Three Things We Can Learn from Bruce Dern’s Endless Career


2014-01-29 15.15.10I’ve had several moments in life when an unknown person exuded an invisible energy to say, “Hello there. You know me. I’m famous.”

It’s happened to you too.

An individual’s simple air of distinction – no pomp or pretentiousness, no ego involved, always unassuming – lights a fire under our intuition. We’re not obsessed with finding out who they are, but the circumstance gets a grip on us.

Here’s me over thirty years ago remembering every detail of this kind of meet-up:

After landing at a small dusty, open air rectangle of an airport in Loreto, Mexico, one person in the mostly empty place catches my eye.  

He leans against one of the support beams of the thatched roof with his right knee bent and the back of his boot planted firmly on the rounded wood. He surveys an airless, outside panorama; he’s a do-not-disturb dude.

This spare man in a worn cowboy hat removes his sunglasses, wipes his sweaty brow with the back of his hand and replaces the glasses. He’s not shaved in a while.

I scrunch up my forehead. “Geez, he seems familiar.” 

Meanwhile, my fifteen-year-old daughter in a wide brimmed straw hat, socks with Tevas and  dressed in a long sleeved t-shirt under scrubs heads my way. This outfit reflects her theme for the upcoming two week family sail in the Sea of Cortez – “no sun will touch my body.”  

She asks quietly, “Mom, why are you staring at that guy?”

“Because he is somebody and I don’t know who.” Finally, the neurons fire.

“You know, I think that’s Bruce Dern.”

“Whatever,” says the superbly executed teenage shrug of the clueless.

My discovery was meant to be a whisper but was not. Upon hearing his name the actor looked my way and tipped his hat.

I manage a small beauty contestant wave.

Ever since, Bruce Dern, the perfect picture lonesome cowboy, has been a favorite of mine.

 Career Without High Notes

Not to go all Hollywood on you (a recent post was about Matthew McConnaughey), but retrospective pieces investigating the ups, downs, luck and sustainability of the 2014 Oscar nominees mirror individuals – like you and me, except for the fame – who work hard at their craft, endure lows and at times struggle to find a vision for the future.

While Bruce Dern’s career is stronger than ever, his look back is full of accolades that forever eluded him. Not winning top roles makes for career angst.

Despite 80 films and countless tv shows, Dern, at 78, expresses disappointment in not being considered a major player in his profession. “Will my time ever come?” he asks.

Surveying a long professional livelihood where luck, better marketing or more kissing up could catapult one into stardom’s next level, Dern’s query is hauntingly poignant.

In times of honesty, we all remember close calls for glory – the dream client, prime book publisher, the angel investor, the job and title we just missed.

In the design phase of your new post50 life, a glimpse back at your career yields perspective on the future. Where will you invest your time and energy when it comes to working from 55 to a possible 85?

Maybe you’ll do what Dern did. Plug away at work you are good at in pursuit of triumph, notoriety, reputation or more loot. (Really, loot is okay.)

The payoff could be that your time will really come.

Bruce Dern’s has.2014-02-01 15.19.43

Glimmer of Gold

This year Dern is nominated for the Oscar in steep competition for his role as Woody Grant, his character in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska for which he picked up the award for Best Actor at Cannes in May.

“A part,” he says, “I’ve waited 77 years for.”

Given Dern’s chance to win at the 86th Academy Awards ceremony on March 2nd, one wonders if the personal assessment of his professional work will alter if he doesn’t win.

Can the body of good work and major bit parts without a high dose of glory be enough?

Will the “nomination alone” allow him to change his view and see himself as a major player?

Each of us determines how we view our work endeavors. While some of us want to move on, others will consider pushing a successful career ahead for another run of twenty plus years.

The Endless Career

If you want to take your current profession forward into your third act, Dern’s experience offers insights in planning and strategy.  

1. Peaking in Later Years. The long road to Nebraska was predicted back in 1958 when Dern began studying with Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio in New York. Kazan’s take on Dern was, “he had something that they hadn’t seen before, but nobody will realize it in the business until you are in your sixties.” (This was a message delivered to Dern by Marilyn Monroe.)

Kazan further explained when questioned by Dern, “You’re not a conventional leading man; you never will be. You become the characters you play.”   

Ask yourself: Is the possibility of peaking late in life in your current career inspiring you to continue?  How satisfied might you be with a good enough marathon run in your work without glory or the rewards you seek?

 2. Grab the Opportunities. “When I read Nebraska,” states Dern, “I knew, Godammit, I can do that.”

Payne sent Dern the script nine years ago. “The next morning, I went out to Toys ’R’ Us and bought a little red truck and sent it to his house,” says Dern, whose character needs the winnings to buy a new pickup. All I said in the letter was, ‘You may not see it, and nobody might see it, but I am Woody.’ No reply….for eight years.

Ask yourself: Will you go after late-in-life work with as much enthusiasm, confidence and aggressiveness as Dern did?

 3. Body Counts.  A competitive runner in high school and college, Dern still trains religiously and in his prime could clock 50 miles in a weekend. “Running was his best friend,” says, Laura Dern, his daughter. “He knows what he needs to do to keep himself centered in a bizarre business with a lot of ebb and flow, particularly if you’re going to do it as long as Dad has.”

In addition to running, Dern’s history of healthy habits is astounding. “Never had a drink in my life. Never had a cigarette. Never had a cup of coffee.”

Ask yourself: Do you give your health and body as much attention for a career long haul as you do the mastery of your craft?

Bruce Dern as Woody in the film, Nebraska.
Bruce Dern as Woody in the film, Nebraska.


 Last Chance

Just as he was thirty years ago in a broken down airport in Loreto, the man is without pretentiousness and is unassuming in his media interviews leading up to the Academy Awards.

Yet, Dern’s desire to go home with the Oscar for Best Actor is clear and so is his reality.

“I’m running out of time,” he says matter-of-factly. 

That’s happening to all of us. Endless careers end.

But starting them is the work of now. It’s a choice.

About Barbara Pagano

Barbara Pagano,Ed.S., author and speaker, influenced over 3,500 executives in organizations to achieve higher performance. She is now on a mission to help individuals extend their career arcs and craft lifestyles of productive longevity.
This entry was posted in Endless Careers, Self-Management. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Three Things We Can Learn from Bruce Dern’s Endless Career

  1. Pingback: Set the Stage for Your Endless Career: The First Four Steps » The Inventive Life Post50

Would love to hear what you are thinking.