With the oldies, Newman and Redford, and the kids like Travolta, Nolte, Gere et al, Hollywood casting directors are being stampeded by beefcake. Yet when it comes to nut-cake, there seems to be only Bruce Dern. “But I’m tired of it,” he says of his Hollywood run of deranged roles, including Black Sunday and Coming Home (for which he was just nominated for an Oscar). “They won’t let up—they just don’t think I’m funny, amusing and quick,” he complains. So, to make his case, Dern skipped town (Malibu) to return to Broadway this week, after 19 years, to play the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis in a biodrama called Strangers. It’s nice, he says, to portray a character of “charm, delight, energy and boorishness. And this is the first time I’ve gotten the girl.” That may be an impish exaggeration, but Dern, 42, is entitled to say, “It sure beats what I had to do in Coming Home.” Whether the Hollywood-typed, shell-shocked Viet vet will become a matinee idol on Broadway is uncertain, but one out-of-town critic offered hope: “Dern elicits the nurturing instinct in women.” Certainly his third wife, Andrea, 38, agrees.
Dern runs (50 miles a week, 250 career marathons) as compulsively as Sinclair Lewis walked. He bets on pro football while Lewis wagered on boxing, and emulates the writer’s hard-driving work hours. On the other hand, though Lewis drank too much booze, Dern guzzles Pepsi. (“My parents drank and smoked themselves to death,” he explains.) Both had fathers who scoffed at their sons’ creative professions, leaving both sons with psychic wounds. Lewis worked out his troubles in a sanatorium, which Dern deals with in a straitjacket scene. “It’s one of the reasons I took the part,” says Bruce. “But it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Born into a distinguished family (his grandfather was FDR’s Secretary of War, his great-uncle is poet Archibald MacLeish), Dern was brought up in a 20-bedroom house in Winnetka, Ill. He was a rebellious middle child because “nobody listened to me. It’s why I became an actor. I was desperate to communicate.” At 8 Bruce was sent to camp, “where everybody was three years older—I started to run to survive.” He left the University of Pennsylvania in his junior year after being tossed off the track team for wearing long sideburns. His father died when he was in drama school and “never lived to see my career.”
After two marriages (one to Diane Ladd) and a slew of B-minus biker movies, Dern began teaching acting on the side in L.A. There he met and in 1969 wed student Andrea Beckett. “We both had come through great tragedies,” he says. “Her husband had been killed in an accident and one of my daughters had drowned in a swimming pool.” They often see Laura, 12, his other daughter by Ladd, but as for another child, Dern confesses, “I’m too selfish with my time and Andrea’s. I messed up my first two marriages, and I was running around,” he continues. “But I was looking for Andrea. She is understanding but brutally honest with me, extremely tough. Also she’s a clotheshorse, which I like. She just bargained down the fur salesman at Bergdorf’s $500. I’m so proud.”
Speaking for herself, Andrea says: “I was afraid to talk to him for the first two weeks,” but she soon succumbed to his vulnerable side. Typically, he ran 50 miles the day before their wedding nine years ago. “I had to hose him off,” she says.
They live in one of the biggest houses in Malibu Colony and have another at Lake Tahoe that Dern frequents midweek: “I drive there alone, spend the night, sit and stare at the mountains and drive right back.” He backs no political causes and appalled co-star Jane Fonda by telling her he doesn’t vote. The Derns would go to more Hollywood parties, but, he says, “We’re not invited.” Mostly he hangs out “with Andrea’s girlfriends.” His best actor pals are Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson, although “I don’t see either often enough.” The relationship seems as much competitive as buddy-buddy.
Walking back from the theater one night with Andrea on his arm, he looked at the sky and howled to her delight: “Stars! You want to see a star? Go to Sundance!” The outburst is only half in jest. He plans to go back to Hollywood after his hour upon the stage. “I know I’m in the Superbowl,” he declares, “and that I’ll get the roles I want eventually. I’m not sorry I’m not Robert Redford.” Indeed, he gave a much more persuasive performance in The Great Gatsby than Redford, and all he’s envious of is the box office. A line from his new play sticks in Dern’s head. “Sinclair Lewis said, ‘I don’t want to be quoted, I want to be loved.’ ” For himself, says Bruce: “I don’t want to be loved—I want to be seen.”