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Bruce Dern:

Rebel With A Cause

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Bruce Dern in Nebraska. Image courtesy Paramount Pictures.
The Former Hottest And Most Eccentric Actor Of A Generation Talks About Inadvertently Training Terrorists, And His Silver Screen Swan Song With Contemporary, Powerhouse Performances


By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

June 2, 2014 — Bruce Dern, the veteran actor turns 78 on June 4 and has enjoyed a recent career uptick with his Oscar-nominated role in Nebraska.

Born in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Ill., Dern is a survivalist for whom comebacks and curtain calls is standard operating procedure. During the 1980s, he experienced a malady feared by, but not uncommon to, actors.

As a result, film offers dried up.

“They (the studio executives) forgot me for about 10 years,” he told us in an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “I just made a couple of movies during that time.”

Since that dry spell, Dern worked mostly in lower-budget, under the radar indies until his performance as the crusty senior battling dementia won critical praise in Nebraska.

Dern admitted that even he is haunted by some of his earlier performances such as The Cowboys, where as the character “Longhair” he has the dubious distinction of shooting screen icon John Wayne in the back and Black Sunday, in which he portrayed a former Vietnam POW who leads a terrorist attack via a blimp on the unsuspecting masses attending a Super Bowl game. Both films underscored his image as an actor who can convincingly portray characters that “come apart at the seams.”

“I’m very proud of Black Sunday, but I’m also ashamed of it,” he said. “I know we have a First Amendment right to do certain things. But we don’t as actors have the right to make a movie about anything we want. If you really look at Black Sunday, it’s a training film for would-be terrorists.”

It’s really not surprising that Dern brings a rebellious streak to many of his roles. Shortly after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in journalism, he saw the “original rebel,” James Dean on film. Mesmerized by Dean’s performance, he abandoned any hope of becoming a journalist or an Olympic track star, preferring instead to try his hand at acting.

In 1976, Dern starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s final directorial effort, Family Plot. It was a career highlight.

“Hitchcock was definitely one of the few geniuses I’ve worked with,” he said. “You could sit down with him anytime during the course of the day and ask him the significance of your job in this shot. He would explain to you exactly what he expected from you.”

Take a Dern film sampler of Smile, Silent Running, On the Edge, Black Sunday, That Championship Season, Nebraska, and After Dark, My Sweet and you’ll see that Dern has always been a rebel with a cause.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from Hollywood’s Golden Age. They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Reach them at
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