“I’m not a good-looking guy. I’d give myself a B-minus, whereas Robert Redford is an A.” Actor Bruce Dern was speaking, and what he saw in the mirror was what he got in roles—28 mostly B-minus movies that made him a name of sorts playing weirdos in titles like Cycle Savages and The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant.
Then, finally, at 37, Dern landed his first big-budget picture, The Great Gatsby. Though the film has drawn very mixed reviews, there have been almost universal raves for Dern’s evocation of Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s surly, sybaritic husband. Even Gatsby scenarist Francis Ford Coppola had the lèse majesté to remark that the movie would have been improved at least 30% if Dern had played the title role instead of Redford. So, if Gatsby produces any phenomenon (other than, as someone cracked, half-empty movie houses) it may well be Bruce Dern.
“I’ve waited 18 years for the chance to play a leading man—and no more wacko roles,” Dern says triumphantly. He pictures himself in off-center leads like Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino, but Paramount’s powerful studio chief, Bob Evans, flatteringly sees Bruce “as larger—on the style of a Redford or Warren Beatty. He’s going to be a big star.” For now, Dern can barely believe that the scripts he gets post-Gatsby have parts where “I actually have a wife and play the lead.” He has already signed for three pictures, including the Paramount western Posse.
The irony of Dern’s career is that he became typecast for all those years in low-life parts when, in fact, he was born to the Fitzgeraldian uppercrust. His paternal grandfather was the governor of Utah, his father a prominent Chicago lawyer and partner of the elder Adlai Stevenson. On the maternal side there was the family department store—Carson Pirie Scott—which Bruce might conceivably have taken over. He started out all right with a couple of years boarding away at Choate. It was there that he came to “know the Buchanan game” and to date nubile Daisys, only to be rebuffed because “I bored them.”
Dern’s decision to break with the Buchanan game plan came when he was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. Though a promising half-miler (he nearly qualified for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team), Dern was bounced from the Penn track squad for refusing to cut his sideburns. So he dropped out to emulate the actor-idol behind the sideburns: James Dean. Though his family cut him off, Dern worked himself up through driving a taxi, television guest roles (“I was shot by Matt Dillon more than anyone else on TV”), all those bike-and-drug flicks and, finally, to a few more pretentious limited-audience films like Jack Nicholson’s Drive, He Said. If nothing else, Dern’s performances, while eccentric, were always arresting and professional.
Off-camera, the ex-jock continued to jog eight miles a day (he still does), didn’t smoke or drink but did have one vice. “I was a marrier,” he says. “I felt I had to marry every girl I communicated with or fell in love with.” Then, 4½ years and two marriages ago, he settled down—for good, he believes—with his third wife, the former Andrea Beckett. They met while he was teaching, and she was studying, at the Actors Lab in Hollywood, and both were vulnerable. She had lost her husband in an accident, and Dern not long before had had a daughter die in a swimming pool. (They have no children of their own but frequently see his daughter Laura, 7, by his second marriage.) Home is a rambling, eight-bedroom beachfront in Hollywood’s Malibu Club community. Their best cronies are Nicholson and Redford, at whose Sundance, Utah ski resort the Derns are planning a second house.
Bruce, more confident now, thinks that his face has “picked up more character,” and that his tax bracket at least will never drop to B-minus again. He affects that glazed fanatical look he perfected for all those drug-crazed pre-Gatsby roles. “I don’t have to go around saying, ‘Hey all you asses, why didn’t you hire me, why’d you give it all to James Caan?’ ” Then the blue eyes go sane again and wink: “I’m not hostile anymore, I’ve been through all that stuff.”