The Dude is mostly inspired by Jeff Dowd, a man the Coen brothers met while they were trying to find distribution for the feature film, Blood Simple. Dowd had been a member of the Seattle Seven, liked to drink White Russians, and was known as “The Dude.” The Dude was also partly based on a friend of the Coen brothers, Peter Exline (now a member of the faculty at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts), a Vietnam War veteran who reportedly lived in a dump of an apartment and was proud of a little rug that “tied the room together.” Exline knew Barry Sonnenfeld from New York University and Sonnenfeld introduced Exline to the Coen brothers while they were trying to raise money for Blood Simple. Exline became friends with the Coens and, in 1989, told them all kinds of stories from his own life, including ones about his actor-writer friend Lewis Abernathy (one of the inspirations for Walter), a fellow Vietnam vet who later became a private investigator and helped him track down and confront a high school kid who stole his car. As in the film, Exline’s car was impounded by the Los Angeles Police Department and Abernathy found an 8th grader’s homework under the passenger seat. Exline also belonged to an amateur softball league but the Coens changed it to bowling in the movie because “it’s a very social sport where you can sit around and drink and smoke while engaging in inane conversation,” Ethan said in an interview. The Coens met filmmaker John Milius when they were in Los Angeles making Barton Fink and incorporated his love of guns and the military into the character of Walter.
According to Julianne Moore, the character of Maude was based on artist Carolee Schneemann, “who worked naked from a swing,” and Yoko Ono. The character of Jesus Quintana was inspired, in part, by a performance the Coens had seen John Turturro give in 1988 at the Public Theater
in a play called Mi Puta Vida in which he played a pederast-type character, “so we thought, let’s make Turturro a pederast. It’ll be something he can really run with”, Joel said in an interview.
The film’s overall structure was influenced by the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. Ethan said, “We wanted something that would generate a certain narrative feeling – like a modern Raymond Chandler story, and that’s why it had to be set in Los Angeles… We wanted to have a narrative flow, a story that moves like a Chandler book through different parts of town and different social classes”. The use of the Stranger’s voiceover also came from Chandler as Joel remarked, “He is a little bit of an audience substitute. In the movie adaptation of Chandler it’s the main character that speaks off-screen, but we didn’t want to reproduce that though it obviously has echoes. It’s as if someone was commenting on the plot from an all-seeing point of view. And at the same time rediscovering the old earthiness of a Mark Twain.”
The significance of the bowling culture was, according to Joel, “important in reflecting that period at the end of the Fifties and the beginning of the Sixties. That suited the retro side of the movie, slightly anachronistic, which sent us back to a not-so-far-away era, but one that was well and truly gone nevertheless.”
The Big Lebowski was written around the same time as Barton Fink. When the Coen brothers wanted to make it, John Goodman was taping episodes for the Roseanne television program and Jeff Bridges was making the Walter Hill film, Wild Bill.