Bruce Dern: The actor's marathon run

At age 77, Bruce Dern is finally in the spotlight -- and generating Oscar buzz -- for his lead performance in the new film, "Nebraska"
At age 77, Bruce Dern is finally in the spotl... 08:25

(CBS News)  Despite going toe-to-toe with John Wayne in the 1972 film "The Cowboys," Bruce Dern has rarely achieved top billing in his long Hollywood career . . . which makes his current role all the sweeter. Lee Cowan now with a Sunday Profile:  

Norfolk, Nebraska, is a small, friendly town. Chances are you've never heard of it, except as Johnny Carson's boyhood home -- his house is still here. 

But for veteran actor Bruce Dern, this place deserves a tip of the hat for far more than that. In many ways, he's waited his whole career to get here.   

"Out here," he said, "it's not the end of an era."

He spent much of the frigid winter here in Nebraska last year, shooting with director Alexander Payne. He turned in a performance that has already earned him the Best Actor Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and just may put him in the running for an Oscar, too.

The film is called "Nebraska." Dern plays the cantankerous and not-so-gracefully-aging Woody Grant, who insists on walking across four states to claim sweepstakes winnings, which his son (played by "Saturday Night Live" alum Will Forte) says don't exist.

Woody Grant: "I'm going to Lincoln if it's the last thing I do. I don't care what you people think."
David Grant:  "Listen to me, you didn't win anything. It's a complete scam. So you've got to stop this, okay?"
Woody: "I'm running out of time."

"I knew when I saw the script on paper that I had to play the role," Dern said. "I don't mean THEY wanted me to have to do it, but Bruce Dern had to find a way to be able to play this role."

At 77, it's been a long wait. He spoke to Cowan at the Tap Room, a hideaway in the historic Langham Hotel near his home in Pasadena, where he wrote his recent autobiography, "Things I've Said, But Probably Shouldn't Have: An Unrepentant Memoir."

A life-long runner, he writes that his career has always more closely resembled a marathon than a sprint.

Has he missed a day? "Oh yeah, the longest streak I had is 17 years when I didn't miss a day," Dern said.

He knew when he came to California some 50 years ago -- fresh out of the Actor's Studio in New York -- that he'd be running behind other leading men. 

Famed director Elia Kazan told him so, flat-out.

"He said, 'When you get out there, it's gonna take you a long, long time,'" Dern recalled. "'Nobody's gonna appreciate what you do until you're in your late 60s.' Well, that was thrilling to hear at 24 years old, you know what I mean?"

"Very prophetic though now, right?" Cowan said.

"Oh yeah, well, but who knows that then?"

He started off in Westerns, like "Gunsmoke," and always found a way to make himself memorable. 

But over the course of more than 80 films and countless TV shows, Dern was rarely the star.