Bruce Dern's best-known roles may be as the botanist forced to go renegade in the 1972 science-fiction film “Silent Running” and the cuckolded Army captain in “Coming Home.” Bruce Dern has spent most of his career as a character actor, playing heroes as well as villains — usually unstable or slightly crazed.
He was born into a family with a pedigree: His grandfather was a Utah governor and U.S. secretary of War; his uncle was the poet Archibald MacLeish; and his godparents were Adlai Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt.
After attending the University of Pennsylvania for two years and failing to become a track star, he dropped out and began taking acting classes in Philadelphia. That led to a spot in Lee Strasberg’s famed Actors Studio in New York City and a bit part in his first Broadway production, “The Shadow of a Gunman” in 1958.
Dern’s screen debut was an uncredited part in the 1960 western “Wild River.” He followed that with a long run in TV and film, including prominent roles in two of Alfred Hitchcock’s later films, “Marnie” and “Family Plot,” and a villainous role opposite John Wayne in the 1972 western “The Cowboys.”
Dern’s career reached its height in 1979 when he received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in the Vietnam war drama “Coming Home.”
His work pace slowed down over the next 11 years as he tried to transition from supporting player to leading man, but he was ultimately unsuccessful in doing so.
He was briefly married to his college girlfriend, Marie Pierce, but they divorced soon after moving to New York. Dern was then married to actress Diane Ladd from 1960 to 1969. Together they had two daughters, Diane and Laura. Diane died at just 18 months from a head injury; Laura grew up to follow her parents’ career path as an actress. Dern and Ladd divorced in 1969, the same year he married his current wife, Andrea Beckett.
Most recently, he’s been a regular cast member of the HBO polygamy series “Big Love,” playing the father of series lead Bill Paxton.
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