Bruce Dern

by E. Ryan Ellis

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“I Can’t Live in Grimness and then Go Play a Classy Being”*
It’s Wednesday at Musso and Frank’s. I’m sitting across from Bruce Dern and he’s reciting the profane lines of a Confederate General. He’s yowling. He’s speaking with complete solemnity, as if God, and the Devil, and Quentin Tarantino were in the audience. But it’s only the lunch crowd. I’ve walked to this Hollywood staple: Highland to Sunset to Las Palmas to Hollywood Boulevard, USA. I’ve trudged through the heat of the walk of fame—it could be the weather but I imagine the warmth comes from the convection of tourist blood.

The actor, Dern, comes in a tad disheveled, perspiring, having gone for a run before we meet. His grey hair is wedged into a baseball cap but sprouting through the bottom. Over the course of our two-and-a-half hour conversation Dern and I speak on many topics. Too many to list. He’s blunt—brazen even—but polite. He asks me if it’s okay to take his baseball cap off—this is a man 58 years my senior. He’s also effortlessly epigrammatic in conversation, as if every word was chiseled into stone then dictated back to him for approval before finally leaving his mouth. Often he goes on tangents, “I’ll wander, so keep me on course,” he says, but the man’s endless knowledge is inspiring—recalling names, places, and stories at ease, sometimes connecting them unintentionally over the course of the conversation, and though the topic wanders, more-often-than-not I’m granted a nugget of gold. Similarly heralded are Dern’s off-the-cuff acting flourishes known as “Dernsies.” Tarantino claims he’s the only actor that can be entrusted with these in his films.

“It’s not something I set out to do and not something I plan to do,” says Dern. “It’s just something the character comes up with that the screenwriter did not put on the page. An interjection or snapping my fingers down at my side. I did that in Drive, He Said to let everyone know this basketball coach I was playing had a little game. It’s just embroidery that enhanced the story—and Nicholson branded them ‘Dernsies.’”

 - Los Angeles Times, November 21, 2013*.1

Dern says he’s been running every day since childhood, even when he’s on-set, even when the average person wouldn’t be able to find the time to cut away from plans. “I run by myself every single day, I run and I have since I was nine. And I’ve recorded every work out. From five to nine I was a speed skater, I’m not Catholic but I skated for the CYO. I ran track for New Trier High School in Winnetka, ran track for the University of Pennsylvania for two years and tried to make the Olympic team in 1956, did not, came fairly close, but I was still only 19 years old that year.”

I then ask if Dern grew up in an athletic family and he scoffs, “No. [scoffs] Shit.” The first example of indifference towards his family’s values—his upbringing will clarify this further. Dern comes from a WASP family of blue bloods from the Winnetka suburb of Chicago; his paternal grandfather, George Dern, was the first non-Mormon Governor of Utah and later appointed Secretary of War by FDR; his maternal great uncle, Archibald MacLeish, was a three-time Pulitzer winner for poetry and Librarian of Congress for 27 years; his godfather was Adlai Stevenson; anecdotally, his grandmother went to Wellesley where her first roommate was Madame Chiang Kai-shek (“she was only an 18-year-old”). Dern never ingratiated himself with high society, instead he left for New York in the late ’50s, finding a place under the tutelage of screen and stage legend Elia Kazan and his Actors Studio—much to the chagrin of his family. “I was persona non grata.” His father died in 1958 and was unable to see Dern’s ascent into the Hollywood canon.

In Law Practice Here Since ‘29 

John Dern, 54, partner in the law firm of Sidley, Austin, Burgess & Smith at 11 S. La Salle st., died yesterday in his home, 94 Mary st., Winnetka. He had been in ill health several months. He was a corporation lawyer specializing in the public utilities field. Mr. Dern was the son of the late George H. Dern, former secretary of war and governor of Utah. He was graduated from University of Pennsylvania and in 1927 was admitted to the New York bar. Survivors include his widow, Jean MacLeish; two sons, John Dern Jr. and Bruce MacLeish Dern; a daughter Jean E. Dern, a sister, and a brother. Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow in Winnetka Congregational church, 725 Pine st. Winnetka

- Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1958*.2

After making his way through a slew of Kazan’s acting classes and expertise, Dern got a few breaks. He tells a story of Adlai Stevenson coming to New York to see him in a play. “Adlai came to see me in 1959—to see me in Sweet Bird of Youth—to let me know that my Father would’ve been very proud of me, that I had gotten to this point; that I had a part on Broadway. I didn’t have a big part, not a big part—I had seven fucking lines.” Dern played Stuff, the bartender at the Royal Palms Hotel cocktail lounge.

STUFF: This uniform’s new.

STUFF: Put that down, this ain’t no cocktail party.

STUFF: No snow.

STUFF: He don’t have a police-car siren on that awgun.

STUFF: Lemme serve these martinis, I’ll be right with you.

STUFF: Yeah, t’night.

- Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennesee Williams, 1959*.3

It would be difficult to sum up Bruce Dern’s career in a few sentences, but to start to read and learn about the vast amount of roles he’s played is to understand that Dern contains multitudes. Most of his earlier career was spent in episodic TV westerns: Wagon Train (1963-65), Rawhide (1965), The Virginian (1965), A Man Called Shenandoah (1965), Laredo (1965), Branded (1966), The Big Valley (1966-68), Gunsmoke (1965-69), Bonanza (1968-70). He appears as dozens of characters in dozens of episodes of these TV westerns, carving out his own niche. Memorably Dern played Long Hair in the 1972 film The Cowboys. In the movie, one of John Wayne’s last, Dern kills the legendary actor in a violent 4-minute scene. He has stated on numerous occasions this led him to be cast more often as a villain.

Of the Western genre and his place in it, Dern is solemn, “In my career, if there is a sad note—which there shouldn’t be—it’s the loss of the Western. Life is about boundaries, and Westerns were about boundaries.” God, and the Devil, and Quentin Tarantino…

Dern has 147 acting credits according to IMDb; from Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (1974), to the militant goof Lt. Mark Rumsfield in The ‘Burbs (1986). He has been nominated for an Oscar twice: for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Coming Home (1978), and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for his part in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013), in which he played the gullible but good-hearted Woody Grant. One would hesitate to say the role has reinvigorated Dern’s career, because, much like his running habit, the man has never stopped. But, in a way, Nebraska has shone a new light on Dern—who received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2011.

Which brings us to his newest film, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. He plays the aforementioned Confederate General, the cantankerous Sanford “Sandy” Smithers; one of eight seedy characters locked in a room, each telling their respective stories, but some are not who they claim to be. The famously-leaked script had been given to only a handful of people—Dern was one of them—prior to finding its way onto the Internet, reportedly from the slithery hands of a film executive. Tarantino was rumored to have given up on the project after the leak, but principal photography took place in Telluride in late 2014.

The Hateful Eight will be released Christmas, 2015. It will be Bruce Dern’s return to the lost art of the Western. Dern hasn’t given up on Westerns just yet—and thus neither has God, the Devil, Quentin Tarantino, myself, nor the lunch crowd.

Photographer: Eddie Chacon at metropolisofvice.com

Stylist: Sissy Sainte-Marie at sissysaintemarie.com

Groomer: Sonia Lee for Eamgmt.com using Billy Jealousy

Location: Tam O’Shanter at lawrysonline.com/tam-oshanter

Tereba, T. & McDermott, E. “New Again: Bruce Dern,” Interview, January 1976.

*.1 Dawn, R. “A turn, a snap, a fall: Signatures of the stars,” Los Angeles Times, November 2013.

*.2 “John Dern, 54, Utility Chief, Attorney, Dies,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 1958.

*.3 Williams, T. (1959). Sweet Bird of Youth. New York City: New Directions Publishing.