Bruce Dern struggled to find acting jobs after co-starring opposite John Wayne in The Cowboys, which is on ITV4 this afternoon. 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.
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?’”