In Memoriam         DAVID HUDDLESTON

David Huddleston

Actor who played the title role in the Coen brothers' 1998 film The Big Lebowski"

For much of his long acting career on television and in movies, David Huddle- ston, who has died aged 85, was one of those outstanding know-the-face-not-the-name character actors. However, for many cinephiles, his name had already come into focus by the time his career reached its apogee with the Coen brothers' film The Big Lebowski (1998), in which Huddleston played the title role.

Lebowski was the millionaire phil- anthropist who shares his name with Jeff Lebowski, an ageing hippy known as "the Dude", played by Jeff Bridges. This leads to confusion when the Dude is mistaken for his namesake by two heavies who urinate on his threadbare carpet, an action that ignites the plot. As the Dude explains to the Big Lebowski when he visits the plutocrat's mansion to seek compensation, the rug "really tied the room together".

The interplay between the two vastly contrasting characters, the burly, rich, narrow-minded Big Lebowski and the laidback, anti-establishment softly spoken Dude, is among the major delights of the film. The Big Lebowski asks the Dude: "What makes a man, Mr Lebowski?" "I don't know, sir." "Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn't that what makes a man?" continues the Big Lebowski. "Sure, that and a pair of testicles," the Dude replies.

Huddleston specialised in such blustering authoritarian figures, typified by his bigoted Mayor Olson Johnson in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles (1974). When told that "Nietzsche says: 'Out of chaos comes order'," he replies with typical Brooksian schtick, "Oh, blow it out your ass." He also has the inspiring speech: "What are we made of? Our fathers came across the prairies, fought Indians, fought drought, fought locusts, fought Dix ... remember when Richard Dix came in here and tried to take over this town? Well, we didn't give up then, and by gum, we're not going to give up now!" Huddleston later recalled of making the film: "It was probably the most fun I ever had on a set."

He was born in Vinton, Virginia, son of Ismay, a teacher, and Lewis, an ironworker hit by the Depression. The family home had no electricity or running water until David was around 10. He started performing at a young age in local community theatre productions before attending a military academy during his adolescence. After four years spent as a mechanic in the US Air Force, he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, in New York. Huddleston began to get parts in films in the early 1960s, making appearances in several westerns, including Blazing Saddles,

david huddleston 

such as Howard Hawks's Rio Lobo (1970), with John Wayne; John Sturges' Something Big (1971); and, notably, Robert Benton's Bad Company (1972), as a charismatic leader of a gang of thieves. Huddleston said: "Even when I play heavies I try to play them with a twinkle in my eye. Besides, it makes him seem much meaner when he does kill."

In The Klansman (1974), Huddleston was effective as a town mayor (a secret member of the KKK) whose hatred is directed as much at racist rednecks as at liberal do-gooders. But he had to wait quite a while before a leading role came his way. This was the miscast title role of Santa Claus (1985), in which, according to the respected New York Times critic Vincent Canby: "Mr Huddleston resembles a greeting-card Santa Claus, a role that demands that he mime jollity and periodically let fly a 'ho-ho-ho' or some equivalent."

In the meantime, he was appearing as guest in almost any television series one could name, often being called upon to play dubious sheriffs, judges and doctors. On Broadway, he portrayed Charlie in Death of a Salesman (1984), which starred Dustin Hoffman; Judge Bowling Green in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1993-94); and Benjamin Franklin in the musical 1776 (1998).

Huddleston is survived by his second wife, Sarah Koeppe, and the son of his first marriage, the actor Michael Huddleston.

• David William Huddleston, actor, born 17 September 1930; died 2 August 2016

Ronald Bergan
first published in:
www.theguardian.com/film/2016/aug/09/david-huddleston-obituary

 

 

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