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Bruce Dern

Bruce Dern: A Memoir

Christopher Fryer
Robert Crane
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 324
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  • Book Info
    Bruce Dern
    Book Description:

    One of Hollywood's biggest personalities, Bruce Dern is not afraid to say what he thinks. He has left an indelible mark on numerous projects, from critically acclaimed films to made-for-TV movies and television series. His notable credits include The Great Gatsby (1974), The 'Burbs (1989), Monster (2003), Django Unchained (2012), and Nebraska (2013), for which he won the Best Actor award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. He also earned Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor in Coming Home (1978) and for Best Actor in Nebraska (2013).

    In Bruce Dern: A Memoir, Christopher Fryer and Robert Crane help the outspoken star frame the fascinating tale of his life in Hollywood. Dern details the challenges he faced as an artist in a cutthroat business, his struggle against typecasting, and his thoughts on and relationships with other big names in the industry, including Elia Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Bob Dylan, Matt Damon, Jane Fonda, John Wayne, and Tom Hanks. He also explores the impact of his fame on his family and discusses his unique relationship with his daughter, actress Laura Dern.

    Edgy and uncensored, this memoir takes readers on a wild ride, offering an insider's view of the last fifty years in Hollywood.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4714-7
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    Christopher Fryer and Robert Crane

    Sometime in 2004, Bruce Dern received a script for a film titledNebraska, which was to be directed by Alexander Payne. At the time, Payne had only three credits,Citizen Ruth, Election, andAbout Schmidt, the first starring Bruce’s daughter, Laura, and the last, his pal Jack Nicholson. Both actors stoked Bruce’s interest by proclaiming that there wasn’t an actor alive who wouldn’t want to work with Payne.Nebraskacenters on Woody Grant, a taciturn, alcoholic old coot who thinks he’s won a million bucks in a sweepstakes and is determined to walk from his Billings, Montana, home to Lincoln,...

  4. 1 How Does This Happen, Bruce Dern?
    (pp. 1-7)

    I never dreamed of Hollywood. I never thought of movies. The goal was just to go to New York. I saw movies, but I knew that my way, and any real actor’s way, was to go through the theater. The movies were a last resort because they took another skill I hadn’t developed yet, which is working in front of a camera. I didn’t understand how to do that. But I understood the proscenium. I understood a live audience, communicating in front of people. So I was good enough to go to New York. I would get on the Trailways...

  5. 2 Dinner with the Derns
    (pp. 8-17)

    Where I grew up, the houses all have names. It’s not 85 Main Street, it’s Craig E. Lee. Burke and Craig. Burke and Locke was our house in Glencoe, Illinois. A huge structure with all these bedrooms, and the third floor wasn’t even heated because everybody relied on either coal furnaces, which we had, or heating oil, which was rationed. It was pretty grand. My bedroom had a view of Lake Michigan. The property was three acres. There’s a picture of it in a historical book.

    Down the street there was Andrew MacLeish’s house. He was my grandfather’s father who...

  6. 3 You Can Train All You Want, but the Watch Don’t Lie
    (pp. 18-32)

    I went to Penn because I was on a railroad to Penn. My dad went there. My brother, Jack, had just graduated from there. When he left Penn, my brother was a big student campaign manager for Harold Stassen and involved in his career. This pissed me off because Adlai Stevenson was a friend of the family. I wasn’t a Republican or a Democrat, but I was certainly for Adlai because he was a bud and he believed what he said. He was what he was. Jack didn’t get that because Jack was a follower. Jack was never a dreamer,...

  7. 4 The Name Is Stern, Bruce Stern
    (pp. 33-43)

    Shadow of a Gunmanopens and there are two reviewers in New York that mean something: Walter Kerr of theNew York Herald Tribuneand Brooks Atkinson at theNew York Times. These are esteemed theater critics who have never been equaled in the history of the theater since then. Brooks Atkinson wrote a review that said it’s not the best play O’Casey wrote, but it’s damn good. It’s not the best interpretation ever directed or acted that’s been on Broadway, but it’s the Actors Studio. It has tremendous performances. It’s the greatest collective piece of work you’re going to...

  8. 5 Sick Brucie
    (pp. 44-56)

    Lee Strasberg told me to get on a plane the next day. Mike Gruskoff, my first Hollywood agent, met me at the airport and told me I was going to have a reading for a TV show calledSurfside Sixthat afternoon. Gruskoff drove me over to Warner Bros. I auditioned, went out, and sat in the car. Gruskoff went back inside and came out later and said, “You got the work. You report seven thirty tomorrow morning, but now you’ve got to go over to wardrobe.” He drove me. I had no car. My wife was in San Francisco....

  9. 6 I’m Having Bill Smithers’s Career
    (pp. 57-76)

    In January and February, I started to panic. It wasn’t actual panic, it was just worry: how do I get off the television train and get onto the movie train where I had had a taste of major motion pictures? In March, I got a phone call to meet a guy named Roger Corman at his house. I didn’t know him, but I’d seen his movies, and I was very struck byThe Pit and the Pendulum, because it looked like a $10 million movie to me. I didn’t know it wasn’t until I got to know him. Roger said,...

  10. 7 “You Are Not a Leading Man”
    (pp. 77-82)

    It’s the week before Christmas, 1968, and my agent calls: “Bruce, you won’t believe this. I got a call from Sydney Pollack.”

    I said, “What are you talking about? Sydney Pollack? I just finished with him in January.”

    He said, “He’s doing another movie, and he wants you in it. He says he apologizes because it’s not much of a part. It’s certainly not an improvement over the last part, but he offered you the Scott Wilson role and you didn’t want to take it because you didn’t want to be in Yugoslavia five months.”

    “Do you blame me?”


  11. 8 Star of the Second-Best Two-Headed-Transplant Movie of 1971
    (pp. 83-87)

    In the summer of 1969, I meet Andrea Beckett in a class I’m teaching. Lee asks me that summer if I would teach at the Strasberg Institute he’s opening in L.A.

    Andrea went from a town in North Dakota to New York to become an actress and a model. She did it the hard way. She didn’t know anybody. She had a little acting class in high school. She modeled for Bonwit’s and magazines. She took acting classes and then came to California. She was a widow at twenty-four years old. She had married her high school sweetheart, who later...

  12. 9 Jack Job
    (pp. 88-95)

    It’s early 1970, and Andrea and I have been married three months. I’m doing a TV show on a rainy, pissing-down, horrible, thunder, lightning, rainy cold January day at Fox calledThe Land of the Giantsfor Irwin Allen, who would later go on to doThe Poseidon AdventureandThe Towering Inferno. But now he’s doingLand of the Giants.* He’s a nice man.

    I get a phone call. In those days, a phone call meant you had to go to the wall of Stage 9 and pick up a phone. Jack Nicholson says, “Dernser.”

    “Yes sir.”

    “What are...

  13. 10 Saying No to Coppola
    (pp. 96-106)

    Amonth after thatTwo-Lane Blacktopincident, I got a letter from Fred Specktor, who was at William Morris.

    He said, “Dear Bruce. I’ve watched your career for about eight years. And it’s my opinion that you have been both marketed and sold wrong sinceMarnie. I’d like you to come in and talk to me. Would you do that?”

    I called him up, and he said, “Why don’t you come in tomorrow?”

    And I said, “Why don’t I come in now?”

    Before I saw him, I wrote down names on two index cards. He still has them in his desk....

  14. 11 I Killed John Wayne
    (pp. 107-120)

    I passed onThe Godfather, not because I didn’t want to be in it. Of course I wanted to be in it. But I was so angry that Francis Coppola wanted to use me as a wedge to get Robert Duvall to work for no money in a part that I knew he was going to play, but Francis was fucking with him. I hate that. They used me the same way inCuckoo’s NestandJaws.

    OnCuckoo’s Nest, Jack Nicholson told me, “Derns, I’m going to do the role. But they’re going to try and get me down...

  15. 12 I’m Still Sorry, Burt Reynolds
    (pp. 121-129)

    Bob Rafelson had always kept an eye on my career since seeing me in 1959 and ’60 on Broadway. He liked my work inDrive, He Said, and he had just seen bothSilent RunningandThe Cowboys. He said, “I have a script that I’m going to give you calledThe Philosopher King,* written by a guy named Jacob Brackman. There are two roles in it. I’m thinking of three guys to play two roles: Jack Nicholson, you, and Michael Parks.”

    This was very odd to me, because I knew Michael Parks pretty well. I wasn’t a good, sit-down,...

  16. 13 Saying No to Woody Allen
    (pp. 130-139)

    In December of 1972 Stuart Rosenberg is directingThe Laughing Policeman, starring Walter Matthau, and they want me to star in it. They offer me $35,000. Matthau got $350,000. I got thirty-five grand. That means I was about one-tenth as good as Matthau.

    Walter Matthau was a bit of a bully, not to me and not to the actors, but to the people behind the camera. Or as he referred to them, “the little people.” He wasn’t rude to them or mean to them, he just would pick on people like a wardrobe person for no reason at all. He’d...

  17. 14 And I Said No to Bertolucci
    (pp. 140-147)

    Everybody knows I like buttercream frosting on birthday cake. In May of ’74, I get a birthday cake and a manila envelope with a script delivered to my house. The frosting on the cake says, “Smile.” I don’t know what it means. So I smile. I open the envelope and the script says,Smile.* I sit down. I start to read it. I go through it in ninety minutes. Done. I read every word. All the liner notes. Everything. I get to the next to the last page. “And now, 1974’s California Young American Miss is ...” You turn the...

  18. 15 Le Dern Hot
    (pp. 148-152)

    I went to France to doThe Twistin 1975. We arrived in Paris on Armistice Day, the eleventh of November. Everybody said, “Oh, great, you’re going to the City of Light.” Well, they must have meant electric light, because we got there on Armistice Day and I left the twenty-fifth of January and I never saw the fucking sun. I never saw it. I just saw grim, wall-to-wall gray. But it was fun, because it was director Claude Chabrol. Stéphane Audran, Claude’s wife, and I were the two stars, along with Ann-Margret. Chabrol was wonderful and a big devotee...

  19. 16 Dr. Death El Demento
    (pp. 153-173)

    One day after New Year’s, 1976, I come home from work, and in Paris at the hotel, I get a package with a manila envelope and a bunch of pages in it but no cover page, no first page, no letter. It was just script pages without numbers on it. No phone call, no nothing. So, I didn’t look at it. Andrea and I went and ate dinner at Maxim’s, where the violinist serenaded us with Andrea’s favorite song, “Fascination,” on her birthday.

    I went to work the next morning. We were working out in the Bois de Vincennes. It...

  20. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  21. 17 I Can’t Make It through a Hobbit Movie
    (pp. 174-181)

    InComing Home, Jon Voight was a fabulous partner, as was Jane Fonda, and the partnership between the two of them was wonderful.* In one scene, filmed at the Rancho Los Amigos VA Hospital, in Downey, California, there is a rap session. It’s where guys are talking with their psychiatrist, who’s the real VA psychiatrist, and Hal Ashby asks if he could film it. Jon has a big speech, which is important to the movie. The topic for the day is, would any one of you go back? Remember the movie takes place in ’73 or ’74. We shot it...

  22. 18 Briefer’s Better
    (pp. 182-187)

    A lifetime achievement award is not something that Bruce Dern would aspire to or applaud. Lifetime achievement awards go to guys who rescue people off mountaintops or carry people out of burning buildings. On stage at the Kennedy Center Honors, it’s nice to see entertainers up there, but my God. Two days ago in Pasadena, some lady stuck her kid in a washing machine. Whoever found that kid and pulled him out, that’s a lifetime achievement.

    My lifetime achievement will be to get to triple digits agewise. That’d be neat. I’d like to go to a hundred. What do they...

  23. 19 Three Days, Two Million
    (pp. 188-193)

    People ask, “When you’re not making a movie, what are your hobbies?” My hobbies are getting ready to bring it every day I work. Some days I’ll run longer, but I stress myself every day with some kind of Mickey Mouse time trial, usually six hundred meters to one thousand meters. Nobody knows what I do. Nobody gives a shit except me. I write it down—little chicken scratches in a book—it says, you know, 5:59.7. No one knows what that means, but I know what it means. I know how many RPMs that is. I know what my...

  24. 20 Glencoe Asshole
    (pp. 194-202)

    The play doesn’t run long on Broadway, and when I get home I get a phone call from Marty Krofft saying, “I want to bring a script to your house. Jon Voight said he won’t do my movie. He recommended you.”

    He brings theMiddle Age Crazyscript.* He also brings his wife, Christa, and introduces Andrea and me. He says, “This is Christa. She was the third Playmate of the Year. She was also Miss World. And she’s a Nazi, and I’m a Canadian Jew.” Sergei, our dog, is barking at him. And he says, “I’ll pay you $350,000....

  25. 21 It’s a Maud, Maud, Maud, Maud World
    (pp. 203-209)

    I didTattoobecause I didn’t get a movie I wanted to do, which wasFour Seasons, an Alan Alda movie with Carol Burnett and Jack Weston. Alan Alda sawMiddle Age Crazyand, according to the people that watched it with him, laughed his ass off and loved it and called Fred Specktor about it. But the producer thought I wasn’t able to be funny. So they cast Len Cariou. I don’t know Len Cariou. I’ve not seen him in a movie. I sure as hell didn’t seeFour Seasons. But I didn’t get the role, and I wanted...

  26. 22 Cycle Savage Meets Gumby
    (pp. 210-215)

    I hostedSaturday Night Livetwice—in February 1982 and March 1983. Fred called me up and said, “I’ve got a phone call from a producer, Dick Ebersol. Lorne Michaels isn’t with the show this year, and Ebersol wants to know if you want to hostSaturday Night Live.”

    I said, “Absolutely out of the question. I’m not a host. Tell him that.”

    He said, “He wants to talk to you.”

    I said, “Put him on.”

    Ebersol started with how when he was in high school or grade school he saw me run. He gave me the whole history of...

  27. 23 A Manilow for All Seasons
    (pp. 216-224)

    That Championship Seasonbegan shooting with George C. Scott.* I don’t know who was playing my part. But then, George C. Scott was out, and the film fell apart. When the producers came back with Robert Mitchum, they offered a role to me. In the play, Richard Dysart played my role, but he was not involved in the movie. Paul Sorvino’s the only actor who was in the play and the movie. It was a wonderful experience for me. I really liked Jason Miller. He was like a coach, a Vince Lombardi for me. He was there for me every...

  28. 24 The Final Frontier, for Now
    (pp. 225-229)

    Space, based on James Michener’s book about the history of the NASA program, was a miniseries—thirteen hours, five nights, a very ambitious project. I was excited about it because there were good people involved. James Michener, even though he was in his late eighties, was a live wire. His Hawaiian wife was really a spitfire. He was still actively teaching at the University of Texas when we were shootingSpace. We started in May and finished in October. We had two crews shooting simultaneously: one crew was directed by Joe Sargent, the other by Lee Phillips. Joe Sargent had...

  29. 25 The Encyclopedia Brucetannica
    (pp. 230-242)

    I played a blind man inBig Town. I liked the role. Laura had played a blind girl inMask, and I asked her how tough it was.

    She said, “Well, you’re the one who told me what to do.”

    So I got dark glasses with blacked-out Coke-bottle lenses.

    The prop person said, “Don’t you want it to look like you can’t see, but you can see?”

    I said, “No, black them out. I don’t want to have my eyes sealed shut. Just make black glasses that I can’t see out of.”

    It was hard, but it was fun. I...

  30. 26 Hitting the Wall
    (pp. 243-254)

    The eighties died out for me. At the end of that decade, my career was trickling down into an area of not knowing what was going to happen next. The eighties ended up in what I felt was an unsuccessful, unfulfilled period for me. I didn’t know where I fit in or what was going to happen next in my acting career, or in my running career, or in my life. I really didn’t know what was going on. Andrea was just starting to get into her painting and becoming a little bit of an entity. People were starting to...

  31. 27 Apocalypse Marriage, Redux
    (pp. 255-271)

    Mrs. Munckwas tough, because Diane wrote and directed it.* Diane was playing herself as an elderly lady, and Kelly Preston was playing Diane as a young lady. Diane and I were dealing with a tragedy in our own life, and Kelly was playing Diane going through that tragedy. Laura was in Toronto at the same time doing a movie with Vanessa Redgrave and Raul Julia, who was not feeling well.†

    Diane cast Shelley Winters, who was also not feeling well, in the movie. She happens to be Laura’s godmother.* Travolta came to the location in Toronto having just finished...

  32. 28 Making a Monster
    (pp. 272-278)

    In 2001, I filmedThe Glass House.* I didn’t have much to do in it, but I thought I was good. I liked the director, Dan Sackheim.Glass Housewas the first feature he ever directed. He was good. I liked Leelee a great deal. When Leelee was twelve, she came to Hollywood. She’s already a bit of a dame, but she’s the whole package; sexy, sweet, funny, and incredibly bright. She’s got a lot of principles. But she’s out there. Has some ability though very little training as an actress. When Leelee was fourteen, she played Joan of Arc...

  33. 29 Going Right for the Jugular
    (pp. 279-287)

    We are our moments. And the inspired ones have those moments. I got a lot of them. Robards had a lot of them. Jack’s got a lot of them. Brando’s got one fabulous moment in a terrible movie calledThe Chase. He plays a sheriff and he’s chasing Redford. Angie Dickinson plays Brando’s wife. He’s sitting in the sheriff’s office. She’s sitting across from him. They’re alone. He’s overweight in this movie. I think it was made in ’66. It’s the beginning of the scene. He’s thinking of how to catch this rich man’s son, Redford. He needs his wife’s...

  34. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 288-290)
    C. F. and R. C.
  35. Index
    (pp. 291-298)