PLAINVIEW, Neb. — “I never knew anything about my grandfather until a guy sent pictures I have from some Nebraska historical society.”
That's what actor Bruce Dern had to say, between takes on the set of Alexander Payne's movie “Nebraska” earlier this month, about his own Nebraska roots.
It's a remarkable statement when you consider this:
George Henry Dern, born Sept. 8, 1872, on a farm near Scribner, Neb., went on to become captain of the 1894 Nebraska football team, then governor of Utah from 1924 to 1932, and U.S. secretary of war under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
He died holding that office in 1936, just shy of his 64th birthday. Bruce Dern, born in an affluent part of Chicago, was just 3 months old.
“Grandfather Dern had six children — my father (John), two other boys and three girls,” Dern said. “All of them were raised in Salt Lake. To my knowledge, he never came back to Nebraska, and that's really all I know of him.”
Dern, 76, said he knows of no family in Nebraska.
“In fact, there are few Derns period. When we were growing up, we never went to Utah, either.”
George Dern was born to German immigrant parents and attended public school in Hooper, Neb., according to an article on the website HuskerMax.com by former World-Herald copy editor Joe Hudson.
Dern graduated at age 16 from Fremont Normal College, then worked loading lumber and shoveling wheat into freight cars to earn tuition money. The hard work paid off when he enrolled at NU in Lincoln and started at right guard every game of Nebraska's 1893 season.
In 1894, he switched to right tackle, scored a couple touchdowns and was named team captain — but only after the coach rejected the team's first pick to be captain, a black halfback named George Flippin.
Dern didn't quite finish out the season. His family moved to Utah in December 1894, where his father, a metallurgical engineer, had a share in a mining company. George began as bookkeeper, soon became manager and helped develop a process for recovering silver from low-grade ore.
He was elected state senator in 1914, then governor in 1924. He became acquainted with Roosevelt as chairman of the National Governors Conference.
As war secretary, George Dern motorized the army in a time of peace, which turned out to be important not long after he died as World War II loomed.
Bruce MacLeish Dern was more aware of his mother's side of the family while growing up in Glencoe, Ill., where his dad was a lawyer.
“Archibald MacLeish is my uncle,” Dern said. “Archie became a famous poet. Then he wrote a play Elia Kazan directed on Broadway, called 'J.P.' In the 1930s, he was named Librarian of Congress.”
Archibald MacLeish, who won three Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony and an Oscar for a biopic he wrote about Eleanor Roosevelt, lived in Paris for a time. He ran with a circle that included Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Bruce Dern would later appear as Tom Buchanan in the movie version of Fitzgerald's “The Great Gatsby.” Dern got his start on Broadway in Kazan's production of “Sweet Bird of Youth” and in movies with Kazan's “Wild River.”
Dern's mother, Jean, was socially prominent in Chicago and unhappy with his decision to become an actor.
“I was considered persona non grata when I went into the business,” he said, “even though I had an Uncle Archie. He was an artist. I worked for money. I wasn't considered an artist. My people went to plays, but hardly ever to a movie. They felt there was a sense of illegitimacy in movies.”
Jean's father lived next door when Bruce was growing up. Grandfather MacLeish ran the family, Bruce said, and his father went along with that.
“All the Utah roots, the Nebraska roots vanished from anything we knew about except in scrapbooks,” he said. “I never heard anything about Nebraska except that Lottie Brown (grandfather George's wife) was a catch. The Brown sisters of Fremont were evidently like the Mandrell sisters.”
Now, in towns his grandfather knew growing up, Dern is shooting a movie called “Nebraska,” reconnecting in person with roots he never knew much about.
He's not here for that reason, though. He jumped at the chance to work with Payne, and he's glad he did. He even calls him a genius.
“I may put Alexander as the best director I ever worked with,” said Dern, who has worked with Kazan, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, Walter Hill, Sydney Pollack and Robert Aldrich, among others.
“When he looks through the eyepiece of a camera, he sees something no one else sees. He sees magic. And his gift is, he can explain how and why he sees magic and put it on film.”
The other thing Payne does, “which other geniuses don't,” Dern said, is provide his actors with a big safety net. When you want to take risks, Dern said, Payne is there with the net.
“He catches you. He doesn't throw you back up. He carries you back in his arms and says let's go again. Let's try this. Let's try that.”
For the first time in years, Dern said, he's excited to go to work every day.
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