Bruce Dern said he was terrified the first time he walked on set to work with John Wayne. That was until Wayne gave him a reason to beat him up. When John Wayne called the cast together for a pep talk, Dern wasn’t sure what to expect. But when The Duke had finished, Bruce Dern, still green as summer grass as an actor, was ready to go toe-to-toe with Wayne.
The movie was the iconic The Cowboys. And, spoiler alert, Dern’s character shoots an unarmed John Wayne in the film. It was a true rug-puller of a moment in a great movie. And Dern said without Wayne’s willingness to play weak, he doubts he could have pulled off playing the tough guy.
Bruce Dern remembers one day when John Wayne was being fitted for his squibs. Films use squibs, these packs of blood-like substances that explode, to make it look like someone has been shot. It was the first time Wayne had ever worn a squib, Dern said. Meaning that in more than five decades of filmmaking, no one ever shot John Wayne. John Wayne called Dern over for one last “pep talk” before they shot their big scene.
“Oh, I want to remind you of one thing,” Wayne told Dern. “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?”