Bruce Dern said he was terrified the first time he walked on set to work with John Wayne. That was until Wayne gave him a reason to beat him up.
When John Wayne called the cast together for a pep talk, Dern wasn’t sure what to expect. But when The Duke had finished, Bruce Dern, still green as summer grass as an actor, was ready to go toe-to-toe with Wayne.
𝐈 𝐦𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭 𝐡𝐚𝐯𝐞 𝐛𝐞𝐞𝐧. 𝐁𝐮𝐭 𝐫𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭 𝐚𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐭𝐚𝐫𝐭, 𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐚𝐲𝐬 𝐭𝐨 𝐦𝐞, “𝐈 𝐰𝐚𝐧𝐭 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐭𝐨 𝐝𝐨 𝐮𝐬 𝐚 𝐟𝐚𝐯𝐨𝐫.” 𝐇𝐞 𝐰𝐚𝐬 𝐢𝐧𝐜𝐥𝐮𝐝𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐡𝐢𝐦𝐬𝐞𝐥𝐟, [𝐝𝐢𝐫𝐞𝐜𝐭𝐨𝐫] 𝐌𝐚𝐫𝐤 𝐑𝐲𝐝𝐞𝐥𝐥, 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐜𝐫𝐢𝐩𝐭𝐰𝐫𝐢𝐭𝐞𝐫𝐬. 𝐇𝐞 𝐬𝐚𝐢𝐝, “𝐅𝐫𝐨𝐦 𝐧𝐨𝐰 𝐨𝐧, 𝐜𝐨𝐧𝐬𝐢𝐝𝐞𝐫 𝐦𝐞 𝐭𝐨 𝐛𝐞 𝐬𝐨𝐦𝐞𝐛𝐨𝐝𝐲 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐜𝐚𝐧 𝐩𝐮𝐛𝐥𝐢𝐜𝐥𝐲 𝐤𝐢𝐜𝐤 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐡𝐢𝐭 𝐨𝐮𝐭 𝐨𝐟 𝟐𝟒 𝐡𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐬 𝐚 𝐝𝐚𝐲 𝐨𝐧 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐞𝐭. 𝐁𝐞𝐜𝐚𝐮𝐬𝐞 𝐈 𝐰𝐚𝐧𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐬𝐞 𝐥𝐢𝐭𝐭𝐥𝐞 𝐤𝐢𝐝𝐬 [𝐩𝐥𝐚𝐲𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐜𝐨𝐰𝐛𝐨𝐲𝐬 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐭𝐢𝐭𝐥𝐞] 𝐭𝐨 𝐛𝐞 𝐚𝐛𝐬𝐨𝐥𝐮𝐭𝐞𝐥𝐲 𝐭𝐞𝐫𝐫𝐢𝐟𝐢𝐞𝐝 𝐨𝐟 𝐲𝐨𝐮.” 𝐇𝐞 𝐠𝐚𝐯𝐞 𝐦𝐞 𝐜𝐚𝐫𝐭𝐞 𝐛𝐥𝐚𝐧𝐜𝐡𝐞 𝐭𝐨 𝐣𝐮𝐬𝐭 𝐭𝐫𝐞𝐚𝐭 𝐡𝐢𝐦 𝐥𝐢𝐤𝐞 𝐚 𝐭𝐮𝐫𝐝. 𝐒𝐨 𝐈 𝐰𝐚𝐬 𝐨𝐧 𝐡𝐢𝐦, 𝐭𝐚𝐥𝐤𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐛𝐚𝐜𝐤 𝐭𝐨 𝐡𝐢𝐦 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐬𝐭𝐮𝐟𝐟, 𝐟𝐨𝐫 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐟𝐞𝐰 𝐝𝐚𝐲𝐬 𝐈 𝐰𝐚𝐬 𝐭𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞. 𝐀𝐧𝐝 𝐡𝐞 𝐰𝐨𝐮𝐥𝐝 𝐝𝐨 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐧𝐠𝐬 𝐥𝐢𝐤𝐞 𝐜𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐨𝐮𝐭: “𝐇𝐞𝐲, 𝐌𝐫. 𝐃𝐞𝐫𝐧, 𝐰𝐨𝐮𝐥𝐝 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐠𝐞𝐭 𝐨𝐯𝐞𝐫 𝐡𝐞𝐫𝐞?” 𝐈 𝐭𝐡𝐨𝐮𝐠𝐡𝐭, 𝐇𝐞𝐲, 𝐉𝐨𝐡𝐧 𝐖𝐚𝐲𝐧𝐞 𝐠𝐢𝐯𝐞𝐬 𝐲𝐨𝐮 𝐚 “𝐦𝐢𝐬𝐭𝐞𝐫” 𝐬𝐭𝐚𝐭𝐮𝐬. 𝐌𝐲 𝐟𝐢𝐫𝐬𝐭 𝐝𝐚𝐲, 𝐡𝐞’𝐬 𝐜𝐚𝐥𝐥𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐦𝐞 𝐦𝐢𝐬𝐭𝐞𝐫. 𝐇𝐨𝐰 𝐚𝐛𝐨𝐮𝐭 𝐭𝐡𝐚𝐭? 𝐓𝐡𝐚𝐭’𝐬 𝐩𝐫𝐞𝐭𝐭𝐲 𝐜𝐨𝐨𝐥.
The movie was the iconic The Cowboys. And, spoiler alert, Dern’s character shoots an unarmed John Wayne in the film. It was a true rug-puller of a moment in a great movie. And Dern said without Wayne’s willingness to play weak, he doubts he could have pulled off playing the tough guy.
John Wayne Loves Bad Guys With A Sense Of Humor
Bruce Dern remembers one day when John Wayne was being fitted for his squibs. Films use squibs, these packs of blood-like substances that explode, to make it look like someone has been shot. It was the first time Wayne had ever worn a squib, Dern said. Meaning that in more than five decades of filmmaking, no one ever shot John Wayne.
John Wayne called Dern over for one last “pep talk” before they shot their big scene.
“Oh, I want to remind you of one thing,” Wayne told Dern. “When this picture comes out, and audiences see you kill me — they’re gonna hate you for this.” I said, “Maybe. But at [UC] Berkeley, I’ll be a [bleeping] hero!” He laughed at that. And then put his arm around my neck, turned me to the crew — there’s about 90 people there where we shot the thing, getting ready to do the scene — and he said, “That’s why this [bleep] is in my film. Because he understands that bad guys can be funny. If they weren’t, why would we be talking about them 150 years later?”