It was an average morning in June 1957 as Bruce Dern — a young, 21-year-old man with unmistakable Elvis-style sideburns — hopped into a Breyer’s ice cream truck at 14th and Broad streets to begin his rounds for the day.
Dern was attending acting classes at a studio near Philadelphia’s Betsy Ross House at the time, and drove the truck as a way to take in a small income on the side.
He’d dropped out of Penn a few months earlier, and was struggling to make it in the competitive world of acting.
Today, it’s safe to say that Dern has made it.
Nearly 56 years after he could be found driving his Breyer’s truck during the hot Philadelphia summer, audiences can now spot Dern on movie screens across the country — most recently playing a brief cameo role in Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated “Django Unchained.”
While prominent Penn graduates in Hollywood are generally among the most lauded in the University’s alumni community, few on campus remember the Penn-Dern connection.
Originally from Chicago, Dern enrolled at the University in 1954, following in the footsteps of his father and brother.
At the beginning of his junior year, though, he realized that Penn wasn’t for him.
“If you want to be an actor, you can’t learn how to act in college,” Dern said in the low, raspy drawl that’s defined his performances in the more than 80 feature films he’s appeared in over the years. “I always enjoyed the city, but I never saw myself as part of the campus. It wasn’t a good fit.”
‘Just beyond where the buses run’
Over the years, Dern has carved out a niche as one of Hollywood’s premier villains, making a name for himself playing sociopaths, psychotics and criminals.
One of Dern’s most prominent roles came alongside Jane Fonda and Jon Voight in the 1978 film “Coming Home,” in which he earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a Vietnam War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some of Dern’s other memorable roles have included his performance in “The Cowboys” in 1972, during which his character famously — or infamously — killed John Wayne. He also starred alongside his longtime friend Jack Nicholson in “The King of Marvin Gardens” during the same year.
Dern said he’s been asked many times over the years about what draws him to “crazy” characters. He always gives a similar answer.
“David Letterman once said to me, ‘Why do you always play these guys who are crazed beyond belief?’ But I don’t look at them that way. Sure, they’re people who do ghastly things, but they didn’t start out that way,” Dern said. “For me, that’s what makes them interesting to play as characters — being able to look into what made them act the way they did during a time of crisis, being able to tap into those emotions.”
Dern, a noted method actor, looks at many of the characters he’s played as men who live “just beyond where the buses run.”
“Anybody who lives close enough to take a bus into town is not a fringe person, but if you live just beyond where they run, all bets are off as to what your demeanor might be,” he said.
Dern first broke onto the Hollywood scene with the help of Elia Kazan, the acclaimed director of films like “On the Waterfront.”
Over the years, he says he’s worked with five “geniuses” in addition to Kazan — Tarantino, Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Douglas Trumbull and Alexander Payne.
In the case of “Django” — in which Dern played Old Man Carrucan, a brutal one-time slave owner — Dern viewed the opportunity to portray an “authentic” white Southerner during the 1850s as especially attractive.
Tarantino, he said, sent his agent a script for the movie one day, asking Dern to “pick a part” that stood out to him. Dern initially responded that he didn’t see a role that fit his acting style, but Tarantino persisted, ultimately writing the part of Old Man Carrucan specifically for him.
When working on set in New Orleans, Dern said that Jamie Foxx, who played Django, told him he’d “never had anyone look at me in as devastating a way as you did [when filming].”
“You have to look at the multiple dimensions of the character,” Dern said. “It’s my job to find more than one side to the character I play — he’s not just a bad guy who robbed a bank or killed a person, he’s a guy who has a lot of other things going on. That’s what makes it a challenge, and that’s what makes it great.”
Penn and beyond
Although Dern never finished all four years at Penn, his time at the University has left a lasting impression over the years.
Dern’s Penn experience was largely defined by his time on the track team. He began running at the beginning of his freshman year, making a name for himself at a series of local and national competitions.
The United Press reported in 1957 that “the bobby-soxers squealed and howled and shrieked, ‘Go, Elvis, go!’ when Dern ran on Penn’s two-mile relay team.”
But at the beginning of his junior year, then-track coach Ken Daugherty abruptly kicked Dern off the team after he refused to shave his signature sideburns. Dern’s father, John, was a member of Penn’s Board of Trustees during the incident, and the decision garnered a slew of media coverage as a result.
“I can’t say that I was all that surprised by what happened. Bruce has always been a free spirit,” said 1958 Wharton graduate Richard Censits, who knew Dern at Penn. “I think that’s served him well in what he’s gone on to do.”
The track incident played a major role in Dern’s decision to leave Penn.
While Dern was never involved in any drama groups on campus, he did start going to the movies in Philadelphia soon after enrolling at Penn — his first foray into the world of acting.
“I was mesmerized by the fact that I could go to the theater and have it seem like the people on screen were reaching out and touching me,” he said. “To me, that was far more than anything Penn had to offer.”
Although Dern is already 76, he believes that the best is yet to come in his career.
Later this year, Dern will be starring in “Nebraska.” Directed by Payne — who has made a name for himself with titles like “The Descendants” and “About Schmidt” — the film tells the story of a father’s relationship with his estranged son.
The movie is Dern’s first leading role in a number of years, and he describes it as “the best film I’ve ever been in, the best role I’ve ever been given.”
“It’s somewhat of a Renaissance for me of sorts,” he joked. “It really does feel like a revival. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”