Nov. 12--Around 1975, Bruce Dern seemed on the verge of superstardom.
He was the leading man in three high-profile films, and had just come off a Golden Globe nomination for playing Tom Buchanan in "The Great Gatsby" opposite Robert Redford.
For whatever reasons, it didn't happen. Now at 77, the veteran actor is basking in the spotlight again starring in Alexander Payne's rich new comedy, "Nebraska," and has already taken the best-actor award for his role at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
In "Nebraska," Dern is the crusty Woody Grant, a retiree who is convinced he's won a million dollars in one of those magazine sweepstakes contests. One step in front of the other, he is determined to get there to claim the cash. Finally, in order to humor him and perhaps have some closure on their rocky relationship, his reluctant son (Will Forte), agrees to drive him from their home in Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb., in what turns out to be an eventful trip.
Sitting with Dern in a Beverly Hills hotel room, I see that the actor still has the manic energy that made him such an interesting screen presence during his 55-year career. He seems quite the opposite of Woody, who seems to "check out about 20 minutes of every hour" and has been a functioning alcoholic for years.
"Never drank. Never had a cigarette. Never had a cup of coffee," says Dern of his real life. "Lost a decade to Vicodin, so I'm not pure."
The conversation turns to Dern's childhood -- a privileged but not particularly happy time. He is from a moneyed Chicago family, the grandson of George Henry Dern, a two-term Utah governor and a Secretary of War under Franklin D. Roosevelt. His middle name is MacLeish, after his great-uncle, poet Archibald MacLeish, and his godparents were Adlai Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt. "So there were big people in my house -- I don't mean they were great people. I mean they were people who got stuff done," Dern says.
Explaining his aversion to drink, "I grew in a household where both parents were what I called social alcoholics," the actor says. He says he would count the number of drinks they would take. "They hated me for that."
At the dinner table, Dern says he would have to raise his hand to speak. "And when I was called on, I would always find an interesting story which would captivate the people at the table." Nevertheless, he says, he was shuttled off to "every camp you can imagine." At prep school and college he became a star runner -- he continues to run -- but his parents showed little interest. Eventually, he moved to New York City where he studied with legendary director Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio.
Moving to Los Angeles in 1961, the actor toiled mostly in B movies like "The Wild Angels," "Psych-Out" and on TV shows -- a lot of Westerns. Along the way, he met pal Jack Nicholson. Dern played his brother in Bob Rafelson's 1972 "King of Marvin Gardens" and starred in his 1971 directorial effort, "Drive, He Said." (Nicholson would star in Payne's "About Schmidt.")
Occasionally, Dern would get an interesting role. In 1964, he appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie," and the same year in "Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte" with Bette Davis. The actress had a heavy smoking habit.
"She would say, 'Don't look at me that way, Bruce. I'm enjoying it. Can't I enjoy it?'" says the actor.
Dern gained notoriety in the 1972 film, "The Cowboys," where his character shockingly killed John Wayne's character by shooting him in the back. Also that year, he was in the effects wizard Dalton Trumbo's sci-fi classic "Silent Running." By 1975, he seemed poised for a breakthrough, with starring roles in three films expected to be hits. But "Smile," directed by Michael Ritchie ("The Candidate," "Downhill Racer"), a satire on beauty pageants; Alfred Hitchcock's final movie "The Family Plot;" and "Won Ton Ton, the Dog That Saved Warner Brothers" with Lily Tomlin and a German shepherd did not fare well.
After that, Dern occasionally had roles where he shined, notably in 1978's "Coming Home," for which he received an Oscar best-supporting actor nomination, and in 1983's "That Championship Season." Since then, he has worked steadily in film and on TV, including a recurring role in HBO's "Big Love," but rarely as a lead.
Payne, who directed the actor's daughter Laura Dern in "Citizen Ruth," has had the script by Bob Nelson for about nine years. Bruce Dern has been pursuing the role of Woody for about eight of those. The director says the veteran actor was really his only choice to play the role and jokes he would have cast him just to see that shock of white hair Dern sports on the big screen. (It is probably even more pronounced since "Nebraska" is in black and white.)
Dern says he came to Hollywood to "make the kind of movies that Mr. Kazan did, and that's what Alexander did with 'Nebraska.' He infects you to do good stuff because it works on the page. I didn't have to invent stuff in this movie. I didn't say one thing that wasn't on the page. You don't get material like this very often in your life and when you do, you have to cherish it."
The actor is generous with his praise of not only Payne but the entire cast and crew, stressing the teamwork involved in making the film: "Will is the second best partner I've had outside of Jack." He says when he got the role, his thought was, "Please, don't (expletive) this up, Bruce. Don't try and be a performer and try to show them you're there."
At the moment, Dern doesn't seem too fazed by not having reached superstardom. He saidHitchcock told Time Magazine that Dern would be the Joel McCrea or Humphrey Bogart of his generation.
"I took it as a compliment, but I never believed it," the actor said. Instead he's focused on promoting "Nebraska" and enjoying the Oscar talk. Oddly enough, some 40 years after they made "Gatsby" together, both Dern and Redford (for "All Is Lost") are being discussed in the best-actor race.
"He's a guy who was always an obvious leading man," says Dern about his friend. "In life, he's a leading man. And he's proved it. He's put his money where his mouth is, he dreamed a dream of Sundance and pulled it off." Adds Dern, who is about two months older than Redford, "At 77 years old he has the courage to choose to do a movie all by himself."
As for his own long Hollywood road, Dern is grateful for "Nebraska" but isn't sure if this would be enough for his family.
"I would think as they look down from wherever they are, I haven't proved it to them yet. I don't think they were enamored of me making a living pretending."
As a young man he would argue that "Uncle Archie" was an artist.
"But they would say, 'Yes, Bruce, but he is a man of letters. You're going to make a living pretending you're somebody else. Why don't you be real and honest?'
"I tried my best in 'Nebraska.' Woody's about as real as I've played."
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