The scion of a distinguished family of politicians and an Oscar nominee, Dern explains why he chose acting as his career.
Actor Bruce Dern
Tavis: When the Oscars are announced this Thursday, the nominations, that is, the odds are very good that among the five best actors will be Bruce Dern, honored for his outstanding portrayal of a difficult and often gruff father in the acclaimed movie “Nebraska.”
This is just one outstanding role amongst so many during his 53-year career, which includes some 83 movies and too many television roles to count. Let’s take a look at a clip now from “Nebraska.” His son is played by Will Forte.
Tavis: It’s an honor to have you on this program.
Bruce Dern: Well thank you, Tavis. This is very cool.
Tavis: Good to see you, man, good to see you.
Dern: It’s my honor also, because you did something in a show one time that made me really think you were cool forever.
Tavis: What did I do?
Dern: You dared to let Prince talk about chemtrail. (Laughter)
Tavis: I remember that conversation.
Dern: Oh my God, that was so fabulous.
Tavis: No, he’s been –
Dern: And he went on about them. He’s a student.
Tavis: He’s a student, he’s obviously very bright, and very – an artistic genius. But I’ve been honored to have him on this program a number of times over the years, and it’s always a great conversation. I’m glad to have you here finally. I’ve had Laura on – in fact, the whole family but you.
Dern: Oh, that’s cool.
Tavis: So here you are. I’m going to come back to the movie, but let me start at what might be an unlikely place. But I was just fascinated when I started to learn more about your personal back story. Your godmother was Eleanor Roosevelt.
Dern: Well, the –
Tavis: Your godfather, Adelaide Stevenson?
Dern: He was one of the two godfathers, yeah. (Laughter) But he was – my father’s law partner was Adelaide. We’re from Winnetka, Glencoe, Illinois, not far from where you grew up.
Dern: Two hours and a half, probably. You’re below South Bend?
Tavis: Below South Bend, that’s right.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Dern: So Adelaide and my father were law partners, and so my father always said if anything happened to him that it was up to Adelaide to take care of it. So I kind of called him a godfather, he was one.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the thing there was my father’s father, George Dern, was the first non-Mormon governor of Utah.
Dern: Yeah, right. Then he went to become Roosevelt’s first secretary of war, in the first Cabinet, and he died while he was in office. My family used to go visit the Roosevelts up at Hyde Park, where they were outside of New York.
One year they were visiting and little Brucie got to go with them, and I was riding a bicycle in the afternoon, and ran into a tree and hit my head and had a concussion.
In those days when you had a concussion they laid you down with your head on a pillow and then strapped your head across the pillow so you couldn’t move it to the side or forward or anything.
When I kind of came to, I guess it was late at night, 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and as I rolled my head to the side, I saw this lady’s legs. They were kind of veiny, and had a nightgown down to about here with little kind of tacky slippers. (Laughter)
I didn’t understand. As I slowly came up and started looking up to where the woman’s face was, she had a book in her lap, and she looked like this (makes face) and had that Roosevelt bite. I realized, my God, it’s the president’s wife. (Laughter)
I had – it was just before he went to Yalta, so I would have been about eight, I guess. This was ’44; I think that’s when he went to Yalta. So that was in my house. Somebody took that and ran with it and assumed, well, who would babysit a guy like that unless it was his godmother?
Who else would put up with that? So that was how it got misconstrued. But that was the history.
Tavis: Well, that’s a great story to be misconstrued. (Laughter) Eleanor Roosevelt sitting there looking at you when you wake up.
Dern: She had a little game (unintelligible).
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. So as I have studied your work, and as I have just admired you from afar and spent some time with other members of your family – these are my words – you are to me a humanist of the first order.
I’m not suggesting that one can’t be a humanist of the first order coming from a family of privilege, but help me juxtapose those two things. How you have turned out to be the Bruce Dern that you are having come from a family of privilege, which could have meant that you were spoiled and nasty and mean and elitist and arrogant. But you didn’t turn out that way.
Dern: Well –
Tavis: Unless you’re fooling me.
Dern: I ran from it all, and when I was 18, I ran for good. I ran because there was a lack of – when you grow up in that environment you’re taught that you’re privileged and you have a lot, but you still have to prove it every day to everybody in the household.
Because people in the household had fairly major game. They did things, they got things accomplished, and I was always, I would take my supper after dinner sometimes when I couldn’t eat it all or something like that, and I would go into the kitchen and eat with our cook and our chauffer.
They were a Black couple, and they were fabulous. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t eat out with us, and I didn’t think it was right. That started at six years old and it went my entire life.
It wasn’t that there was – when you live on the North Shore outside of Chicago, which is Evanston, Winnetka, (unintelligible) Glencoe, so forth and so on, the only guy in my school who was Black was Mr. Johnson, who started Black Entertainment Network.
He was the only Black family in Glencoe. But we didn’t have differences. The problem was I felt difference in my house, but I never felt it once I got to school, because my best friends were Jewish kids and Jewish kids had just moved to Glencoe from Rogers Park, Chicago, after the Second World War, and there just was – it was all new incoming.
It was like 1946, the North Shore took off. Yet there were old families that still lived in a different age, and I didn’t like it. I wasn’t familiar with it. I had an uncle, Archibald MacLeish, who was a poet and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
Tavis: A great writer, yeah.
Dern: A Librarian of Congress for a long time, poet laureate. I said – I wasn’t an actor yet, but when I finally decided to become one, they said to me, “Well, you keep saying acting is an art. You’re not an artist.”
I said, “Well, why does Archie get a break? Why is he an artist?” “Because he’s a man of letters.” “Oh, really, and what am I doing?” “You’re going to make a living pretending. This family doesn’t pretend. We do it.”
Tavis: So did your family disown you when you decided you were going to be an actor?
Dern: My dad was gone, and my mother, I went to Broadway and started to work for Mr. Kazan, and the first play I was in was called “Shadow of a Gunman.” In the play, there was a review. One by Brooks Atkinson and one by Walter Kerr.
Brooks Atkinson, who was a wonderful critic because he encouraged – he never doused a play or over-heroized it. He said go see it for yourself, and this was an Actor’s Studio production. They’d never had one on Broadway.
Walter Kerr wrote didn’t like the idea of the Actor’s Studio, didn’t like they were putting a play on Broadway, and said in his review, “The only really unique performance in the play is by a heretofore unknown actor who is on stage 52 seconds whose name is Bruce Stern.”
My mother called me the next morning and she said, “That you would change your name to make money in a career is exactly what we were -” I said, “Mother, it’s a typo.” He called in from Sardi’s, wherever it was, gave his review, and the clerk put down “Bruce Stern,” and spelled Stern S-T-E-R-N instead of realizing it’s the end of Bruce.
She never got it, and so from that time on I was kind of estranged. About 10 years later I was in a movie and she said, “When are you going to be in a movie that I can take your grandfather to?” Her father was Bruce MacLeish, who was Archibald’s brother, and our family owned a big department store in Chicago called Carson Pirie Scott and Company.
The MacLeishes were the end company. She said, “I can’t take him to any movie you do. You’re on a motorcycle, you’re smoking drugs or doing all those horrible things, or you’re in some god-awful Western, and he hates Westerns.” (Laughter)
“Now I see you’re in a new Western that I would never go to see. Why would they put a title on a movie like that?” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “Oh, you’re in this movie, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.” I said, “Mother, that’s not a Western, it’s about dance marathons.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Dern: She didn’t get it. She never really got it.
Tavis: So how – I’m cracking up here – but how then did you navigate trying to pursue your craft with a family, though well-to-do, who just didn’t get what you were trying to do?
Dern: Well, when they didn’t get it, I didn’t stop to try and persuade them. I figured that when I went to the University of Pennsylvania, to college, from (unintelligible) which is the high school in Winnetka where I went, and had aspirations of trying to make the Olympic team at 800 meters in 1956, well, I wasn’t close to being that good.
Kind of close, but not that close. So I quit college after my sophomore year and looked around for stuff to do, and I’d never really thought of acting. Never involved in anything.
I found a little dramatics school, because I started going to movies a lot then. I said, “The people were touching me. They were reaching me.” I said, “God, how do you do that? I’d like to be able to learn to do that. Maybe somebody in my house would get what I’m up to, or at least listen to me.”
I sat at the dinner table all my life for 11 years; I had to raise my hand to be called on. Raise your hand at your own dinner. That was because if I said something, they wanted it to be interesting, because they wanted everybody at the table to be involved.
They thought I’d make up something that we did after school or something like that, that I’d make up just to be interesting. Well, half of it wasn’t made up. We did that stuff, (laughter) and they couldn’t believe that kids were into making mayhem when they were nine, 10, 11 years old after school.
So I just realized that it was time to go, and when I entered this dramatics school, after a month I realized there’s three things you had to do: You had to go to New York, you had to try and become a member of the Actor’s Studio, and you had to try to work for Elia Kazan.
That’s what I did, and I was lucky enough to get put there. After that I kind of went on my own. My family was never really a part of it.
Tavis: I was about to ask – they might not have approved of your choices, but were you trudging this journey on your own, or were they financially, at least, supporting and helping you?
Dern: No, no. When I left college, that was the end of it.
Tavis: That was it.
Tavis: You had the nerve to drop out of college. They were done with you.
Dern: Right. Oh, absolutely. I had a big episode that was on the front page of “The New York Times.” I had sideburns a little longer than this.
Elvis was the rage. This was 1956. The coach at Penn, his name Ken Doherty, was a Quaker, and the nickname of Penn is The Quakers. So there’s a little linkage from out on the main line into Penn.
He said, “We’re not individuals here, we’re teammates, so cut your hair, and you’re not going to run against Georgetown and Villanova this weekend unless your hair is cut.”
I was thrilled, because Villanova had the top two 800-meter runners in the world from Ireland going there, and Georgetown always had great middle distance runners.
I said, “You’re not serious.” He says, “Cut it or you’re gone.” I didn’t cut it. I was gone, and my father, who was on the board of directors at Penn, because he’d been a famous football player there and a big lawyer later on, backed the school, and I was gone.
That was how I left school, under that duress. Yet from 1960 on, in 53 years I’ve only missed about 80 days of running in 53 years.
Tavis: You’re still a runner, obviously, to this day.
Dern: Oh yeah, every day.
Tavis: So give me – let me fast-forward here now. I’m trying to get a sense then, Mr. Dern, of how your – my word, not yours – how your being a contrarian all these years has impacted the roles that you’ve played, the things that you have done and have not done as an actor. That spirit of being a contrarian has shown itself in what ways as a thespian.
Dern: That’s a great question. Well, the ways are basically rebellion from inside against what I was brought up in to think that that was cool. Well, it wasn’t cool, number one.
Number two – and Adelaide was very, very open-minded compared to the people in my house. He was the one with ideas that I thought were really interesting, and I’m just – in 1948, when he quit the law firm to become governor, and then four years later runs for president.
I’ll tell you an interesting thing I’ve never said on the air. In 1952, he ran for president and then he ran again in ’56. In 1959, when he was about to be asked to number one, help the Kennedy family, and number two, go to the UN, which he did not want to do.
He said, “I’m not an international host or anything, and I just don’t feel that I would be proper there.” He came to see me in this play, “Sweet Bird of Youth,” which was a Kazan – a Tennessee Williams play Mr. Kazan directed.
We went out to support at this Downey’s restaurant in New York, which was kind of a hangout, and during the dinner – I don’t drink, and he had his two martinis and never showed a sign of it.
I said, “Can I ask you a question?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “You came to see the play, because he wanted me to know how proud my family would have been that I had gotten there, and so forth and so on, because they were all gone except my mom and her dad.
I said, “Well, I don’t know about that. Can I ask you a question?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “When you ran in ’52, what was that like?” He said, “Well you know, Bruce, I felt in 1952 I came on on top of a fairly white horse.”
But he said, “I ran against a guy that couldn’t be beat. He won the war, he was forthright, he was God-fearing, he was a good golfer, he was a wonderful politician, and he was a forthright, honest man. Deep down, no one to mess with.”
I said, “Well,” and then in ’56, he said, “Well, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again in ’56, but I went ahead and did it.” I said, “What was the difference?” He reached across the table, grabbed my wrist like that, and got tears in his eyes.
He said to me, “The difference is when I came in in ’56, somehow that horse was a lot greyer, and I realized I was in the wrong place.” Then he grabbed my arm as hard as he could, and he said, “I want you to do me a favor. I don’t ever want you to vote for that office until you see somebody on a white horse.”
I never voted for a president until I felt Obama had a dream and might pull it off, and that’s the first time I ever voted for a president.
Tavis: In all those years.
Dern: All those years, because I never saw anybody on a white horse. Adelaide was pretty good – he was up to good stuff.
Tavis: So it’s been five or six years now, and what do you think of the guy that was on the white horse back in 2008?
Dern: The horse is a lot greyer. A lot greyer. Does he know it? I don’t know. I hope he does. But he’s got it in him. He’s like – I’ve worked with some actresses sometimes who’ve been married multiple times, and they’d tell you they married poorly.
Sometimes he chooses people around him poorly. I think that’s more about what we’re seeing than before. I can’t name individual names, certainly not on television, because I wouldn’t know who they are anyway.
But all I know is I believed he dared to dream at a time where people that are in that part of the government in America or any government have stopped dreaming. He dreamed, and he had something specific he was after.
He doesn’t know it, but when I first moved to Pasadena, he was a rather poor ninth man on the Occidental basketball team, and I didn’t know who he was or anything. (Laughter)
When he got in the game and he missed two free throws at the end of the game (unintelligible) lose because of that. But I just – but I remembered the name. He’d also gone to Punahou high school in Honolulu.
So I just – I don’t know. I’m not a political person, never have been. Don’t understand it. But I felt that – I went to a high school. In my freshman year, Donald Rumsfeld was president of my senior class. (Laughter) His mother was our student teacher in Glencoe and taught Mr. Johnson, actually.
Tavis: Big gap between, big difference between Rumsfeld and Obama. Like night and day. But to your point about Obama, though – and you said you’re not political – it occurs to me as I listen to you now that President Obama has made the mistake that you didn’t make, and that is while I agree with you that his heart’s in the right place, he’s a good man, he’s too often impressed with braininess, and that’s what makes for bad choices with the around you.
You can’t be so overwhelmed and impressed with braininess. You rebelled against that sort of braininess and the elitism that comes along with it, and that’s why you are Bruce Dern, and that’s why he’s made some of the mistakes that he’s made, because of the people around him. Bad choices.
Dern: Well, just to be compared to him is nice for me. I don’t care whether he’s made a choice or not. He’s done big stuff. But in the meantime, as a codicil to that, if you’ll excuse a rather lame legal term, also who went to my high school New Trier was Rahm Emanuel, who’s now the mayor of Chicago.
He was bright. Obama was very impressed with that. Yet Rahm was deciding who he’d have lunch with, and for how long. The Emanuel family had been around a long time in Chicago.
Tavis: Sure, sure.
Dern: So they – and they’re all achievers and guys like that. But I just like the fact that the one thing my parents did provide me was an opportunity to live in an environment where I could learn.
Dern: That’s the greatest gift –
Tavis: That’s the key.
Dern: – of privilege that I ever got, whatever privilege it was. We weren’t big financial people or anything like that, but there were people at our dinner table and in our life where if I just shut up and listened, I could really learn stuff, and I did.
Tavis: I’m looking at this clock here. I’ve got about three minutes left in this conversation, and your life and your insights have been so profound that we have not talked at all about this movie, “Nebraska,” which everybody in this town is talking about, and for which you may be nominated as best actor tomorrow morning when the announcements are made.
But here’s why that doesn’t surprise me. I had been told by people who know you that he does what he does, he loves what he does, but he’s not into talking about it. He’s not into promoting himself. He’s not going to campaign for the prize.
He just – he’s an actor and that’s what he does, and he’s been doing it. So I’m not at all surprised that with a minute and 30 seconds to go we have not talked about “Nebraska.” But would you like to say a word about “Nebraska,” sir?
Dern: Well, the wonderful trip of this entire ride since we started – I think our last day of shooting was a year ago yesterday. First of all, the biggest win I could ever have was getting the part.
My God, Alexander Payne asks you to come do a movie in a part like that, where it all works on the page to begin with? But the biggest exciting thing to me is the fact that as people start talking about “Nebraska” and everybody’s working the movie, including mine, and praising it and everything, I’m finally getting a feeling that folks are finally starting to realize that maybe Bruce Dern could play.
That’s all it ever was to me. Like we began before we went on air about Oscar. Why don’t they just shut up? West is the logo, Oscar could play. Why forget guys because they played 55 years ago? They both could play.
Tavis: Oscar Robertson.
Dern: The man retires with a triple-double.
Tavis: With a triple-double, yeah. Pretty good. (Laughter) So you know what this means? The moral of the story, or the takeaway from this conversation is that you’re going to have to go see “Nebraska,” because this conversation didn’t give you a whole lot about it.
But I can guarantee you it is a wonderful film, and between now and Academy night you will want to see it. All the best to you and the entire cast in the days ahead –
Dern: Well, thank you, sir.
Tavis: – as this award season is really just starting to take off.
Dern: Well, thank you. Thank you.
Tavis: I’m honored to have you. You’ve got to come back any time just to talk, man.
Dern: I’m available.
Tavis: You’ve got so many great stories, I want to just –
Dern: I’ll remind the “Nebraska” people also that nine years ago, the world record in the 100 meters was held by a Nebraska runner, Maurice Greene.
Tavis: Oh, yeah, great runner. (Laughter) You can tell he’s a runner. (Laughter) I’m honored to have you on.
Dern: Oh, thank you, Tavis. This was my privilege. Thank you.
Tavis: Bruce Dern – oh, please, no, it’s my honor, thank you.
Dern: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: The movie is “Nebraska,” starring one Bruce Dern. Go check it out. Until next time, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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