David Huddleston, best known for starring as the titular character in The Big Lebowski, died Tuesday of advanced heart and kidney disease in Santa Fe, New Mexico, his wife told the Los Angeles Times. He was 85.
The veteran actor made his career of appearing as bit character parts in television and film, working with premier names from Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles and Aaron Sorkin in The West Wing.
No part endeared him to fans more than 1998’s The Big Lebowski. The Coen Brothers’ absurd noir drags a carefree slacker, a.k.a. The Dude (Jeff Bridges), into a convoluted conspiracy, all because he shared the name of a millionaire (Huddleston), who truly pulled the strings. Huddleston’s Lebowski thought so little of Bridges’ Lebowski, often irritable and treating The Dude coldly — in an over-the-top, funny fashion. “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski,” he yelled after their first meeting. “Condolences: The bums lost.”
Huddleston was born Sept. 17, 1930 in Vinton, Virginia. After serving in the Air Force, Huddleston moved to New York City to attend The American Academy of Dramatic Arts on the G.I. Bill, where he graduated from in 1958, according to The Santa Fe New Mexican. He then began his career on screen, which spanned more than 50 years.
Mel Brooks picked Huddleston to play Mayor Olson Johnson in his western comedy, Blazing Saddles. Originally a bit part, Mayor Johnson was bolstered after Brooks pored over the script and moved around jokes to boost the character, per The Santa Fe New Mexican.
Huddleston played Kris Kringle himself in the ’80s comedy Santa Claus: The Movie with John Lithgow, Dudley Moore, and Burgess Meredith. A critical and financial bomb at the time, the Santa origin story evolved into a cult classic.
Away from movies and TV, Huddleston had a long and fruitful stage career. He appeared in a 1984 revival of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman and played Benjamin Franklin in the late ’90s revival of 1776.