Bruce Dern still gets hate mail for what he did to John Wayne on The Cowboys


Bruce Dern says he still gets hate mail for what he did to John Wayne on The Cowboys, with Duke telling him: “Oh how they’re gonna hate you for this”.

Bruce Dern struggled to find acting jobs after co-starring opposite John Wayne in The Cowboys, which celebrates its 52nd anniversary this week.His troubles began even before filming on the 1972 Western began.

Duke had just given an incredibly controversial Playboy interview sharing his views on civil rights and the treatment of Native Americans.

In fact, Laura Dern remembers at the time some of her friends’ parents ended up cancelling play dates with her because of her father’s involvement in the movie.

But what happened on set affected his career even more.

Speaking previously with Cowboys and Indians, Dern was asked if he was intimated by Wayne on set at all. He replied: “I might have been. But right at the start, he says to me, ‘I want you to do us a favour.’ 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 s*** 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.” However, the satisfaction of this perk would be short-lived.

Half a century later, Dern has said he still receives hate mail after his character Asa Watts killed Wayne’s Wil Andersen in The Cowboys. But he knew it was coming and so did Duke. Asked if he still runs into fans who are upset about it, the actor said: “No question. But I knew that would happen. I knew on the day when I had to shoot him, when we did that scene, that he had never even had a bullet squib put on him before in his career. You know, he got shot in Sands of Iwo Jima. I think he got killed by some sniper. But this was the first time he actually had a squib put on him, where it was going to be close to his skin and everything else. [Laughs.] I remember he leaned into me at about 8:15 am that morning, reeking of Wild Turkey 101.”


Dern continued: “[Wayne] said, ‘Is it gonna hurt?’ And I said, ‘Duke, they’re gonna blow your [bleeping] chest off. Get a metal protector to put underneath those squibs so the squibs aren’t next to your skin.’ ‘Oh, how do I do that?’ I said, ‘How do you do it? Order the effects man, like you order everybody else, to go ahead and do that for you.’

“Then, after he got all fitted up, he told me: ‘Oh, I want to remind you of one thing. 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?’”


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