John Wayne enjoyed the novelty of being killed two-thirds of the way through a movie

John Wayne enjoyed the novelty of being killed two-thirds of the way through a movie

About an hour into The Cowboys (1972), something unthinkable happens. The toothy, weasel-like varmint played by Bruce Dern shoots John Wayne in the back. The Duke comes toppling down like an old statue and dies. It is a symbolic moment, the beginning of the end of the western as epic drama. Wayne was not supposed to be mortal.

For years afterwards, Dern couldn’t walk into a bar or restaurant without being challenged by someone for what he had done to their hero. Ironically, Wayne enjoyed the novelty of being killed two-thirds of the way through a movie. “He hadn’t done it before, he knew he probably wasn’t going to do it again, so he wanted to do it in the grandest style possible. Before the shooting, he has a prolonged fist fight with Dern … He told me to let him have it – to go after him as hard as I could.” You might have expected a real-life attrition between the famously conservative cowboy hero and an East Coast method actor like Dern, whose early mentors included Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg and Tennessee Williams. The two first worked together in 1967 on The War Wagon. On that film, the roles were reversed: Wayne killed Dern. “Wayne was such a gracious man. He encouraged me to be bold … He’d say `I’ll always be the same, but you don’t have to be.’”

In the mid-Seventies, Dern was a big star in his own right. He was Tom Buchanan to Robert Redford’s Gatsby in The Great Gatsby; he was Jack Nicholson’s ne’er-do-well brother in The King of Marvin Gardens; he won an Oscar nomination as Jane Fonda’s soldier husband in Coming Home; he terrified audiences as a murderous Vietnam veteran in Black Sunday, chased after Ryan O’Neal in Walter Hill’s thriller The Driver, and was cast as the cabbie/ crook in Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot. With his frizzy hair and toothy smile, his was a face you simply couldn’t forget.

Dern remembers Hollywood when it was a place where actors came first. “There were a breed of people here when I arrived that we don’t see much of any more,” he reminisces, rattling off names – Gable, Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock. Over the past 20 years, Dern laments, the status of actors in Tinseltown has been eroded.

The problem, he suggests, is that contemporary film-makers don’t understand team work. “Forgive me for talking about your national game, but … when England used to play in the World Cup, they’d just kick up long balls. They would never do as well as they could have done. It’s like that in Hollywood. The style of film-making is all geared toward quickness -shoot 10 pages a day, spend more money and get more footage – but speed doesn’t mean more efficiency or better quality.”

As befits a long-distance runner, Dern prefers the long haul to the quick sprint. He took his first serious jog as a 10-year-old in 1947. “Since then, I’ve run about 110,000 miles – that’s the equivalent of four times round the world.” When he was shooting The Great Gatsby at Pinewood Studios, he used to run home every night to Claridges, his hotel in central London. “It was only about 12 miles; I measured it.” After 300 marathons he has given up the long stuff, but he still regularly hits the road. His hero is the indefatigable Ron Hill, a former world record-holder who managed to go for 33 years without ever missing his daily run.

Dern’s dedication is not quite so ferocious. He missed a couple of days recently when he went to Tijuana in Mexico to appear in Matthew Modine’s directorial debut, If … Dog … Rabbit. Modine’s film, a character-based story about a small- time criminal struggling to re-establish himself in his home town, reminded him of the kind of movies he used to make in the Seventies. For a change, though, Dern is not cast as a psychopath. He plays a gas station owner who gives the ex-con a second chance. “I’m a guiding light, as opposed to the guy who is going to take everyone down.”

It is more than 60 years since Dern flunked out of his Ivy League college and enrolled in Lee Strasberg’s actors’ studio in New York. His relatives were appalled; he was from a blue-blooded Chicago background. His grandfather, George Dern, had been Roosevelt’s secretary of war. His father was an eminent lawyer. “My becoming an actor seemed a whimsical adventure to them.” Dern struggles to explain what attracted him to the business. “Communication,” he hazards; “I’ve always wanted to make audiences understand why people behave the way they do.”

Once he had ventured to New York, he did not take long to establish himself. He appeared on Broadway alongside Paul Newman in Sweet Bird of Youth, and made his screen debut in Elia Kazan’s Wild River. “But my father died right when I was starting out. I don’t know whether he would have been proud of me or not.”

After playing a hillbilly psycho in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dern was quickly typecast as the snarling villain. Again and again thereafter, we saw him skulking in the background in westerns, or playing neurotic rs in Roger Corman movies.

“Sure, that was bothersome for 20 years, until Coming Home started changing the way people perceived me. But I don’t look back with negative feelings. Somebody had to do those roles, and a lot of times, they were the best roles anyway.” After his purple patch in the Seventies, when he starred in a series of million-dollar movies, Dern is again consigned to the ranks of the character actors. You may have spotted him as a US navy admiral in the soggy comedy Down Periscope, or as the sheriff in Walter Hill’s gangster pic Last Man Standing, but in recent years he has been keeping a low profile, waiting for the right script to come along. His daughter, Laura Dern, is now the major star in the family. When she was a little girl, she would visit him on set on films such as Cowboys and Coming Home, where the quality of involvement of the actor was the most important thing. But in the 15 years she has been in the business, that emphasis has completely changed.


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