Pasadena, Calif. With his film resume, you might expect Bruce Dern to be a hard-living character. After all, he was the guy who offed John Wayne in "The Cowboys," who tried to blow up the Super Bowl with a blimp in "Black Sunday" and rode top gun in those motorcycle movies.
Dern shoots down such expectations with this recital: "I've never had a drink of alcohol. I've never had a cigarette. I've never had a cup of coffee. I've never had a marijuana cigarette. I've never had cocaine."
What he has had are legs; Dern's been a long-distance runner for most of his life. In his prime, he ran nearly 100 miles from Malibu to San Bernardino, San Diego and other parts of Southern California. At 71, he's still running, but confesses switching to the senior class.
Dern traveled by car from his Pasadena home to the nearby Ritz Carlton Hotel for an interview to tout his new memoir, "Things I've Said, But Probably Shouldn't Have." The book is filled with movie-set expletives, belying his otherwise genteel manner and elegant upbringing.
His family lived in a castlelike home in Winnetka, near Chicago. His grandfather had been governor of Utah, one uncle was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of war and another was poet-playwright Archibald MacLeish. Adlai Stevenson was a frequent visitor to the Dern mansion.
The actor arrived for the interview looking slender in dark blue slacks and black shirt. He is high-domed with silvery hair flowing to the back of his neck. He was asked how he wrote the book. It turned out he didn't write it. He spoke it.
Three years ago, writers Christopher Fryer and Robert Crane told him, "There's a book in you."
"I can't write; I can't type," Dern protested. "I failed typing in high school."
The writers assured him they could write the book by interviewing him. Dern was encouraged that the pair had similarly written a book with his longtime friend, Jack Nicholson.
So "Things I've Said" was created from 88 hours of talk. The book sounds like Dern, who spins entertaining tales about Broadway and Hollywood, often in streams of consciousness.
"We would meet with Bruce in the bar of the Ritz Carlton in the morning while nobody was there," said co-author Crane on the phone. "We would work for three or four hours every day for about six weeks. When we finished, we had 1,500 pages of transcripts, and Chris and I broke it down for a year."
Dern joined other Actors Studio devotees who migrated to Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, bringing a revolutionary style of acting. But unlike Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean, Dern did not achieve immediate star status. In his initial years, he was limited to minor roles in TV series and low-budget movies.
His emergence began as a marathon dancer in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" His other films included "Hang 'em High," "Will Penny," "Drive, He Said," "The King of Marvin Gardens," "The Great Gatsby" and "Coming Home," for which he received an Academy Award nomination, supporting actor.
Dern's most infamous role came in 1972 with "The Cowboys," when he shot John Wayne. With a perfect rendition of Duke's growl, Dern recalled Wayne warning him: "They're going to hate you for this." Dern replied, "Maybe so. But in Berkeley, I'll be a ... hero." Wayne supported the Vietnam War; the University of California, Berkeley was a hotbed of protest at the time.
A longtime resident of the celebrity mecca of Malibu, Dern surprised his neighbors by moving to staid Pasadena. The impetus: Mother Nature.
"The ocean's not your friend; she wants your house," he said. In 1982, high surf destroyed 2,000 square feet of his property, including a tea house and living room. The next assault came in 1994, when fire swept down from the mountains and aimed for his rebuilt beach house. His wife, Andrea, was stranded at the residence while Bruce was in downtown Los Angeles making a TV movie about Amelia Earhart with his ex-wife, Diane Ladd.
Andrea was evacuated safely, and the house survived. But Dern eventually had enough of Malibu's perils and sold the 7,000-square-foot structure, built in 1927 by Frank Capra, for $5 million - $4.6 million more than he paid for it 30 years earlier. After trying a couple of locations in the posh Bel-Air neighborhood, he chose the quiet dignity of Pasadena.
No fan of gadgetry
Dern feels he was fortunate to arrive in Hollywood when stars were genuinely stellar.
"I was lucky to work with people of a certain kind of magnificent stature," he said. "They didn't call them legends without a reason; they were legends. There was much more personality-driven film machinery than there is today. Now it's more about personal behavior off the set, off the screen, than it is on the screen."
He recalled one of his first important films, "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," a gothic drama that starred Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotten.
When the company broke on Saturday afternoon (studios filmed five and a half days then), Davis invited cast and crew to her house for refreshments. Then they piled into a bus for dinner at a Japanese restaurant atop the Hollywood Hills.
Dern takes a dim view of today's filmmaking.
"I'm very disturbed that in the past 15 years, where have the people gone? ... Now it's gadgetry, big stuff," he said. "I can't knock any of it. But we've got away from the people and the stories. Where are the stories? With all the (technical) improvements that we've had, it still goes back to the writer and the story."