By 1972, Bruce Dern’s career was off to a great start. Like many actors who started in the sixties, Dern cut his teeth on small TV parts. He was on hit westerns like Rawhide and Bonanza. Dern also held film roles in movies like Hang ‘Em High and They Shoot horses Don’t They. However, the role that had the most impact on his carer was Longhair in The Cowboys. In that film, he starred alongside John Wayne. That role almost killed his career.
Bruce Dern turned in a stellar performance in The Cowboys. That wasn’t what made it hard for him to get work. In fact, he had no control over the aspect of the role that nearly tanked his acting aspirations. After that movie came out, fans branded him “The Man Who Killed John Wayne.” He was one of the most hated men in Hollywood.
As a matter of fact, Dern’s performance alongside John Wayne may have made things worse. He is such a believable villain in the scene that you can’t help but hate him just a little bit. Fans may have forgotten a lesser actor with or a weaker performance. Bruce Dern, however, was all in. Check out the fateful scene below.
There is no denying that John Wayne and Bruce Dern both turn it all the way up for this scene. They have an epic fight. Then, after Duke’s Wil Anderson bests Dern’s Longhair, things go south fast. Longhair pulls a pistol from his partner’s holster. After a little trash talk, he shoots Anderson in the back of his arm. Then, he puts one in the cowboy’s gut. When Anderson goes down, the villain puts another slug in him for good measure. At the same time, Dern was shooting down several future prospects.
John Wayne Warned Him
John Wayne warned Bruce Dern that there would be consequences for taking the role. About this, Dern once said that when he showed up to the set, the Duke had already been drinking. He walked up to Dern, leaned in close, and said, “Oh, how they’re going to hate you for this.”
John Wayne was telling the truth. After The Cowboys hit screens, fans hated Bruce Dern. People would come up to him on the street and cuss him out for killing the Duke. At the same time, studios didn’t want to hire him because people hated him so much.
On one hand, that is a testament to John Wayne’s popularity. If just about anyone else died in a movie it was no big deal. It really didn’t matter who did the killing, either. However, Wayne’s characters never died. At the same time, he was a national treasure. So, his death was a little different. On the other hand, it shows how good of an actor Bruce Dern is. The goal of any kind of art, acting included, is to make the audience feel something. Dern succeeded. The emotion just happened to be rage.