Bruce Dern is the longest-running performer in the movie business — in quite a literal sense. Between and during his early acting gigs, he was a competitive runner at distances from a half-mile to 50-mile ultra-marathons. He went 17 years without missing a day of running. “Runner’s World magazine gives me credit for 104,000 lifetime miles,” Dern told me this week.
It is fitting that Dern’s acting career is a feat of endurance, moving ahead one part at a time and pushing through discouraging setbacks until, at age 77, he has achieved universally recognized stardom. His role as the endearingly cantankerous Woody Grant in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska has earned him the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar nomination. He will receive the Modern Master Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Saturday, February 8.
“My biggest win is getting that role,” Dern said. “That SOB [Payne] can make a movie. As far as I’m concerned, he’s six-for-six. His first movie, Citizen Ruth, had my daughter [Laura Dern] in it. He’s the best director I’ve ever worked for and made as good a movie as I’ve been in.” Dern called Nebraska, shot in stark black-and-white, “the little movie that could. It’s chugging along by word of mouth.”
Dern’s career had “supporting actor” written all over it. He could be counted on to inject a dose of villainy into a film. “I never had a story that was about my character,” he said — until Woody came along. “The business part of the movies is a marathon,” he said. “You have to hang in there and stay in shape. I knew it would take a while, but not this long.”
Many of the miles he logged as a runner were on the roads of Santa Barbara. When Dern, who ran some track in high school and college, moved to Southern California in the early ’60s, he joined a group of hardy distance runners. His best friend among them was Bob Carman, who moved to Santa Barbara as a math and physics professor at S.B. City College and helped create a thriving running community here. (Carman died in 2010 at 79.)
“Bob is Laura’s godfather,” Dern said. “I would come up to his house [on San Antonio Creek Road], and we’d run through Montecito, the orchards in Carpinteria, turn around at the 7UP bottling place, and run back — 40 miles in all. Another time, he’d run from his place, and I’d start at mine [in Malibu], and we’d meet around Emma Wood Beach. We were sick.”
Dern ran several marathons in Santa Barbara in the heat of the late summer. His most severe test came in Death Valley. “There was a 10K race, and only 21 people were stupid enough to run it,” he recalled. “Bob comes up alongside me in his VW bus and says, ‘Get in the car, Bruce.’ I say, ‘Come on, Bob; it’s only six miles.’ He starts pulling me. He says, ‘Bruce, you’re running in place.’ I reached up to wipe my forehead. I was sweating blood.”
Dern reduced his mileage considerably after the age of 40, but he still tries to get out and run some intervals of 220 yards, favoring an injured right leg, a few times a week.
Modern Master Award: Saturday, February 8, at the Arlington Theatre.