Bruce Dern: That Dern Cat

Bruce Dern cuts one of the most durable and recognizable supporting figures in film since Elisha Cook Jr., Dern's presence has given an edge to dozens of movies over the last three decades, but he's achieved his profile with masterful portrayals of men you can't help but hate.

Dern gunned down John Wayne in The Cowboys, tried to blow up the Super Bowl in Black Sunday and, in Coming Home, he threatened to blow Jane Fonda away with a rifle before drowning himself in the ocean (and got an Oscar nomination for these latter troubles). Dern even played the original yuppie scum: Tom Buchanan in 1974's The Great Gatsby. And he was the world's most unpleasant flesh artist in Tattoo, kidnapping Maud Adams and scarring her bod with an unusual design, long before the denizens of Hollywood thought this was hip.

"I never look back and say that I've made a movie I wish I hadn't done," says Dern. That's quite a claim from an actor whose entry in one film encyclopedia ends with his quote, "I've played more psychotics and freaks and dopers than anyone." How does he feel now, for instance, about 1971's The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant? "I look on it as a fond memory," says Dern. "It brought me together with my wife. . . The film was a nightmare to make, but I got married with the money I made from that movie: $1750."

To hear Dern tell it, the upcoming Diggstown, his boxing con job comedy, is hot stuff: "Had I taken Mr. Hitchcock the Diggstown script, he would have done it. There's a lot of Hitchcock humor there." Before you snicker, consider that Dern worked with the Master--twice. He was in Marnie and starred in Family Plot, Hitchcock's final film.

Eventually, Dern does evidence something like regret. "I haven't had many love affairs on-screen. In Gatsby, I had one with Karen Black. Then I broke her nose." At least 1980's Middle Age Crazy gave him a sex scene: "I got into bed with my boxer shorts on because it's Ann-Margret; I'm not going to get in the bed with my dick hanging out! But she had nothing on. Now I'm really embarrassed. I think, if I take my shorts off and I don't get turned on, is she going to be upset? And if I do get turned on, is she going to be upset?"

Had 20 years of screen acting prepared him for this? He laughs good-naturedly and says, "I think we were both professionals about it."