Bruce MacLeish Dern is the scion of a distinguished family of politicians and men of letters that includes his uncle, the distinguished poet/playwright Archibald MacLeish. After a prestigious education at New Trier High and Choate Preparatory, Dern enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, only to drop out abruptly in favor of Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio. With his phlegmatic voice and schoolyard-bully countenance, he was not considered a likely candidate for stardom, and was often treated derisively by his fellow students. In 1958, he made his first Broadway appearance in A Touch of the Poet. Two years later, he was hired by director Elia Kazan to play a bit role in the 20th Century Fox production Wild River. He was a bit more prominent on TV, appearing regularly as E.J. Stocker in the contemporary Western series Stoney Burke. A favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, Dern was prominently cast in a handful of the director's TV-anthology episodes, and as the unfortunate sailor in the flashback sequences of the feature film Marnie (1964). During this period, Dern played as many victims as victimizers; he was just as memorable being hacked to death by Victor Buono in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1965) as he was while attempting to rape Linda Evans on TV's The Big Valley.
Through the auspices of his close friend Jack Nicholson, Dern showed up in several Roger Corman productions of the mid-'60s, reaching a high point as Peter Fonda's "guide" through LSD-land in The Trip (1967). The actor's ever-increasing fan following amongst disenfranchised younger filmgoers shot up dramatically when he gunned down Establishment icon John Wayne in The Cowboys (1971). After scoring a critical hit with his supporting part in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), Dern began attaining leading roles in such films as Silent Running (1971), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), The Great Gatsby (1974), and Smile (1975). In 1976, he returned to the Hitchcock fold, this time with top billing, in Family Plot. Previously honored with a National Society of Film Critics award for his work in the Jack Nicholson-directed Drive, He Said (1970), Dern received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of an unhinged Vietnam veteran in Coming Home (1978), in which he co-starred with one-time Actors' Studio colleague (and former classroom tormentor) Jane Fonda. He followed this triumph with a return to Broadway in the 1979 production Strangers. In 1982, Dern won the Berlin Film Festival Best Actor prize for That Championship Season. He then devoted several years to stage and TV work, returning to features in the strenuous role of a middle-aged long distance runner in On the Edge (1986).
After a humorous turn in the 1989 Tom Hanks comedy The 'Burbs, Dern dropped beneath the radar for much of the '90s. He would appear in cult favorites like Mulholland Falls and the Walter Hill Yojimbo re-make Last Man Standing (both 1996), as well as The Haunting (1999) and All the Pretty Horses (2000). As the 2000's unfolded, Dern would continue to act, apperaing most notably in film like Monster and Django Unchained.