Joel and Ethan Coen were waiting for John Goodman to finish taking a leak. It was just after lunch on Dec. 10, 1996, and Joel, who’d turned 42 a few weeks earlier, was looking out a large window at the Hollywood Hills. It was raining again.
“That’d be just our luck, Eth,” Joel said. “Spend a whole winter in Minnesota and it doesn’t snow, then we come here and it fucking rains.”
Joel, older by three years, stood with his hands in his sweatshirt pockets. His black hair tied in a ponytail, small round glasses across his nose, he could have passed for the Ramones’ long-lost brother—the one who went to graduate school.
“The fucking rainy season,” he said.
On this rainy afternoon in L.A., Goodman and Jeff Bridges were meeting for the first time to read through a new Coen brothers screenplay called The Big Lebowski. Bridges was still stuck in traffic when Goodman returned from the can. He sat on the edge of the couch, legs open, his belly hanging so low it looked like he was sitting on the floor, and started quoting lines from Fargo. Goodman, a friend of the Coens since he worked with them on their second movie, Raising Arizona, laughed about the scene where William Macy tried to escape out of a motel window, only to be dragged back inside by the cops.
“Macy in his underwear,” Goodman said, giggling.
“That’s our answer to everything,” Ethan said. “You need a dramatic fall, put a character in his undies.”
Joel told Goodman about re-recording dialogue for the profanity-free television version of Fargo. They rewrote the line, “I’m fucking hungry now” to “I’m full of hungry now.”
“Why didn’t we write it like that originally?” said Joel. “It’s funnier.”
Goodman said, “Who else is coming on this show?” (In Los Angeles, movie people call a movie a “show.”)
There was Steve Buscemi as Donny, Julianne Moore as Maude, Jon Polito as Da Fino.
Joel said, “Our friend Luis, who was an assistant film editor on Hudsucker, will be playing the enraged Mexican.”
“Yeah, you’ll like Luis,” Ethan said in a creaky voice. “He makes a big statement.”
“Turturro is coming in to play the pederast,” Joel said. “He said he’d do his best F. Murray Abraham.”
Much of the cast was in place save for Bunny and Brandt and, critically, the Big Lebowski. You know, the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the tycoon whose Pasadena mansion is both miles and worlds away from the Dude’s rundown bungalow. With just over a month left before filming began, the Boys—as Joel and Ethan were known by colleagues and friends—weren’t close to casting the title role.
The trouble was that most of the actors they wanted were dead. Raymond Burr? Dead. Fred Gwynne? Dead. Anthony Perkins, Marty Balsam, Chuck Connors? All dead. Brian Keith was ill (he died less than a year later). Jason Robards was said to be having health problems.
The original Lebowski list was dubbed “Mussburger lists”—referring to Paul Newman’s character from The Hudsucker Proxy. It included Tommy Lee Jones (too young), Robert Duvall (not interested, didn’t get it), Anthony Hopkins (not interested, wouldn’t play an American), Gene Hackman (not interested, wanted a vacation), and Jack Nicholson (not interested, only wanted to play Moses).
Another Lebowski wish list followed, a wild collection of names that included Norman Mailer, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Jonathan Winters, and General Norman Schwarzkopf. Also, venerable actors like Fred Ward, Carroll O’Connor, Hoyt Axton, Ned Beatty, Peter Boyle, Richard Mulligan, Michael Caine, Jackie Cooper, Bruce Dern, and Paul Dooley. Ernest Borgnine was included, as were Larry Hagman, James Coburn, Andy Griffith, and Lloyd Bridges.
The choices narrowed—Rod Steiger, George C. Scott, Charles Durning, Pat Hingle. Then, the impossible dream: Brando. It was a good dream, too, though unlikely. Brando had certainly grown into the role but he was eccentric, expensive, and didn’t much like to work. Still, the idea amused the Boys no end, and for weeks they quoted the Big Lebowski’s lines in a Brando accent: “Condolences, the bums lost,” Joel said with his jaw pushed out to look like Brando in The Godfather.
“Strong men also cry,” Ethan replied.
But their favorite was, “By God, sir, I will not abide another toe.”