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Bowling with The Dude

"Sometimes there's a man ... I won't say a hero, 'cause what's a hero? ... He's the man for his time and place."

That man is Jeffrey Leon Bridges -- better known to bowlers and The Big Lebowski faithful as "The Dude."

He is an artist and a four-time Academy Award nominee, a humanitarian and Hollywood royalty, a photographer and philosopher, and one of the best American actors of the last 30 years.

But Jeff Bridges is also a self-professed "lazy man," a Slacker King.

He does not run from this moniker, or his eternal connection to the Coen brothers' bowling ode -- like lesser men might.

He embraces it. He talks about White Russians and whale songs. He trades Lebowski lines and raves about John Turturro's Jesus moves. He beams about writing the foreword for I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski, the bestselling fan bible.

And at a Q&A in Dallas last week for The Amateurs, Bridges' new film about a band of small-town misfits making an amateur adult movie, he dissects Lebowski arcana with a fan that is the spitting image of Walter Sobchak.

But that's Jeff Bridges, a man so comfortable in his own skin that he makes The Dude look like a Desperate Housewife.

Minutes after meeting me at USA Bowl, he raises his arms and asks: "Hey, man, do you think it matters that I've got sweat stains? We don't care about that, do we?" (A frantic stylist chasing after him with a hair dryer thinks otherwise.)

"It's bowling, right?"

Exactly, Dude.

You're out of your element, Dude

The biggest of Lebowski questions for me has always been: Why the heck doesn't The Dude bowl?

He spends much of his time in the alley, totes his ball and shoes everywhere -- he even floats through a dream sequence with a Viking bowling goddess (Julianne Moore) -- but he never rolls.

When I ask Bridges about this, he embarks on a fascinating five-minute soliloquy about how he and co-stars John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro learned to bowl with a world-class trainer. The story includes an explanation of The Dude's warm-up, a mention of "Zen and the art of archery" and a philosophical approach to bowling:

"Like many things in life and in our artistic pursuits, the pins are down even before you draw your hand back."

Listening intently, I realize he is a modern-day Mark Twain, mixed with a surfer dude: The shock of hair and dancing brow; his voice, all marmalade and incense smoke; his stories, each one shaded with eternal "ummms" that hold you happily captive.

"All that," he says, "and The Dude never bowls."

Pauline Kael, the legendary film critic, once called Bridges "the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that ever lived," the very notion of which brings a crooked smile to his face.

"I guess it's fairly natural as it can be," he says. "Coming from an acting family, I was really saturated in that stuff.

"It's basically an illusion," he continues, "kind of a magic trick that you're doing with a bunch of other people."

But he doesn't have much use for platitudes.

"I consider myself kind of a lazy guy," he says. "But when I look back, I've done a bunch of stuff. It's funny."

Which is all well and good, but it doesn't answer my question.

"The Coen brothers wanted us to bowl, and we all took bowling lessons for about a week," says Bridges. "A lot of stuff that you do in movies gets cut out and left to the side."

So who was the best bowler, I wondered? Just two weeks earlier, John Turturro, aka The Jesus, bowled a 157 on this very lane -- that creep can roll, man.

"Oh, gosh, nobody's surfacing as a great bowler," says Bridges. "I'd have to say Turturro licks the best bowling ball. He would have to be the best licker of the group."

At least it's an ethos

The real challenge of bowling with Jeff Bridges was not beating him, it was resisting the urge to bombard him with Big Lebowski questions.

Like, how much weight did you gain for the role? "I think I was probably in that state when they hired me," he says. "I might have done a couple of pints to prepare."

Or does he consider The Dude a Renaissance man? "He's a good bather," Bridges says.

Even my non-Lebowski questions kept coming back to The Dude. When I suggest he's charting a course of cinematic yin and yang with slacker roles (The Fabulous Baker Boys, with big brother, Beau; The Amateurs) and leader-of-men performances (The Contender, Seabiscuit, Tucker: The Man and His Dream), he acknowledges as much: "I've got some slacker in me. But I'm an idea man, like Andy."

In fact, he thinks his character in The Amateurs, Andy Sargentee, a divorced dad who decides to rally the town of Butterface Fields to make an amateur porn film, would be welcome on The Dude's bowling team.

"When we were doing [The Amateurs], I didn't say let's have some echoes of The Dude or anything like that," he says. "But they'd probably be good buddies, hanging out; they'd understand each other."

The Amateurs, co-starring Ted Danson, Tim Blake Nelson, Lauren Graham and a laundry list of likable actors, is much sweeter and less sexy than it sounds. Bridges calls it Capra-esque. ("It's a movie about pornography with heart.") But after sitting on the shelf for two years, it will need all the muscle a star like Bridges can muster.

Ever since he first skipped school in 1958 and popped up on Sea Hunt with Lloyd, his proud papa, Bridges has been falling upward, to hear him tell it.

"Unlike a lot of Hollywood actors, my father really encouraged his kids to go into acting because he enjoyed all the aspects of it," Bridges says. "And like most kids, I rebelled against my parents. But he'd say, 'Well, you get to get out of school ...'

"I'd done about 10 movies before I decided this is what I wanted to do," says Bridges, who earned an Oscar nomination at 22 for The Last Picture Show, the coming-of-age classic filmed in Archer City.

But Bridges is much more than an actor and Slacker King. He's also a terrific artist and photographer who has documented the shoots on some of his films. He's a guitarist who has been known to take the stage at Lebowskifest. And you can see his doodles all over his Web site,

His End Hunger Network has been raising awareness and money since 1983, way before it was cool for celebrities to have charitable causes. And, despite it all, Bridges views his accomplishments in Dude-like terms.

"I'm a product of nepotism. I was carried onscreen when I was 6 months old," he says. "The thing I learned from my dad was just how he approached things. He exuded such joy on the set. It was contagious. He never said, 'You have to be joyful'; it's just how he conducted himself."

The mystique continues

Like a tumbleweed drifting across the dusty plains of Los Ang-el-eeze, Jeff Bridges steps to Lane 1 and lifts his green 12-pound ball. Gingerly, he walks toward the line -- wary of his aching back and setting off the foul light. (Never know when Walter might show up.)

After five years and 25 bowling interviews, I'd come too far to let The Big Lebowski off the hook.

First ball: A gutter?

"That's in honor of the famous porn movie, Gutter Ball. That's the tie in with The Amateurs. That's the only reason I threw that," he jokes. "And now I am going to throw a strike. This is how a strike is thrown."

Almost ... almost ... OK, it's a 3. But his form was effortless.

We kept bowling and chatting, but much like The Big Lebowski, it wasn't about the bowling.

Bridges talked about his 58th birthday a few days earlier: "I played a little music. Had lunch with my mom. She's 92."

We mused about a Jesus spinoff. "I think there's a movie there," Bridges says. "I'll be in it, man."

And my undefeated record against celebs: "You've never lost?!? You're making The Dude look bad, man!!"

After a spare in the second and a few more decent frames, Bridges says, "My mind's having fun, but my body's saying, 'Watch it, buddy.'"

We stop after five frames; it only furthers The Dude's mystique.

"The legend continues, man." Bridges says. "It's all a dream."

Sure is, Dude.


After five frames

43 The Dude

61 Rick