Exclusive: Bruce Dern reflects on Family Plot’s 45th anniversary
Oscar and Golden Globe nominee Bruce Dern has a number of iconic titles on his filmography across his 60-plus-year career and while chatting with the star for the indie dramedy Last Call, ComingSoon.net looked back to the past with Dern to reflect on Alfred Hitchcock’s comedic thriller Family Plot for its 45th anniversary!
Prior to starring in the 1976 film, Dern had worked with Hitchcock on two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and as the sailor in Marnie whom the central mother and daughter “beat to death with a fire poker” that instituted the titular character’s fear of the color red. When coming on to the film, Dern was originally set to star alongside Roy Thinnes in the role of jeweler Arthur Adamson, to which Dern was excited at the prospect given Thinnes’ stardom at the time, though was surprised to learn about his being replaced by William Devane part of the way through shooting.
“I had a history with Hitchcock, so he hired me and we went to work and I didn’t know Roy, Roy was pretty big stuff to me, because he had his own TV series, he was above the title on a movie he’d done,” Dern explained. “But I was there with my partner, Barbara Harris, and I came to work on a Monday and Bill Devane was there. I made a point to sit next to Hitch every single day, for 52 days, and he invited me, he said, ‘Why don’t you pull up your chair over here?’ I took my chair, I walked over to him and said I’m not gonna miss this opportunity. He said ‘It’s quite alright, Bruce, I welcome you.’ I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t think Roy was having a very nice time,’ and that was the end of the discussion.”
A sudden casting decision aside, Dern recalls nothing but having a good time working on the thriller with Hitchcock and his cast and crew, looking back at two key situations that he felt pointed to the filmmaker’s legendary talent in the director’s chair.
“At the end of the first day of shooting, he asked the first assistant, he said, ‘I would like to have a word with my crew if you please,'” Dern remembered. “So he sat in the little director’s chair and when he got up out of the little director’s chair, his girth was so big that his waist was sticking out of the arm holes on the side, so the chair went with him and he took about two steps and realized, he never turned, but he said to me, ‘A hand please, Bruce.’ So I grabbed the legs of the chair and he walked out of the chair, because their legs were very low to the ground. He walked onto the apron of the set, and he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I said thank you for a rather remarkable first day.’ He walked around the set and thanked 77 crew members, personally, shaking their hands and knowing their first names. The other thing that he did was he said I had a shot where I had to walk into a county recorders office looking for information on this Mrs. Rainbird, who’s the lady we’re looking for. So I have to go into the recording office, and as I go to the door, Hitchcock says to the cameraman, ‘What I’d like is I’d like Bruce, as he approaches the door, to only have half his face lit.’ So we did the shot, when the shot was over, he leaned back in his chair, cupped his hands and talked to a guy on a follow spot, which was on me 40 feet in the air. He said, ‘Leonard, are you right handed or left?’ He said, ‘Well, Mr Hitchcock, I’m right handed.’ He said, ‘Well, I wonder if in this particular take of Bruce, you might use your left hand on your flap and that way you won’t cover his face so quickly.’ He did it, he printed it and it was exactly right, the weaker hand worked more.”
Based on Victor Canning’s 1972 novel The Rainbird Pattern, the story centers on two couples, a fake psychic and her cab-driving boyfriend and a pair of professional thieves and kidnappers as their lives come into conflict during the search for a missing heir. Alongside Dern, Harris and Devane, the cast for the film included Karen Black, Cathleen Nesbitt, Ed Lauter, Katherine Helmond and Nicholas Colasanto.
Making its debut at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, Hitchcock’s final film received rave reviews from critics and saw Harris land a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in the film.