They take no prisoneres here in Hollywood. You've got to fight for your life. And there's no mercy. Everybody has had "no" said to them a hundred times. They don't care if you're a survivor or not .
After 22 years as an actor, 120 television shows and 35 movies, Bruce Dern finally has a starring role in a film that is a commercial success. "Coming Home" is the first movie he has made to last as long as six weeks in nay theater.
A long-distance runner who has run 100,000 miles in his life, Dern views his acting career on his terms. "Hollywood is definitely an endurance contest," says the sinewy blue-eyed actor. "The movie business is the most competitive in the world. There are 32,000 members of the Actor's Guild. And only 1,400 making a living wage - that's $6,200 a year. To succeed you need staying power and I'm an athlete training for the distance."
After years of playing second-rate parts, Dern faced his most challenging role in "Coming Home." He plays Marine Captain Bob Hyde, a disillusioned soldier who returns from Vietnam in 1969 to discover that his wife (Jane Fonda) has fallen in love with a paraplegic veteran (John Voight). "I think 'Coming Home' is my best work," says 41-year-old actor relaxing to his Malibu Colony home. "I had to portray drudgery, sadness, suspicion, anger, disappointment and shame, all the negatives, every single day. Then there were the daily battles on the set."
"Coming Home" grew out of the deep-seated personal and political belief of its principal creators especially Jane Fonda, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam war. "More than anyone else Jane did not want the point of view of my character to be as vividly represented as it was," says Dern, "in particular in any kind of heroic image at the end. Those guys were bad guys. They went and fought the war."
The battle over Dern's character centered on the ending of the film. The original script ended in typical Hollywood apocalyptic fashion with a shootout between Dern and the police in the Malibu hills as Dern flashed back to Vietnam. Fonda favored the original ending. Dern and director Hal Ashby did not.
"I told Jane," says Dern, "Look I wasn't in the war and I don't know what I would have done, but I know I wouldn't have gone to Canada and I wouldn't have gone to Sweden. This guy can't go out this way, simply for all the guys who didn't do that."
The ending that Ashby and his screenwriter, Robert C. Jones, devised is still a problem for many critics, but it leaves Dern's character with more dignity.
Although critical reaction to the film has been mixed, the box office response has been vigorous, a welcome change for Dern, who has had-excellent notices in pictures that have opened and closed within a week. Years ago in one of the first parts on Broadway, director Elia Kazan had warned him, "You'll be a late bloomer." For a long time even Kazan's prediction seemed in doubt.
Born into a distinguished, upper crust Illinois family, Dern was expected to be a lawyer like his father, who was a law partner of Adlai Stevenson. (His paternal grandfather, George Dern, was governor of Utah and Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of War; and his maternal grandfather was chairman of Chicago's Carson Pirie Scott & Co. department stores.) Artists weren't legitimate to my family unless they were Picasso," says Dern referring to his uncle, poet Archibald MacLeish.
Dern was at odds with his family from an early age becoming a "compulsive liar" at the age of 6. At 14 he was sent to Choate (JFK's alma mater) to straighten out, but he hated it. He dreamed of nothing else but coming and running for New Trier High School. In his junior year he got his wish. A half-miler he finished fourth in the state. His senior year he lost only one race and for a time had the best high school time for the 880-meter run in the country.
At the University of Pennsylvania he continued running while studying journalism, but soon became disillusioned with both. "My journalism professor told me 'If you go to work on a paper you'll be a copy boy all your life,'" says Dern. "In track, in my sophomore year, I was thrown in with the big boys and got my brains beat out every week." When he saw James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause," he decided what he really wanted to be was an actor. All the energy and intense drive he had invested in track he transferred to acting.
He dropped out of Penn to study first with Gordon Phillips in Philadelphia then with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York. Kazan cast him as a bartender in the play "Sweet Bird of Youth" and gave him his first movie role in "Wild River," but few others noticed. The first 10 years in the business he earned a total of $6,000.
When he failed to find work in New York, he came to California where he quickly became typecast as a psychotic villain. Part of it is the aggressive intensity he projects on sreen the the "off-the-wall" quality of his personality. Another reason, he explains, "is that the only piece of film I had to show for potential jobs was a crazy psychotic killer I played on an Alfred Hitchcock show." While his contemporaries, Redford, Beatty, Reynolds and Caan, were becoming stars, Dern was playing a succession of bizarre roles in mediocre movies: a mad doctor in "Two-Headed Transplant," a bisexual boyfriend in "Bloody Mama," a hillbilly husband in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" He climaxed his career of villainly in "The Cowboys" when he became the only gunman ever to kill John Wayne on screen. "Dern," the Duke told him, "You're going to be hated everywhere in the world for this one."
In 1970, Fred Specktor, a William Morris agent who believed in Dern's talent, convinced him to stop. "For 15 years I had been sold improperly," says Derns. "While Bob Richard was being sold as a star, I was sold for the charactere parts and ended up playing the 19th guy in a motorcycle movie. Specktor saved my life. He said no more television, no more psychotics, no more rural hillbillies."
Dern waited 72 months for another part. "It almost drove me around the bend," he says. During the lean years Dern had continued running to relieve the frustration and disappointment of his career. He began running 50-mile, ultra-marathons. Once is even ran a 72-mile race. "I ran my a -- of those 18 months."
In 1972 he got his break, a starring role as a biologist in "Silent Running," a low-budget science-fiction film. The same year he played a Jack Ramsay-type basketball coach in Jack Nicholson's "Drive, He Said," a role that won him a National Film Critics Society award for best supporting actor.
Other highly praised performances followed in "The King of Marvin Gardens," "Smile," "The Great Gatsby," "Family Plot" and last year "Black Sunday." Still the question Time magazine posted in 1975 persisted: "Will Bruce Dern become a star?"
The question angers Dern. "My drive has nevere been to be a movie star," he says. "That's not what I'm about. The unfortunate thing is, the way the business works, if you play the leading roles in film, which I do, if those films make money, then you get the best roles around. If they don't make money, you don't have the same opportunities. I need pictures that succeed at the box office to get the roles the competition gets. It's as simple at that.
"Nobody's first on every list. The difference is now I'm on the list.But because they're only making 60 movies a year now, instead of 600 a year as they were when I came to Hollywood, they never get to me. With seven or eight guys ahead of me on the list, one of them's going to take it. That's why 'Coming Home' does my heart good, and my agent, because they can't say anymore that his movies don't make money."
Dern, who has not worked in eight months, since he finished shooting "The Driver," a film which will be released this summer, is weighing new offers carefully.
Yet after 22 years he has no illusions about the business in which he has chosen to excel."You want to take a kid like John Travolta and you want to sit him down and say, 'Hey, enjoy it, but don't stop working on your craft because they're not always going to ask you to dance, or they may always ask you to dance.' Both are equally as grim.
"They're going to get you here in this town unless you're very tough and very strong. And very durable, and are a marathon runner," he laughs. "Literally."