When Joel and Ethan Coen first asked him to take a supporting role in “The Big Lebowski” as Theodore Donald Kerabatsos, a mild-mannered, oft-dismissed bowling enthusiast who succumbs to a heart attack while fighting a trio of nihilists, Steve Buscemi didn’t recognize their invitation as a ticket to immortality. If anything, his inclination was to decline.
“I remember reading the script for the first time, thinking that I didn’t want to play this part,” he says now, reunited at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom with principal members of the “Lebowski” cast — including Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, John Turturro and Julianne Moore — to celebrate the movie’s Blu-ray release this month.
“I couldn’t figure why anyone would want to be this guy — until the end, when we’re up against the nihilists, and [John’s character] is so protective of Donny. It was very moving, and I finally got it. Those two are like the Skipper and Gilligan [from ‘Gilligan’s Island’]. That’s their relationship. And I realized I had to do the movie.”
Hailed today as one of America’s most beloved cult comedies, “Lebowski” was greeted at the time of its March 1998 release by middling reviews and small, somewhat indifferent crowds.
Far from a legend in the making, it was initially considered a flop, despite eventually recouping its modest $15 million budget.
No more. With a slick new Blu-ray set to complement five differently packaged DVD editions, “Lebowski” is more than a commercial hit — it’s a cultural phenomenon, inspiring rabid devotees to gather in cities across the country (including San Francisco in 2008 and 2009) for annual festivals featuring bowling and costume parties, where the beverage of choice is always a white Russian.
Could any of the actors have foreseen such a response? Not Buscemi.
“People would come up to me on the streets,” he says. “This was about five years after it came out, and by then most movies have already died. They’d say, ‘I’ve seen the movie five times.’ Well, that’s good, I guess. Then the next year — ‘I’ve seen the movie 10 times!’
“I didn’t believe them. Why would you watch it 10 times? Well, now I believe them. And when people come up to me and say, ‘Shut the f--- up, Donny,’ I take it as a sign of respect.”
Turturro, who plays rival bowler The Jesus — a notorious pederast in a garish purple jumpsuit — was similarly caught off-guard by the reaction, especially to his colorful character.
“I actually got a lot of sex mail,” he says. “Mostly guys who want The Jesus to do them. It’s flattering, but it sounds pretty exhausting.”
The Big Lebowski