On a glorious autumn afternoon, Bruce Dern is cruising down Westwood Boulevard on his way home to Malibu. “Look there,” he says, one hand on the wheel of his white Jeep, the other gesturing toward a theater where his daughter Laura’s steamy movie, Wild at Heart, is playing. “It’s incredible—her name above the title. When I was 23, I was on Broadway [Sweet Bird of Youth] and thought I was doing good. But I look at her and can’t believe it. In my time she’d have been a Sandra Dee or a Kim Novak.”
These days, in fact, Laura, 23, isn’t the only Dern whose name is up in lights. Her mom, actress Diane Ladd, from whom Bruce was divorced 22 years ago, is co-starring in Wild at Heart. And at 54. Bruce is being rediscovered by audiences and critics alike in the stylish After Dark, My Sweet. He plays Uncle Bud, a sleazy ex-cop turned kidnapper. “A fine actor’s high water mark,” is how the Los Angeles Times described his complex and provocative performance.
“He’s one of the few actors who can take a twisted guy like Uncle Bud and make you fall in love with him,” says his lithe, blond daughter, Laura. Of course Dern has had lots of practice playing the sociopath. Although his most notable screen credits include the betrayed husband and Vietnam vet in Coming Home and the small-town beauty pageant judge in Smile, he has, over the years, specialized in off-the-wall villains like the unbalanced pilot in Black Sunday. Laura finds it particularly amusing that her dad has made a name for himself playing crazies. “I mean, it’s weird,” she says, “because off-screen he’s basically so normal. Maybe,” she theorizes, “he got it [his craziness] out of his system in front of the camera.”
Then again, maybe not. In his normalcy, Dern seems nearly as compulsive as some of the wild-eyed characters he has played: He likes football so much that he rarely misses a Rams home game. He runs seven miles a day come rain, shine or California quake. (He calculates that he has run 104,000 miles in his lifetime; he knows this because he has scrupulously logged his daily runs since age 27.) He balances his own books, and—according to his wife, ex-model Andrea Beckett—he has his finances planned “into the next century.” Although Dern denies being compulsive, his wife clarifies this: “His compulsiveness doesn’t get in the way—except during Monday Night Football.”
Dern grew up in Winnetka, Ill., the second of three kids born to a blue-blooded family that all but disowned him when he became an actor. His father, John, was Adlai Stevenson’s law partner; his grandfather, a former governor of Utah, had also been FDR’s Secretary of War; and his mother, Jean, was the granddaughter of the Carson, Pirie, Scott department stores’ co-founder. His parents drank too hard and traveled too much for his liking. “My governess practically raised me,” he says.
A high school and college track star, Dern majored in journalism at the University of Pennsylvania. However, disillusioned with his major and failing to make the 1956 Olympic track team, he dropped out to pursue a heady new love: acting. Dern was attracted by the mystique and rebelliousness of James Dean and Marlon Brando. “Their movies spoke to me,” he recalls. Soon he took a wife, Marie Pierce, and they moved to New York City, where he studied at the prestigious Actors Studio.
No matter Dern’s success, his parents could never quite accept his ambitions. In 1972, shortly before his movie Silent Running opened. Bruce asked to borrow $500 from his mother. “Why don’t you give up all this nonsense,” she told him. “Come back to Chicago, and you and Andrea can live in the house with me.” To this day he marvels at her words: “I’d done 22 movies and 116 TV shows. And the next day I was about to win the National Film Critics Award for Drive, He Said.”
If Dern’s career had a rocky start, it was nothing compared to his private life. In New York his marriage broke up, and Dern fell for stunning actress Diane Ladd, whom he met in off-Broadway’s Orpheus Descending. The couple married in June 1960. The following November a daughter was born, and eventually they headed for Los Angeles, where Dern won a role on TV’s Stoney Burke. Soon, however, tragedy struck. One evening while Bruce and Diane were out, their 18-month-old daughter, left in the care of a teenage maid, fell into the swimming pool and drowned. “It was awful,” he says. “It was very, very tough. I don’t think Diane and I had a chance after that. But out of that came Laura, which would never have happened otherwise.”
By April of 1967, two months after Laura’s birth, Dern and Ladd had separated permanently. Two years later he married Andrea, then 28, a widow who was an acting student of his. Today, as the pair sit in the sun-room of their Malibu beach house, Dern, tall, intense and oddly out of sync with the dainty wicker furniture and floral cushions, discusses how they’ve survived. “Andrea’s my best friend, and I’m hers,” he says. But more to the point, perhaps, is the deal they made early on—that while he was on location, they’d never spend a night apart. “You have too much time on your hands,” he explains bluntly. And Andrea, a painter and decorator, chimes in, “Let’s face it, there are some good-looking babes out there. So I said, ‘Fine, I’m going along.’ ”
Happily for all concerned, Andrea and Laura get along “like girlfriends,” Andrea says, smiling. “We go out for lunch and laugh and tell dirty jokes. We really have a blast.” Bruce and his daughter enjoy a terrific rapport as well, but for years that wasn’t the case. At first, says Andrea, “Diane was a pain in the ass. She probably had her reasons, but she would make it hard for him, and that did affect the relationship with Laura.” Dern adds more diplomatically, “I guess Andrea and I at first both felt threatened, because the more time we spent with Laura, the more time her mother was involved. Diane’s a good dame and a wonderful actress—we get along now—but it was rough.”
By the time Laura was 12 and had started to take acting seriously, her relationship with her father began to change. “We had something to talk about other than school,” she explains. Besides, “I started liking boys, so there were things that you’d ask Dad that you wouldn’t ask Mom. And then when I hit 16 and started to drive, I visited him more, and our relationship blossomed. For the last few years, Dad has been one of my closest friends.”
Dern takes pleasure in that closeness. Like any doting dad, he worries about his daughter, and he understands only too well the dips and turns a movie career can take. So he has offered up career counseling from his obsessive runner’s heart. “Don’t worry about the five-, 10-and 15-mile marks,” he remembers telling Laura. “It’s how you finish. And most important, pace yourself. Because this is one race you’re going to be running for the rest of your life.” For Dern, that’s been winning advice.
—Marjorie Rosen, Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles