Old School Americana & Nostalgia


Bruce Dern Claims He Still Gets Hate Mail For Infamous Scene with John Wayne

Bruce Dern Claims He Still Gets Hate Mail For Infamous Scene with John Wayne

Bruce Dern has had to live with the fact that he killed off John Wayne in The Cowboys, and he’s still healing about it today. Dern, a truly fine actor, was put into a role that called for him to nail “The Duke” with a bullet. Oh, brother, he’s been hearing about this deed since 1972.

That’s more than 50 years, folks. Dern, though, has a pretty good recollection of how things went down on the movie set. He told Cowboys & Indians in an interview that yeah, people still get on his case about shooting Wayne’s character. How dare he shoot John Wayne!

Bruce Dern Knew He’d Get Backlash

“But I knew that would happen,” Dern said. “I knew on the day when I had to shoot him when we did that scene, that he had never even had a bullet squib put on him before in his career. You know, he got shot in the Sands of Iwo Jima. I think he got killed by some sniper. But this was the first time he actually had a squib put on him, where it was going to be close to his skin and everything else.”

Dern laughs then says, “I remember he leaned into me at about 8:15 a.m. that morning, reeking of Wild Turkey 101, and said, ‘Is it gonna hurt?’ And I said, ‘Duke, they’re gonna blow your [bleeping] chest off. Get a metal protector to put underneath those squibs so the squibs aren’t next to your skin.’ ‘Oh, how do I do that?’ I said, ‘How do you do it? Order the effects, man, like you order everybody else, to go ahead and do that for you.’”

After Wayne was fitted up for his scene, Dern said “The Duke” had something to tell him. “‘Oh, I want to remind you of one thing. When this picture comes out, and audiences see you kill me — they’re gonna hate you for this.’” Dern replied and said, “Maybe. But at [UC] Berkeley, I’ll be a [bleeping] hero!”

John Wayne Put Dern At Ease In His Way

Dern also admits that he might have been intimidated by Wayne at first. Wayne had his way of putting Dern at ease. “But right at the start, he says to me, ‘I want you to do us a favor.’ He was including himself, [director] Mark Rydell, and the scriptwriters. He said, ‘From now on, consider me to be somebody you can publicly kick the s**t out of 24 hours a day on the set. Because I want these little kids [playing the cowboys of the title] to be absolutely terrified of you.’”

At this time, Wayne had just wrapped up a Playboy interview. In it, he made some comments about the civil rights movement and Native Americans.

Besides Wayne and Dern, The Cowboys also starred Roscoe Lee Browne, Colleen Dewhurst, A Martinez, Slim Pickens, and Robert Carradine. On a $6 million budget, the movie posted $19.2 million at the box office. Wayne wasn’t through, though, making movies even though he’d had health issues at times.

He starred in Rooster Cogburn in 1975 and The Shootist in 1976. That movie, which also starred Jimmy Stewart and Ron Howard, ended up being Wayne’s final role on the big screen. In The Shootist, Wayne plays an aging gunfighter who is dying from cancer. This movie ended up with a rather solid ending. Three years later, Wayne would die from cancer.