Bruce Dern hates when modern celebrities are called “legends.” He said this during our phone chat, but let’s face it, Bruce Dern is a legend. He’s worked with the greats of television and film for well over 50 years. And he earned Academy Award nominations for his acting in both 1978 and 2013, showing his long-term dedication to his craft.
Yet acting is only one facet of what makes Bruce Dern so unique and interesting. Prior to his Actor’s Studio enrollment, he was a recruited runner that trained for the Olympics. Behind the scenes while on-set, he is renowned for his “Dernsies” — or improvised takes — which he was doing long before improv was commonplace in major films. As the father of Laura Dern and former husband of Diane Ladd, the three of them are arguably the only family in which everyone has their own stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. Bruce is also a prolific producer, currently with multiple films in development via his production company Publicly Private Productions.
With regards to our interview itself, the trivia that Bruce effortlessly offered was amazing at times. He told me things about my hometown of Bellmore, Long Island. He knew sports history. He could tell you the names and career trajectories of crew members from films he worked on. He can offer endless knowledge about nearly anything you can think of, on top of him being pleasant and willing to talk about everything asked.
According to IMDb, beyond his Publicly Private obligations, Bruce currently has three films in post-production. Given that his 2007 autobiography Things I’ve Said, But Probably Shouldn’t Have: An Unrepentant Memoir came out years before Bruce’s work in Nebraska, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, many people want to see a follow-up book from Bruce in the near-future. Second memoir or not, as there was so much great knowledge offered up by Bruce, Part 2 of this Q&A will be appearing on the website of Inside Pulse in the coming weeks.
Your book mentioned living in Paterson, New Jersey and living in Flushing. Did you ever live in Manhattan proper?
Bruce Dern: Oh yeah. Just a quick backstory, when I began as an actor, I quit college after the Olympics [trials], in which I didn’t do well and I didn’t qualify to go into the final Olympic games. I was the 9th half-miler in America and I was only a sophomore then. I came back from Australia and I quit college and I started to look around. I started going to the movies a lot and I was impressed with the fact that the people on the screen were touching me [emotionally]. And I said, “God, I’d like to learn how to be able to do that.” So I found a little drama school in Philadelphia and after three weeks, I realized you had to do three things. This is 1957, early ’58.
B: You had to go to New York, you had to try to become a member of the Actor’s Studio, and you had to work for Mr. [Elia] Kazan, and those are the three things that I did. So when I was first in New York, I was married to my first wife [Marie Dean] and she had relatives in Flushing. They were German, there were a lot of German people there.
B: A lot of German bakeries and snacks and all of that shit. So I lived there and then we bought a house in 1958, a house in that area called Washington Township. It was between Paterson — you got off at Fastback Road. In other words, you go across until you turn at Washington Bridge and then you turn right about 11 miles right around the Fastback Road. You went into an area that was between Westwood and, if you went north from there, Saddle River. But if you went straight, where I had to go for my fucking army induction, you had to go to Paterson. I wasn’t inducted, but I had to go through the whole day. My next door neighbor, when I lived in Washington Township, was Bill Skowron. That was the first baseman for the Yankees at the time.
B: That was my living in New York. Then when I divorced her, I met Diane, Laura [Dern]’s mother, in a play on Broadway…We lived at 320 West 87th Street in the city, which was about a block and a half up from West End Avenue, and down from the Thalia Theatre where all of the fucking arthouse movies were and the Unemployment Office was. That was when I lived there and after our auditions for the Actor’s Studio I became a member. Then two days later, Mr. Kazan asked me to come to his office. I came and he put me under contract and he had four other people, five with me. Under contract were Rip Torn, Pat Hingle, Geraldine Page, Bruce Dern and Lee Remick. I was kind of the baby of that group.
So I started my career with him and then after two and a half years, Lee — Mr. Strasberg — allowed me to come to California. I wondered why I was still in New York driving the fucking cab. I mean, I guess my first movie, From The Edge, well, I did two plays. One was called The Shadow Of A Gunman, which was an Actor’s Studio production but on Broadway, only one of two times they ever did it. They did The Three Sisters about six years later. We did Shadow Of A Gunman…then I did Sweet Bird Of Youth for Mr. Kazan…Then Kazan put me in my first movie, Wild River, which he shot in Tennessee and we shot with Montgomery Cliff…Then I drove a cab for a year and they finally said, “Okay, go to Hollywood.”
When I did, Kazan was with me as I got ready to go to the airport to leave for good. Diane was on the road because she was in the road company version of The Fantasticks, when they finally took the play The Fantasticks on the road out of the Village, she did the part when they went to San Francisco…Kaz grabbed me and said to me, “Now look, when you get there, you’re going to be the fifth cowboy from the right for about a decade. Don’t let that get to you. You know what running is all about, you know what endurance is. It’s an endurance contest. But do me a favor and do you a favor, you be the most interesting goddamn fifth cowboy from the right anybody ever fucking shot, and always be real. Make it authentic. The problem is you’re not a conventional leading man and nobody’s going to discover who you really are as an actor until you’re in your late 60’s, because you have a tendency to become the characters you play. There’s no immediate identification of that, you’re a movie star or anything like that.”
So that’s why it took me so long [to make it], and then it caught up with me when Alexander Payne hit on me [for Nebraska]. I realized that I had a chance to have a super role as anybody ever gave me. That was the beginning and then I met Quentin, I’d never met him. He said, “Would you do a cameo for me for a day in Django Unchained?” I said, “Yes, I’m down for that.” Then he wrote this role for me…and that’s where I am today.
B: Let me put it this way, that was ’58ish. In 1974 I did a movie called Smile which starred me and Barbara Feldon. It was a comedy, Michael Ritchie directed it, it was written by Jerry Belson. He and Garry Marshall wrote Love, American Style, Blackhawks…Belson wrote a very funny movie. It’s about the California Junior Miss Pageant. When it was over, David Picker was a producer, he was the head of United Artists and replaced by Mike Medavoy. They gave us an opening because they didn’t like David…
We opened in Fresno. Driving home from Fresno, we were in the car, David Picker, Michael Ritchie, myself and my agent Fred Specter and the limousine driver. And Fred said, “You know, David, I have a chance to put Bruce into a long-form television series,” which would have been the first, “and he could make a lot of money.” David said, “Fred, let me tell you something. As a producer, first of all, Bruce you shouldn’t do it and, Fred, you shouldn’t put him in it.” And Fred said, “Why? What are you kidding me?” He said, “Bruce, as a producer I never buy anything that I get for free in my living room.” He meant, “Don’t be on television selling shit. Don’t be doing this and that, be known as a character that you play or something like that, but not in weekly thing.” You know?
Sure. So your book came out about 10 years ago and you mentioned in there that James Lipton never made things right with you. Has he done that in the past ten years or is he still a bad guy?
B: The reason I thought he was a bad guy was he never wanted me on the show…I’m an Actor’s Studio member and I have been since 1968. He would never have me on the show and then somebody pitched Laura and I together and he didn’t want us. Finally, the week before Christmas in 2014, when Nebraska was making its rounds and everything, he had Laura and I on together.
One of the first students when I taught years ago in the late ’60s and early ’70s, that I ever had was an actress named Ellen McRae. Then she married a guy named Neil Burstyn and she became Ellen Burtsyn…It was fabulous for me and Laura. You know, he’s going to do his thing, but you know something I didn’t know about James Lipton?
B: Have you ever seen him in person?
I haven’t, no.
B: Okay, well, he’s kind of stooped over and bent a little bit and walks slowly…and [is] kind of bent like that, because in 1960 he had a chance to make the United States Olympic Team as one of our three equestrian jumpers. And in the Olympic Trials, his horse rolled over and crushed him.
B: It crushed his back and all, so that’s why he’s all fucked up. People never do a story on him about that. Someday if you want an interview, you ought to go and tell him I said that he should, because he’s one of the more interesting guys I’ve ever met in my life. Really fabulous and he would make a very good interview. The only reason I didn’t like him was I thought that he should have Actor’s Studio members be on the show…and I understand what they did. So they started putting people on the show that were not Actor’s Studio members. That’s what pissed me off, but we settled that up.
Now I consider him — he sends me Christmas cards, he’s posted on my work and he absolutely loved Nebraska. He loves Laura’s work, he loved Wild. I’m really lucky because two years ago, she went to the Oscars with me. Last year I went with Laura on Wild. This year we were both in things, but neither one [of us] got close to getting nominated…
But I thought certainly the movie [Wild] was one of the ten better movies of the year — give me a fucking break.