At last I was on the phone with man who murdered John Wayne.
Bruce Dern, a 79-year-old two-time Oscar nominee, has done movies and TV. He has performed in Westerns, thrillers, biker movies and science fiction films. He has worked with great directors — Alfred Hitchcock, John Frankenheimer, Elia Kazan — and he has shared the screen with genuine movie legends, including Robert Mitchum, Bette Davis, Burt Lancaster and his old friend Jack Nicholson.
Now Dern is part of the ensemble cast of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” a big-budget Western to which Dern lends what I call genre credibility. Dern’s penchant for playing frontier psychopaths got him plenty of work on TV Westerns in the 1960s, and he made a singular contribution to the genre in “The Cowboys,” a 1972 film. In it, Dern, playing a low-life rustler called Long Hair, became the first actor in a Western to kill Wayne, the most iconic screen cowboy of them all.
In “The Cowboys,” Dern was doing what he’d been doing for years on TV, playing a flea-bitten S.O.B. with a gun. (Director Mark Rydell had once directed Dern in an episode of “Gunsmoke,” the long-running CBS Western.)
But “The Cowboys” was something different. Wayne usually surrounded himself with cronies, but Rydell decided to put him with “New York” actors — Dern and Roscoe Lee Browne, who played the trail cook, had come out of the Actors Studio in New York, and Colleen Dewhurst, a veteran of the New York stage, had a prominent cameo as the madam of a traveling whorehouse.
The result? Wayne delivered one of his best performances in one of his best movies. And Dern entered the Villains Hall of Fame. Wayne had been killed off in a handful of other films, but never in a Western. And all of this took place not long after Wayne restated his right-wing political views in a Playboy magazine interview.
“He said to me, ‘Oh, how they’re gonna hate you for this,’ ” Dern recalled. “And I said, ‘Maybe, but in Berkeley I’ll be a (bleeping) hero.’ He put his arm around my neck and showed me to the entire crew of about a hundred people standing there, and he said, ‘This is why this prick is in my movie — ’cause he understands that bad guys are funny.’ ”
Dern said he came to appreciate Wayne’s acting chops.
“To tell you the truth, he was a better actor than people gave him credit for,” Dern said. “There’s one thing John Wayne had, and that’s a presence. When John Wayne comes through a door, he’s a formidable being. He’s not someone you want to (mess) with. And I think he became a better actor as he went along. He was always relaxed, and he would have a nip or two during the day, but who (cares)? As an actor, he looked at you and listened to you and responded to what you said.”
In “The Hateful Eight,” Dern is part of an ensemble that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Dern plays Gen. Sandy Smithers, a former Confederate officer who has come to Wyoming to find his missing son. Dern and Jackson have a particularly unpleasant encounter in a major sequence midway through the film.
Dern places Tarantino on the short list of directors he considers authentic geniuses. But the two had never met until Tarantino asked him to perform a cameo in “Django Unchained,” his previous movie.
“We have a lunch or two a year that last about five hours where we play … movie trivia and things like that,” Dern said. “He’s always had a reverence for me because he grew up watching me be (a bad guy) on television. He can even quote dialogue from shows I did on TV.
“He sent me the script of ‘The Hateful Eight,’ and that was the first I’d heard of it. I was excited that he wanted me to do it and that he had apparently tailored it for me.”
Little in Dern’s background suggested a career in Westerns. He grew up in an influential family in Chicago — he said he was a black sheep for choosing to be an actor — and as a young actor studied under Kazan and Lee Strasberg at the famed Actors Studio. He even drove a cab in New York to pay the rent. But after moving to Hollywood he found plenty of work on television, especially shows about the Old West, so much so that he became associated with the genre.
Dern recalled a bit of advice Kazan gave him when he was about to leave New York for California.
“Kazan said to me: ‘You’re gonna go to Hollywood now, and for a long time you’re gonna be the fifth cowboy from the right. Just make sure you’re the most memorable, unique fifth cowboy from the right anybody … saw.”
In the 1960s Dern appeared in every genre of TV show, but he found the most opportunities on Westerns. He appeared repeatedly on “Gunsmoke,” “The Big Valley,” “Wagon Train” and “The Virginian.” His first big-screen Western was “The War Wagon,” another Wayne movie.
“When I came to Hollywood in 1961, Universal Pictures alone made 14 hours a week of Westerns,” he said.
But his versatility has allowed him to work with some of the best directors in movies — Frankenheimer (“Black Sunday”), Hitchcock (“Family Plot”), Kazan (“Wild River”) and Walter Hill (“The Driver”). Along the way he earned a couple of Oscar nominations, one for “Coming Home” in 1979 and the other for “Nebraska” in 2014.
Tarantino, he said, is an actor’s director motivated by a reverence for the history of film.
“He encourages you,” Dern said. “The win is to be cast by Tarantino. And then you’re on the team. He’s had this group of actors he’s worked with through the years. And he kind of hired me to help lend a hand to what he was doing.”
In addition to Tarantino, Dern’s list of geniuses include Kazan, Hitchcock, Douglas Trumbull (who cast Dern in the science fiction film “Silent Running”) and Alexander Payne (who directed “Nebraska.”)
“My definition of genius has always been that at any point any member of the crew or cast can walk up to the director and say, ‘What is my contribution to this particular shot?’ and they can tell you succinctly,” he said. “In a way they’re teachers, they’re professors.”
Another “professor” was Roger Corman, the king of low-budget genre films, including biker movies and horror flicks. Dern and Nicholson appeared in several of Corman’s movies early in their careers. Dern and Robert De Niro played members of Ma Barker’s gang in Corman’s “Bloody Mama.”
“Jack and I always felt like we got to go the University of Corman because neither one of us finished college,” Dern said.
Dern said he doesn’t like to rehearse except for the camera movements. And he’s not bashful about inserting his own line of dialogue if he thinks it will help the film.
“Alexander Payne said to me the very first day of shooting on ‘Nebraska,’ ‘You see anything this morning you’ve never seen before?’ And I said: ‘Yes I do. I see that everyone is pulling his oar, and it’s 29 degrees.’ ”
The message from Payne was: Dare to fail.
“Let us do our jobs,” Payne told him. “Never show us anything. Let us find it.”
Dern said when he heard that he knew that “for the first time in my career I had a partner I could trust.”
And that’s how he felt about Tarantino on “The Hateful Eight.”
“I think the greatest thing Quentin has is his reverence for what went before,” Dern said. “He’s not a revolutionary, but he’s leading the troops at Valley Forge as far as I’m concerned right now.”
This article originally ran Jan. 9, 2016 in the Kansas City Star.