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How a key character in ‘The Big Lebowski’ was inspired by Mohammad Ali


Known as both the ultimate ‘stoner film’ as well as being one of the finest cult movies of all time, The Big Lebowski by the Coen brothers remains as beloved today as it was when it was released in 1998. Featuring vibrant, eccentric characters, the magic of The Big Lebowski is in its frenetic flamboyance, starring Jeff Bridges as the Dude, John Goodman as Walter Sobchak and John Turturro as Jesus Quintana. 

Whilst it is Bridge’s Dude who often hogs the limelight for the film’s success, it is the supporting characters of The Big Lebowski that make the film such an enduring classic, with Turturro’s Jesus even receiving his very own spin-off film in 2019 with The Jesus Rolls. Directed by Turturro himself, the film, unfortunately, wasn’t able to capture the iconic character as well as the Coen brother’s original, though still proved to be a worthy journey back to the 1998 classic.

In his return to the character, Turturro revealed to audiences just how popular his character had become, revealing some shocking truths to The Irish Times upon the release of the spin-off film in 2019.

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Speaking to the publication about the inspirations behind his eccentric character, Turturro explained how he modelled his characteristics on several different culturally significant people, Reinaldo Povod and Muhammad Ali. “I first used the voice in Reinaldo Povod’s play Nijinsky Choked His Chicken at the Public in 1987,” the actor revealed when asked how he crafted his idiosyncratic voice, adding “Rei’s father had just been released from prison, and that’s how he spoke”. 

Whilst that explains the voice, what about the bizarre characteristics and hand gestures that provide many a visual gag throughout the film? Taunting his bowling opponents by strutting across the sleek alley floor, Turturro reveals, a lot of those moves were modelled on Muhammad Ali’s, especially his psych-out job on Sonny Liston”. Floating like a butterfly and stinging more like a nettle, you can see the inspiration of Ali, even if Jesus doesn’t finish off Goodman’s Walter with a knockout punch. 

Becoming the surprise sex symbol of the Coen brothers classic, Turturro goes on to explain how he got more fan mail than any other actor in the film, even receiving marriage proposals in the mix. “I got all kinds of women letters, men letters. Weird ones, racy ones. ‘I love your body.’ ‘I love your outfit.’ ‘I’d love to take your outfit off,’” he hilariously reveals, with film fans strangely attached to the character’s greasy appearance and sleazy personality. 

Whilst The Big Lebowski remains the Coen brother’s most famous film, it is far from their very best, having released a handful of films that may better its quality, but fail to reach the same heights of comedy. Releasing the likes of Fargo, No Country for Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis, the filmmakers remain some of the very finest creatives working in contemporary Hollywood.