Show Business: Will Bruce Dern Become a Star?

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Late Bloomer. It was a gaffe that kept Dern struggling overlong in the pits of villainy. The fact that he was willing to knock off the daddy of the screen may have come from frustration. When he played one of his first bit parts on Broadway in 1957, Director Elia Kazan warned him, "You'll be a late bloomer." Those were hard words to take for a man on the lam from Chicago's Gold Coast. Dern is the son of Midwestern nobility (his grandfather was chairman of Carson Pirie Scott & Co. department stores, and his uncle is the poet Archibald MacLeish). Bruce was so at odds with his family that at age six he took to compulsive lying. Sent to a tough camp in the Canadian wilderness to be straightened out, he returned hurt and resentful. As a 14-year-old schoolboy at Choate, he was set upon by school bullies. "Give up or I'll break your leg," said one. "Go ahead and break it," said Dern, even though the resulting break could have jeopardized his avocation, long-distance running. It was not until he arrived at the University of Pennsylvania and saw James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause that he found what he really wanted to do.

Despite a breezy manner and a continuous stream of repartee, Dern has a cutting edge that makes people around him wary. Says his sister Jean: "Bruce has a screw loose." He still likes to fib. Last July, he stunned the set of Smile one day by announcing that Nixon had pardoned Ehrlichman, Haldeman and Dean. He showed Nicholson a bogus bank statement that made him appear to be a multimillionaire. In fact, Dern's mother left him a trust fund from which he draws only a small income. He likes to tell acquaintances he has been married five times. Fortunately, his third wife, Andrea Beckett, to whom he has been married for six years, is secure enough to be tolerant.

"At the heart of Bruce there is a profound sensitivity," maintains his friend Robert Redford. "He's too sensitive to show others how sensitive he is." Running is the perfect outlet for his frustrations. Every evening, he does three miles on the highway near his Malibu home. He is even looking forward to his 40th birthday; then he can enter the senior Olympics. That is at least straightforward competition. "You can't bullshit a stop watch," he says wistfully. "Either you make it or you don't."

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