Bruce Dern on meeting ‘fragile’ Marilyn Monroe and why he won’t retire
If actors were cattle, said Alfred Hitchcock, then Bruce Dern was “the golden calf.”
And while Dern’s yet to win an Oscar — he came close with “Coming Home” and “Nebraska” — Hitchcock’s golden boy is one of our most provocative and prolific performers. Now 83, the Chicago native’s put his stamp on some 100 films, two of which (“Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” and “The Peanut Butter Falcon”) opened this summer.
On Sept. 13, there’ll be another: “Freaks,” a sci-fi thriller in which Dern plays a mysterious ice-cream truck driver named Mr. Snowcone. It’s not the lead, but Dern’s used to that.
“Just being offered the part, having someone say, we would like you to be this person, well, that’s a treat for me,” he tells The Post, his voice sounding rusty over the phone from his Pasadena, Calif., home.
Over a long and periodically profane phone conversation, Dern recalled his blue-blood roots (poet Archibald MacLeish was his great-uncle; presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, his dad’s law partner), his expulsion, for cheating on a Spanish test, from prep school; and his matriculation at “the University of [Roger] Corman,” alongside Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Jonathan Demme and Francis Ford Coppola.
He also spoke about that other Dern: Laura, his daughter with ex-wife Diane Ladd. Here, in his own words, are some highlights from a brilliant career.
Hanging with Marilyn Monroe
I’m sitting in the back row my second day at the Actors Studio, and just before the session starts, this woman comes in with a yellow babushka over her head and sits down next to me.
“You’re Gadge’s new wunderkind,” she says — Gadge was Mr. [Elia] Kazan’s nickname. “The movie you’re gonna do, ‘Wild River,’ I was gonna do — but I have to do this dumb movie my husband wrote, so they gave it to Lee Remick.”
Marilyn’s husband was Arthur Miller, the movie she was doing was “The Misfits,” and the star was Clark f - - king Gable. “What if he doesn’t like me?” she asked. “He’s the biggest star that ever lived!”
She was as fragile as anyone I’ve ever seen in show business.
Working with a giant
“I don’t even see my movies after the final edit,” Mr. Hitchcock once said to me. “I’ve seen them before I make them.” He knew what every frame was gonna be.
At the end of the first day of shooting “Family Plot,” he got up, turned to the first [assistant director] and said, “I’d like to have a word with my crew.” But when he started to get up, the director’s chair came with him, because he was so big. He said, “A hand, please, Bruce,” so I grabbed the legs of the chair and held it while he got out.
He went to the apron of the set and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for a wonderful first day.” This was 1975. He had no cellphone, no notes, no earphone — and he thanked all 74 people by their first names.
Advising his daughter
When Laura was 2, Diane Ladd and I divorced. Laura lived with her mother, and I’d pick her up for the weekend. One day when she was 7, we were in the car and Laura turned to me and said, “Daddy, I miss my sister.” Her sister died five years before she was born. Where did that come from? Right then, I knew she was special . . .
When she was 9, she said, “Dad, I want to be an actress. What’s the drill?” I told her, “Two things. No. 1, you have to learn to dance — dance around all the problems behind the camera. Everybody wants to get outta there and go to the Lakers game, but if you’re in a scene, stay there till it’s done.”
“What’s the second?” she asked.
“Take risks,” I said. “Go on the cliff and take roles other actresses won’t take.”
And she’s done that pretty well. She’s done that enormously well.
The long, hard road to ‘Nebraska’
I got the script for “Nebraska” in 2006. It took [writer/director] Alexander Payne 10 years to get that movie made. It was in black and white, and I had no star power. So Payne did “About Schmidt” with Jack Nicholson. Then he made “Sideways” and told me, “I think we’re getting close.” After he filmed “The Descendants,” he called me. “Remember the script I sent you? We’re gonna make that movie!”
Why he won’t retire
I did a movie about 11 years ago, a documentary Ted Demme directed called “A Decade Under the Influence,” about the movies of the ’70s. Ted asks me at one point, “What are you gonna do when you retire?”
I said, “If you think I’m gonna retire so Jimmy F - - king Caan can get another part from me, you’re dead wrong. Because I’m gonna go till I’m 100. My goal is to do stuff with older characters that people never got the chance to do, because they never lived long enough.”
And because I don’t have anything else I can do.
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