On a recent sun-ravaged Thursday, I sat across the dining table from Jim Ganzer in his Malibu living room. Clad in cargo shorts and faded orange tee, his trademark goatee grey and neatly trimmed, Ganzer is 76 years old, but spiritually more like a cheeky twenty-something. His accomplishments are many. He founded and spearheaded JIMMY’Z, the seminal 1980s surf/skate clothing label. He and Ed Ruscha collaborated on “Brave Men Run In My Family,” an art piece that seems to speak directly to the surf tribe. But I was there because of The Dude, the Big Lebowski Dude. I’d heard that the Coen Brothers had modeled The Dude on Ganzer—I wanted to hear more.
“So one day Milius calls and says, ‘You’re the Big Lebowski’, and proceeds to explain what The Big Lebowski is. Then he says, ‘There’s a couple guys that want to meet you.’”
Milius is John Milius, who co-wrote Apocalypse Now and directed Big Wednesday. A former surfer, he knew and loved Ganzer from the Malibu scene of the 1960s. The couple guys that wanted to meet Ganzer? The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, who at that point had written Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and Fargo.
“So we went out that night. I picked them up, we talked a little. Then I had an errand to run so I left them in the parking lot of the bowling alley on Venice Boulevard, you know that bowling alley?”
I told him I did.
“Well, they stayed there in that parking lot and chuckled shit up and had a good time. I quickly ran my errand and then came back and met them. Then we went on to another place. And my partner during that time at JIMMY’Z, Sepp Donahower, he had a peculiar thing when he'd go out and drink. He didn’t really want to drink a lot and get drunk, so somewhere along the line he picked up on a White Russian. So it wasn’t me, Lebowski, this Lebowski. In other words, what the Coens were doing is they were using parts of our characters, sort of compositing.”
As Ganzer tells the story of becoming The Dude, he sort of, well, becomes The Dude. The cadence of his speech, the way he slouches back in his chair then leans forward to accentuate his point with animated hands, the way his voice raises when he’s excited, and falls to low volume when something’s a little surreptitious—it’s testament to just how damn good an actor Jeff Bridges is.
“See, if you’re an incidental in Hollywood, and you’re an artist of some kind, people will use anything that comes off you, because it’s art. Fucking art is flying off me all the time, and I don’t even realize it because it’s just the way I set my mind up to operate when I got out on my own from living with my parents and so forth.”
In 1957, Ganzer moved with his family from Chicago to LA, where he fell in with a surf crowd that included Miki Dora and Lance Carson. In the late ‘60s he attended the acclaimed Chouinard Art Institute, where he made a new set of friends that would go on to become some of LA’s biggest artists, among them Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, and Ken Price. After graduating, he rented a studio on the Pacific Ocean Park Pier, and hung out with his artist pals in Venice. It was there that he met Jeff Bridges.
“It’s kind of embarrassing, but one of the things that I said from high school on is ‘The Dude abides.’ I always used that phrase because I abided up to a point. I would always be just one step away from being illegal.”
“So wait,” I say. “The Dude abides’ refers to the law?”
“Yes,” says Ganzer. “‘The Dude abides by the law’—without saying the last part.”
I burst into laughter, and so does Ganzer.
“So one time I said that, ‘The Dude abides,’ in front of Jeff Bridges, and he gave this brouhaha laugh. And I said, ‘Well, relatively.’”
We laugh some more. Shaking my head, I say, “The Dude abides by the law. Who knew?”
“Well, you know, you don’t want to get into too much trouble, but you were probably breaking the law as you said it.”
I ask about the famous Eagles scene, in which The Dude has that rough night, then hops in a cab where the Eagles’ song “Peaceful Easy Feeling” is playing. The Dude says, “Jesus, man, can you change the channel? I hate the fucking Eagles,” and the driver promptly throws him out of his cab.
Ganzer giggles. “I had this girlfriend from Texas who was married to Glenn Frey (founding member of the Eagles). And Glenn Frey was always mean and a prick to me because this girl really liked me. We’re still friends today. I’m a gregarious, warm person and if you become my friend, you’re my friend for life.” Ganzer leans forward, raises a finger. “But I happen to love The Eagles and think they’re the greatest. But I did say that, and they [the Coen Brothers] were all in the car, and they kind of shook their heads like, Why would he be pissed? Why would he hate the Eagles?”
Ganzer mentions the cable-knit sweater.
“I told the Coen Brothers the story of the very first porn film I saw—the girl wore this cable-knit sweater, it’s one of those indelible memories—and they just thought, ‘Perfect. Lebowski wears a sweater [laughter].’”
And the rug! The rug that really tied the room together. Does Ganzer remember the rug?
He gives me a look. “You know, I personally can’t watch the movie all the way through. It makes me crazy.”
“Too close to home?”
“Yeah. Funny, weird, I mean, they use other people, too, don't think it was just me. It was other people they used to create that character. But the ones from LA, who knew me, and knew the wardrobe, and knew different things, kind of went, ‘It's fucking him. Bridges is playing him.’”
Follow Jim at @jimmyzganzer