The Big Lebowski was one of the funniest movies of the ’90s. If it was made two decades earlier, it might have starred Dennis Hopper and Faye Dunaway.
Although it’s since become a revered cult classic, The Big Lebowski wasn’t appreciated by critics or moviegoers when it first hit theaters in 1998. If the Coens’ stoner noir had been released two decades earlier, during the more experimental New Hollywood movement, it might have been received more warmly by critics and audiences.
If The Big Lebowski had been produced in the 1970s, closer to the heyday of the hard-boiled noirs it spoofs, then it might have starred such contemporary icons as Dennis Hopper, Faye Dunaway, and Richard Pryor.
Dennis Hopper As The Dude
Jeff Bridges’ breezy, laidback portrayal of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski proved to be so captivating that it inspired an entire religion. The whole reason the movie works is that the Dude is a zen, psychedelic presence dropped into the high-stakes conflicts of a hard-boiled 𝖈𝖗𝖎𝖒𝖊 story.
In the ‘70s, this was best embodied by Dennis Hopper, who helped to usher in the New Hollywood movement with his turn as a similar pot-smoking slacker in Easy Rider.
George Carlin As Walter Sobchak
John Goodman’s turn as Walter Sobchak opposite Bridges’ Dude in The Big Lebowski is one of his funniest performances. Goodman nails the unbridled rage of a bitter Vietnam War veteran. In a ‘70s version of the movie, Walter might have been a veteran of the Korean War instead of Vietnam.
Above all, this role requires a performer who can make anger hilarious. It’s an ugly emotion, but the explosiveness of it can be really funny in the right actor’s hands. As the king of counterculture comedy, George Carlin made a career out of just that.
Faye Dunaway As Maude Lebowski
Originally played by Julianne Moore, Maude is the femme fatale of The Big Lebowski. She’s a free-spirited conceptual artist who steals the Dude’s replacement rug back and draws him further into the conspiracy.
In the ‘70s, Maude could’ve been played by Faye Dunaway. With acclaimed performances in such hits as Bonnie and Clyde and Chinatown, Dunaway became one of the defining stars of New Hollywood. In particular, Dunaway’s fierce, empowered turn in the biting satire Network – for which she deservingly won an Oscar – proves she could’ve played a fantastic Maude Lebowski.
John Wayne As Jeffrey “The Big” Lebowski
David Huddleston did a terrific job of playing Jeffrey “The Big” Lebowski as an uptight, traditional counterpoint to the Dude’s lackadaisical coolness. In the ‘70s, this would’ve been a great role for John Wayne in his risk-taking latter-day career circa True Grit.
Wayne’s staunchly conservative worldview would’ve made him perfect for “The Big” Lebowski’s rants about unemployment and hippie culture: “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost!”
Gloria Hendry As Bunny Lebowski
Played by Tara Reid in the 1998 original, Bunny Lebowski is the trophy wife of “The Big” Lebowski whose staged kidnapping is the crux of the entire plot.
In the 1970s, the role could’ve been played by Gloria Hendry, a former model who got her breakthrough as an actor playing the Bond girl Rosie Carver opposite Roger Moore’s goofy 007 in Live and Let ɖɨɛ
Gene Wilder As Donny Kerabatsos
The Dude and Walter’s mild-mannered friend Donny was played by a hysterically understated Steve Buscemi in the original movie. Donny is characterized as a clueless foil for Walter, who explodes whenever Donny obliviously joins a conversation and wants to be caught up.
In the ‘70s, Donny could’ve been played by Gene Wilder. Mel Brooks movies like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein made Wilder one of the biggest comedy stars of the ‘70s, and in those movies, he made a terrific foil for actors like Cleavon Little and Marty Feldman.