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Show Business: Will Bruce Dern Become a Star?

5 minute read

There is a human time bomb ticking away in Hollywood. He is called Bruce Dern. One of these days he is going to light up the sky. How, nobody knows. At 39, with a suitcase of rave clippings, Dern is poised to become a star. Trouble is, he has been in that position for a couple of years, ever since he scored a personal hit as the bellicose Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. But the brass ring has never seemed to get any nearer. His friend Jack Nicholson comforted him by declaring publicly that Dern is his only real rival. Even Alfred Hitchcock is compassionate. Dern recently wound up his role as the ne’er-do-well anti-hero in the master’s Family Plot. Hitchcock promised: “You’re going to be the first actor I’ve ever made into a star.”

Bruce sure hopes so. “I need only one hit and I’m home free,” he reasons. This year should be his. He has landed three major roles, including the Hitchcock film. He can be seen currently as Big Bob Freedlander, the Jaycee mobile-home salesman in Smile, a comedy manqué about a teen-age beauty contest. Next month, he starts work on Won Ton Ton, a farce about the 1920’s legendary wonder dog, Rin Tin Tin, in which he plays an old-line Hollywood director. But keeping busy is not the only answer. Says Agent Freddie Fields: “Bruce needs to make love to a woman on the screen.” In his 19-year career, Bruce has only kissed a woman once. She was Karen Black in Gatsby. “And then the script had me break her nose —very romantic,” says Dern. Other stars, like Gene Hackman, lack sex appeal, but Hackman makes up for it by displaying an appealing self-doubt.

Dern is different—so macho that the only things in his face that move are his eyes, navy blue and sparkling, and even they do not blink. His icy authority has lifted his more than 100 character portraits in TV shows and some 30 mostly mediocre movies from the mundane to the fascinating. Whether Dern played a mad doctor in Two-Headed Transplant, a hillbilly husband in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a bi-sexual boy friend in Bloody Mama, he projected an anomie that was almost aggressive. Onscreen, he draws attention to himself in a curiously negative way, as if he were a marked man. Who else, for example, would allow himself to be cast as the only actor ever to kill John Wayne onscreen? In 1971, while Dern was still stuck in second-rank roles, he signed on in The Cowboys as Wayne’s assassin. “Dern,” said the Duke kindly, “you’re gonna be hated everywhere in the world for this one.”

Late Bloomer. It was a gaffe that kept Dern struggling overlong in the pits of villainy. The fact that he was willing to knock off the daddy of the screen may have come from frustration. When he played one of his first bit parts on Broadway in 1957, Director Elia Kazan warned him, “You’ll be a late bloomer.” Those were hard words to take for a man on the lam from Chicago’s Gold Coast. Dern is the son of Midwestern nobility (his grandfather was chairman of Carson Pirie Scott & Co. department stores, and his uncle is the poet Archibald MacLeish). Bruce was so at odds with his family that at age six he took to compulsive lying. Sent to a tough camp in the Canadian wilderness to be straightened out, he returned hurt and resentful. As a 14-year-old schoolboy at Choate, he was set upon by school bullies. “Give up or I’ll break your leg,” said one. “Go ahead and break it,” said Dern, even though the resulting break could have jeopardized his avocation, long-distance running. It was not until he arrived at the University of Pennsylvania and saw James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause that he found what he really wanted to do.

Despite a breezy manner and a continuous stream of repartee, Dern has a cutting edge that makes people around him wary. Says his sister Jean: “Bruce has a screw loose.” He still likes to fib. Last July, he stunned the set of Smile one day by announcing that Nixon had pardoned Ehrlichman, Haldeman and Dean. He showed Nicholson a bogus bank statement that made him appear to be a multimillionaire. In fact, Dern’s mother left him a trust fund from which he draws only a small income. He likes to tell acquaintances he has been married five times. Fortunately, his third wife, Andrea Beckett, to whom he has been married for six years, is secure enough to be tolerant.

“At the heart of Bruce there is a profound sensitivity,” maintains his friend Robert Redford. “He’s too sensitive to show others how sensitive he is.” Running is the perfect outlet for his frustrations. Every evening, he does three miles on the highway near his Malibu home. He is even looking forward to his 40th birthday; then he can enter the senior Olympics. That is at least straightforward competition. “You can’t bullshit a stop watch,” he says wistfully. “Either you make it or you don’t.”

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