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David Huddleston, 85, ‘Big Lebowski’ actor

Mr. Huddleston also starred in the 1979 television show “Hizzonner.”Associated Press

NEW YORK — David Huddleston, a burly, cantankerous, and prolific character actor who had the title role opposite Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1998 mistaken-identity noir comedy, died Aug. 2 in Santa Fe. He was 85.

His wife, Sarah C. Koeppe, said the cause was complications of heart and kidney disease.

“The Big Lebowski” was one of two cult films in which Mr. Huddleston was immortalized. In the other, Mel Brooks’s goofy 1974 Western, “Blazing Saddles,” he played the blowhard Mayor Olson Johnson.

In “The Big Lebowski,” a riff on Raymond Chandler, he played the conniving, hectoring multimillionaire in a wheelchair, Jeffrey Lebowski, who is being targeted by bungling crooks. Instead, they unwittingly go after Bridges’s character, a bearded stoner layabout who is familiarly known as The Dude but who formally shares the rich man’s name.

Mr. Huddleston, who started performing when he was 4 years old to help support his rural Virginia family, appeared in scores of plays, films, and television shows beginning in the late 1950s, a presence notable for his sparkling blue eyes and poker-faced wit.

“Even when I play heavies I try to play them with a twinkle in my eye,” he once explained. “Besides, it makes him seem much meaner when he does kill.”

Mr. Huddleston played the title roles in “Santa Claus: The Movie” in 1985 and “Hizzoner,” an NBC series in 1979 about a small-town mayor. He was nominated for an Emmy for portraying Grandpa Arnold on the comedy-drama “The Wonder Years,” which ran on ABC from 1988 to 1993.

The role he said he relished most was that of Benjamin Franklin, which he played in revivals of “1776” on Broadway in 1998 and at Ford’s Theater in Washington in 2003.

“If he could have afforded to go to college, he probably would have been a politician,” Koeppe said of her husband in a telephone interview. Koeppe, a casting director and acting teacher, met Huddleston when she cast him as Santa, a role for which he learned to drive a team of reindeer.

Sporting a buffalo fur coat and spinning six-shooters, he also played Big Joe in the director Robert Benton’s first film, “Bad Company,” a 1972 Civil War-era drama. In the movie, Mr. Huddleston’s gang is about to rob a group of runaways (who include Jeff Bridges in a starring role).

“We’ll take them, Big Joe,” one gang member assures him. Big Joe, without looking up from eating his beans, blithely replies, “If it was a blind lady in a wheelchair, I’d still give them the odds.”

Vincent Canby, praising the film in The New York Times, wrote that Mr. Huddleston played the part beautifully, “as if he were Orson Welles touring ‘Macbeth’ in the provinces with a troupe of rejected performing dogs.”

David William Huddleston was born on Sept. 17, 1930, in Vinton, Va., in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Roanoke. His home had no running water or electricity. His mother, Ismay Hope Dooley Huddleston, a teacher, handed him scripts to perform at church pageants and before civic groups to earn donations.

“Needing a prompt from his mother got him his first laugh at age 4, and he was hooked,” Koeppe said.

He served as an engine mechanic in the Air Force, then enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York on the GI bill and graduated in 1958.

Mr. Huddleston said he once asked James Cagney his advice about acting, to which Cagney replied: “Try never to get caught at it, kid.”

Mr. Huddleston appeared in touring companies of Broadway shows and by the early 1970s had supporting roles in film with John Wayne in “Rio Lobo,” Jimmy Stewart in “Fool’s Parade,” Bette Davis in “Family Reunion,” and Gregory Peck in “Billy Two Hats.” He later appeared on TV in, among other shows, “Gunsmoke,” “Murder, She Wrote,” and “The West Wing.”

He returned to Broadway in 1981 as Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey in “The First,” a short-lived musical about Jackie Robinson. While panning the production, Frank Rich wrote in The Times that Huddleston’s sandpaper voice “captures both the idealism and pragmatism, as well as the humor, of Branch Rickey.”

In 1984, he received a Drama Desk nomination for his portrayal of Charlie, Willy Loman’s successful neighbor, in a celebrated revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” that starred Dustin Hoffman.

The Coen brothers have said they remembered Mr. Huddleston from that stage role when they cast him in “Lebowski.”

Koeppe and his son, Michael, an actor, are the only immediate relatives he leaves.

Mr. Huddleston told The Santa Fe New Mexican in 2014 that people still stopped him to spout verbatim his lines from “Lebowski” and from “Blazing Saddles,” which, he said, “was probably the most fun I ever had on a set.”

He almost didn’t make the movie. He had been passed over for one part when he was offered the role of the mayor, who had only a few lines. Mr. Huddleston told his agent to reject it.

According to the 2007 book “I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski: Life, ‘The Big Lebowski,’ and What Have You,” Mel Brooks then called Mr. Huddleston and asked in disbelief, “You’d turn down a Mel Brooks picture?”

He invited Mr. Huddleston to lunch, where they reviewed the entire script and stole funny lines from other characters. By dessert, Mr. Huddleston had a major supporting part.

When the film was nearing completion, John Hillerman, who played the ice cream shop owner Howard Johnson, from whom most of Mr. Huddleston’s jokes were cribbed, turned to him and said, “You know, when I first read this script, I had a much bigger part.”

Characteristically, of course, Mr. Huddleston just deadpanned.