Born in 1936 in Chicago, Illinois, actor Bruce Dern made his Broadway debut in 1958. Soon after, he moved on to television and film. Some of his early big-screen projects include The Wild Angels (1966) and The Cycle Savages (1969). Dern earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance in 1978's Coming Home. More recently, he had recurring role on the hit television series Big Love and starred in the critically acclaimed film Nebraska (2013), which earned the veteran actor another Oscar nomination in 2014.
Born on June 4, 1936, in Chicago, Illinois, Bruce MacLeish Dern has enjoyed a tremendous career as a character actor. He grew up in an affluent family in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, but he chaffed under all of the formality that came with his upper-class life. As he explained to the Tampa Bay Times, "I used to have to wear white gloves at dinner. I had to raise my hand to be called on at my dinner table."
Dern comes from a long line of distinguished men. His father was a lawyer who worked with Adlai Stevenson. His paternal grandfather served as secretary of war in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. His mother's family operated one of Chicago's top department stores. His maternal great uncle was poet Archibald MacLeish.
A rebellious spirit at an early age, Bruce Dern was sent to boarding school in Connecticut for a time. He eventually came back home to finish high school, where he excelled on the track team, and continued to run competitively at the University of Pennsylvania. After a coach tried to get him to shave off his sideburns, Dern quit both the team and college to pursue his other passion—acting.
Moving to New York City, Dern studied with Lee Strasberg at the famed Actors Studio. He made his Broadway debut in a production of Sean O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman in 1958. Two years later, he landed his first film role—a bit part in Elia Kazan's Wild River. By the early 1960s, Dern had moved to Los Angeles, California, and landed a number of small television roles, usually playing some type of villain or oddball.
On the big screen, Dern made several films with B-movie legend Roger Corman. They worked together on such projects as The Wild Angels (1966) and The Trip (1967), which also stars Peter Fonda. The script for The Trip was written by actor Jack Nicholson, who became a good friend of Dern's. Dern landed supporting roles in more mainstream fare, including the 1969 Depression-era drama They Shoot Horses, Don't They? with Jane Fonda. He earned odd cinematic distinction a few years later with his role in the western The Cowboys (1972); his character in the film shot the legendary John Wayne in the back.
Perhaps one of Dern's most compelling film roles came in 1978: as a veteran who returns home completely destroyed from his experiences overseas in the Vietnam War-era movie Coming Home. Dern received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for his performance in the film, which also stars Jon Voight and Jane Fonda.
In Recent Years
After a career lull in the 1980s and '90s, Dern returned to prominence with such film projects as Monster (2003), starring Charlize Theron. He also landed a recurring role as Frank Harlow, the leader of a Mormon polygamist splinter group, on the hit drama Big Love. Dern played the father of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) on the series—a role that brought him his first and only Emmy Award nomination.
In 2013, Dern received some of the best reviews of his life for his performance in Nebraska. The film, directed by Alexander Payne, follows one man's quest to claim an alleged lottery prize that he received in the mail. Dern's character, Woody, is accompanied by his son (Will Forte). His role in Nebraska earned Dern the best actor honor at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and a 2014 Academy Award in the category of best actor.
Dern lives with his third wife, Andrea Beckett, one of his former acting students. He also has an adult daughter, Laura Dern, from his second marriage to actress Diane Ladd. Laura has followed in her father's footsteps with her own successful acting career.
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