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Moviegoers may remember actor Bruce Dern as the bug-eyed psychotic who terrorized a football stadium in "Black Sunday" or the astronaut who tried to save a space-bound forest in "Silent Running."
But his role these days is more down to earth. Dern co-stars in the controversial Sunday night HBO series "Big Love" as a polygamous Mormon fundamentalist who lives in a dusty rural Utah town.
And to prepare for his role, Dern turned to an unusual source of inspiration: his grandfather, the late Utah Gov. George Henry Dern.
George Dern was Utah's 21st governor, serving two terms from 1925 to 1933 as the second non-Mormon and Democrat to lead the state. After his second term, he was appointed the nation's 54th secretary of war under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
After getting the "Big Love" part, "I drove to my sister's house in Phoenix where she has all the family scrapbooks, and I pored over all of them, just looking at the Salt Lake City years," said the governor's 69-year-old grandson, who has appeared in such films as "Smile," "Family Plot," and "Coming Home," for which he earned an Oscar nomination. "There's a lot of things that I know about during my grandfather's tenure."
Dern the actor doesn't remember ever meeting Dern the governor, who died two months after Bruce Dern was born in 1936 near Chicago. But the thespian says he had many talks with his maternal grandfather, the late Bruce MacLeish, who knew a lot about "the Salt Lake City Derns," he said. MacLeish was good friends with the late Dern during his tenure as governor.
"He told me how it worked and the battles between the [LDS] church and the political hierarchy machine and how it was divided up and how they dealt with the polygamy aspects and the land dispute aspects," Dern said from Los Angeles in an telephone interview. "He made me think that maybe the church would survive no matter what, whether you had a Republican or a Democrat or a socialist or a king."
Gov. Dern was well-regarded by the Republican, mostly Mormon state Legislature during his two terms, reforming the state's tax system, which helped Utah's schools, and helping ratify the Colorado River Compact.
"He got along reasonably well. It was no bed of roses, but politics seldom is," said Utah historian Floyd O'Neil, director emeritus of The American West Center at the University of Utah.
Eighty years later, Bruce Dern is known as one of the best character actors of his generation. He plays the role of a Utah polygamist (and the father of the main polygamist in the series, played by Bill Paxton) with unique insight, channeling what he knows about his grandfather's relationship with the Mormons in the 1920s to help shape his character.
"In this series, I learned quite a bit about the industriousness . . . that these Mormon folks have and the inner pride they have," said Dern, the father of actress Laura Dern. "I don't know the Mormons and I do know there is a Book of Mormon, but I wanted to show the pioneering spirit of individuals who banded together. That's what was all in my head when I took the series."
Dern is aware of the controversy over how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints perceives "Big Love," but after reading all the scripts for this season, "I felt that Utah was never unduly maligned in any shape or form. Utah is a sensational state from the bottom to the top," he said.
"In regards to the church, can you be fair to the Mormon Church and do this kind of series? I think so," he added. "But at the same time, can the Mormon Church be fair to us as an audience?"
Bruce Dern, one of the few actors to gun down John Wayne in a movie ("The Cowboys") never lived in Utah but has a vast history with the state thanks to his family's roots and his friendship with another actor of his generation - Robert Redford, whom he befriended after they made "The Great Gatsby."
"Since my relationship with Redford began, I've probably been there 50 times and certainly know the state of Utah," he said.
"There's the glory of it, and the history of it and everything else," he added. "Utah is a force. There are states that are not, but Utah is a force."