Obituary: David Huddleston

David Huddleston. Born: 17 September, 1930, in Vinton, Virginia. Died: 2 August, 2016 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, aged 85

Actor David Huddleston, star of Santa Claus and The Big Lebowski. Picture: Getty
Actor David Huddleston, star of Santa Claus and The Big Lebowski. Picture: Getty

David Huddleston was never a big star, but he played the title character in not one, but two classic movies, the perennial yuletide favourite Santa Claus (1985), with Dudley Moore as lead elf, and the cult hit The Big Lebowski (1998), with Jeff Bridges.

And while he may not have been a big star, Huddleston was a big, burly man, with a big, blustering presence, which made him ideal casting as authority figures and bullies. He was the Big Lebowski, while Jeff Bridges was another character called Lebowski, who gets mistaken for him in the Coen Brothers’ sometimes surreal tale of mistaken identity, kidnap and ten-pin bowling.

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Huddleston was the racist mayor in Mel Brooks’s 1974 western comedy Blazing Saddles, he was a Republican senator in a couple of episodes of the political drama series The West Wing in the early 2000s and he was the judge who sends Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick off to Sing Sing in the 2005 remake of Brooks’s The Producers.

The Los Angeles Times said: “His knack was to play puffed-up dons, but with a wink. He managed to act comic parts with an air of being in on the joke, a device that served to deflate the very grandiosity he projected.”

Although he was never a major star, Huddleston did get recognised. His wife, casting director Sarah Koeppe, told the Los Angeles Times of a time they were approached by locals in Turkey. They could not speak English, but managed to greet him as “Big Lebowski” and make it clear that they wanted to cook them a meal.

Even back in the early 1970s, when Huddleston first began getting small roles in television, he found himself being approached by strangers.

In an interview with a paper two years ago in New Mexico, where lived, he recalled being approached by a man in a grocery after he appeared in the long-running television western series Gunsmoke.

“I saw you in Gunsmoke last night and you were damn good,” said the young fan. Huddleston was pleased at the attention, but his bubble was burst when he overheard a subsequent exchange the man had with his girlfriend in the next aisle. The fan explained to his girlfriend who Huddleston was. And she responded: “You recognize the most obscure people.”

Born in the little town of Vinton in Virginia in 1930, David William Huddleston appeared in local theatre productions from an early age, but went to military academy and was a mechanic in the US Air Force before pursuing acting as a career.

He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and began his professional adult acting career in theatre, which remained his greatest love. He appeared in off-Broadway plays and touring productions and was into his thirties before he started getting small parts in films and television.

He was 40 when he played a dentist, visited by John Wayne, in the 1970 western Rio Lobo. He found himself increasingly in demand with television producers and appeared in such hit series as Bewitched, Bonanza, The Waltons, Kung Fu and Charlie’s Angels.

In 1974 he was reunited with John Wayne in the thriller McQ, in which Huddleston played a private eye. It was made by Wayne’s own production company and Huddleston went to thank Wayne personally for casting him. “You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?” said Wayne. Huddleston also worked on films with James Stewart, Dean Martin, Richard Burton and Bette Davis.

Initially Huddleston turned down the role of the mayor in Blazing Saddles. But he agreed to discuss it over lunch with Mel Brooks and Brooks kept taking away funny lines from other characters and giving them to the mayor, eventually winning Huddleston round. “People still come up to me and recite lines from that movie,” he said. “It was probably the most fun I ever had on a set.”

His role in Blazing Saddles raised his profile and he was cast in lead roles in two short-lived television comedy series in the late 1970s, The Kallikaks and Hizzonner, in which he played a widowed small-town mayor.

One of the productions which he enjoyed most was the 1984 Broadway production of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman, in the lead role of Willy Loman, John Malkovich as his son Biff and Huddleston as Willy’s friend and neighbour Charley.

But he reached a much bigger audience on film in Santa Claus: The Movie, where he met his wife Sarah Koeppe, and The Big Lebowski, in which a couple of thugs mistake Jeff Bridges’s character Jeffrey Lebowski for his namesake played by Huddleston.

The thugs break into Bridges’s home and pee on his rug. And, as Bridges’s character observes “That rug really tied the room together.”

Bridges’s character, who is known as The Dude, goes to see the Big Lebowski, a grumpy, disabled millionaire, for recompense.

He helps himself to a rug on the way out and then finds their affairs getting hopelessly tangled together – in between games of ten-pin bowling and philosophical discussions with John Goodman and Steve Buscemi.

Huddleston’s first wife predeceased him.

He is survived by his second wife and his son Michael Huddleston, who is also an actor and appeared with his father’s erstwhile Blazing Saddles co-star Gene Wilder in The Woman in Red in 1984.