At high school and college track meets, Bruce Dern was known as the guy who came from behind to win the race. Most actors who started out in the 1950s and ’60s faded away long ago, but Dern continues to be a runner — and continues to work as an actor, including his Oscar-nominated performance in “Nebraska” and in last year’s “Hateful Eight.”
Dern, who turns 80 on Saturday, got his professional start by working with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan, and his career is dotted with big names that he worked with: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Roger Corman, Jane Fonda and Jack Nicholson, to name a few. He also had encounters with such diverse characters as notorious west coast mobster Mickey Cohen and noted pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy.
Dern recently told Variety, “I’ve worked with six geniuses as directors: Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Trumbull — when he looks through the camera, he sees something no one else sees; he sees magic — Francis Coppola, Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino.” In such heady company, Dern shrugs that he’s lucky, adding, “I’m just Brucie from Winnetka.”
Dern was a journalism major at the University of Pennsylvania, but dropped out to become an actor. With no professional experience, he was accepted by Strasberg and Kazan for their famed Actors Studio. Dern was cast in the studio’s first attempt to branch out into theater productions, a revival of Sean O’Casey’s “Shadow of a Gunman,” directed by Jack Garfein.
In its November 26, 1958, review, Variety said, “Bruce Dern adds brief vigor in the small part of a deadly-quiet terrorist.” The Herald Tribune’s Walter Kerr disliked the production, but said, “The play’s saving grace is a 52-second performance by a heretofore unknown actor named Bruce Stern.”
It was a glowing recognition for a novice, except for the fact that Kerr had misspelled his name. Dern’s upper-crust family mistakenly assumed he’d changed his name and his mother called to say, “You can consider yourself persona non grata.” Dern’s showbiz ambitions alienated the entire family, except for his uncle, Archibald MacLeish, a poet who also wrote a raft of plays, including “J.B.” Dern recently told Variety that he asked his mother why his goals were unacceptable though MacLeish was OK. “And my mother said, ‘Bruce, Archie is a man of letters. He’s won Pulitzer Prizes. You’re doing nothing but play-acting and taking money.”
Dern followed it up with the Kazan-directed stage production of “Sweet Bird of Youth,” starring Geraldine Page and Paul Newman. He understudied Rip Torn, but Kazan took him out of the play to give him a role in the film “Wild River,” starring Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick.
Kazan and Strasberg encouraged him to move to Hollywood for film and TV work. “With my generation, we were very lucky when we came to Hollywood, because we still had a chance to work with the legends,” says Dern. “We aren’t legends, you can’t be a legend today. Clint and Redford are the closest thing we have.”
Dern, who wrote an autobiography titled “Things I’ve Said but Probably Shouldn’t Have: An Unrepentant Memoir” (published by John Wylie & Sons) has had highs and lows, as do all actors. He fondly mentions “Smile” and the lesson he learned: “Comedy is not about appearing funny, so the more honestly you play it, the better it is.”
And he has special affection for “Nebraska.” On the first day of filming, Payne said to him, “We have an 89-person crew here and 58 of them have worked on every movie I’ve ever made. You sir, can dare to risk failing, because we’ve got your back.” Payne also asked if Dern would do a favor to him and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael: “Let us do our jobs. Never show us anything. Let us find it.” Dern adds, “That was the first time in 56 years I knew I had a teammate as a director. ‘Performing’ was out.”
On the downside, Dern enumerates incidents that have really bothered him. First: “The way the town treated Michael Cimino after ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ no excuse for it. His work afterwards was good; there was nothing wrong with ‘Year of the Dragon.'” The second was the treatment of his friend Jack Nicholson, who directed “Drive, He Said,” a critical hit but not a box office success: “They never allowed Jack Nicholson to direct another film if he wasn’t in it. And he gave me some of the greatest direction I ever had. Third, they never let Roger Corman direct a movie for more than a million. The fourth was when the Academy would not stand up for Mr. Kazan, who was blasted after being named recipient of a special Oscar in 1998.
Dern sums up, “Overall, when I look at my career, I was lucky and blessed.”