HOLLYWOOD - The way Bruce Dern tells the story, Alfred Hitchcock looked him up and down, paused, sighed, and said: "Who would ever have believed after all these years that YOU would be my leading man?"
And it had, indeed, been more than 10 years since Dern played a psychotic in Hitchcock's "Marnie." That started him off on a decade during which he played nothing but heavies or psychotics: snarling motorcycle gang leaders, sadistic killers, loony outlaws, and, in "The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant," a mad scientist who stitched the head of a sex deviate onto the shoulders of a retarded giant.
Things had gotten to the point, a couple of years ago, that Dern could get no roles at all that didn't require him to be the meanest SOB in the picture, and when they were filming "The Cowboys" in 1972 and they needed someone to shoot John Wayne dead, why, Bruce Dern was the obvious choice.
All of this did not perhaps go down too well with Dern's socially prominent family in Winnetka. When they sent him to Choate they did not anticipate that a few years down the road he would be swinging a chain and threatening to tear "Big Bill" Smith's lungs out with his bare hands in "The Wild Angels." After college, he headed straight for the Actors Studio in New York, and later he began appearing in horror and motorcycle flicks.
Things began to look up, however, when Dern got more positive roles in movies like "The King of Marvin Gardens" and "Silent Running." And then came the big break: He was cast as Tom Buchanan, husband of the ethereal Daisy, in "The Great Gatsby" (1974).
It was a role he was born to play, but that he'd been trying to escape. "It was hard to get back into the style," he said. "Gatsby lived in a world like the North Shore, Winnetka, big bucks, class, inheritance, good manners. Everything I was running away from." It was probably his acting in "Gatsby" that persuaded Hitchcock to cast him as the lead in his new film, "Deceit." Dern doesn't know for sure and didn't ask Hitchcock.
"But when he said he never thought I'd play a lead in one of his films," Dern said, "I just said, 'Hitch, you're looking at living proof that if a guy hangs out long enough and the others flake out and lose their hair, sooner or later you've got to give it to old Dern.' "
Dern and another former Chicagoan, Barbara Harris, play a married couple who are kidnapped by two jewel thieves. "A couple of year ago," he said, "there'd be no question but that I would be the kidnaper. You see how I've come up in the world."
Although Dern has been in a lot of critical successes (especially "Silent Running"), a big commercial success has somehow eluded him.
Dern thinks maybe "Smile," set for release later this summer, could be his commercial breakthrough. It's directed by Michael Ritchie, who brought a sharply observant, almost documentary realism to "The Candidate" and "Downhill Racer," and it will be about a man in charge of a small-town beauty pageant. "Every town has a guy like this guy," Dern said. "His name is Big Bob and he's totally upfront, cliched, a never-flagging Spirit of America character. Never say die. And we have these great scenes like a Jaycee initiation and the beauty pageant, and it's a funny, satirical picture...You're up for five minutes after the movie, and you can't say that about most movies."
After the Hitchcock film, he'll star with Lily Tomlin and a German shepherd in "Won Ton Ton, the Dog That Saved Warner Brothers." The title emerged that way, he explained, after lawyers determined that Rin Tin Tin is still protected by copyright.
The important thing, though, is that once again Bruce Dern won't be playing a heavy. "It's nice to have a little recognition after all these years," he said. "But, otherwise, I live pretty much the same as always. My wife and I entertain once, maybe twice a year; we're building a house in Utah; my best friends are still the same - Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford - although unfortunately they're not each other's friends...
"But there's one rule. I play no more psychotics until they tell me I can work here the rest of my life and star in all the pictures I want. Then maybe I'll do the definitive heavy. Yeah. A movie critic. Maybe that guy from Time magazine. I got it: I'll star in the life of Jay Cocks!"