’s apartment,” he tells me. And Abernathy? “Big Lew moved back to Denton, Texas, and bought a bar. He did telephone me once after renting The Big Lebowski and left a message: ‘I think these guys owe us some money.’”
Exline loves telling The Story, but he’s always a little self-conscious when fans overstate his importance to what would become a landmark comedy. “I’m very much about ‘Here’s my role: I had ‘em over for dinner, I told ‘em a couple of stories. They used them in a screenplay.’ That’s it. That’s the story.”
One of the challenges of being friends with writers or filmmakers is that you never know if they’re going to use you as fuel for one of their stories. Sometimes, people get angry when their personal lives or anecdotes are swiped by their screenwriting buddies — it can almost feel like a violation. Exline remains delighted. “I knew that writers, if they thought something was really good, they'd use it,” he says, laughing. “I wasn’t angry — I was flattered! I’m a little moon in the constellation of Joel and Ethan Coen. I’m perfectly comfortable with that.”
Jokingly, he lets it be known that his other memories are also available for potential films. “I’ve got more stories,” he declares. “Come on over for dinner — I’ve got more.”