It’s easily the kind of story seen reported on a show like 48 Hours Mystery, yet many may still find it hard to believe. But in fact the story behind the feature film Bernie, starring Jack Black, Academy Award® winner Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey, is completely true.
In Carthage, Texas, November 1996, Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede shot and killed Marjorie Nugent. He wrapped her body in a sheet and stuffed her in a deep freeze, sealing it with duct tape. She remained there for nine months before suspicion lead authorities to search her home, discovering the body. Bernie admitted to his crime and is currently serving a life sentence. That’s the simple explanation for a story that blurs the lines between comedy and tragedy, making the audience look deeper to discover how a well-loved, eccentric, outgoing 39-year-old man could befriend, then gun down, an 81-year-old woman.
WHEN BERNIE MET MARJORIE
When Bernie arrived in Carthage to begin work as the Hawthorne Funeral Home’s assistant funeral director, many locals didn’t know what to think, only describing him as “a little light in the loafers.” It didn’t take long before he became one of the town’s most beloved. Jack Black recalls meeting with Bernie in prison before filming the movie where he encountered Bernie’s appeal first-hand.
“The guy’s very magnetic, very charismatic, and sweet,” says Black. ”It was very strange going to see him in the prison, the maximum security, just packed with scary dudes that are capable, clearly, of all kinds of violence. Then there’s this gentle giant in the middle of it all. And it’s just like, ‘What are you doing here? What happened to your life that you could have done something to be in this situation?’”
Bernie’s journey to that maximum security prison began in March 1990. It was common knowledge in Carthage that Bernie put together beautiful services for the town’s deceased, with one resident claiming, “With Bernie doing your service, you just knew you were going to get to Heaven.”
So, when Rod Nugent, a wealthy oilman and bank chairman, passed away, it was Bernie who would handle the services, bringing him to the attention of Nugent’s widow Marjorie – a woman beyond loathed and hated by the townspeople.
Shirley MacLaine portrays Marjorie in the film and recalls her experience with those who knew the real woman. ”I just heard from whoever I met during the filming, they truly hated her.”
Known for following up with family members after funerals, Bernie did the same with Marjorie, attempting to deliver small gifts to help during mourning. Bernie’s charm didn’t break her edgy exterior at first. Until one visit when Marjorie would invite Bernie inside her home, sealing her own inevitable fate.
“Being so hated gives you some kind of sophisticated outlook on human behavior,” says MacLaine. ”And I think she knew he would do anything to be loved. But she had never felt that kind of emotion. Nobody ever put it out like that to her. So, I think she understood and accepted it.”
THE ODD COUPLE
Over the next several years, the most loved man and most hated woman in Carthage, Texas forged a friendship that baffled many, and fueled the town gossip.
They traveled the globe, putting Marjorie’s million dollar fortune to work. But it was not all fun and games. Bernie, a man known for his selflessness, gave back to the community as much as he could, including using Marjorie’s money to help those who needed it most. Marjorie was known for being selfish and had a different outlook on their friendship. If she knew what he was up to, using her for the lifestyle and access to give to others, she never showed it.
“I think she did. I think she knew it,” says MacLaine. ”[It] puts her in control if she is financing it. So, they went around the world having a good time as long as he stayed within her clutches. To me it was as much about money as anything else. And I think because she was financing him, she felt she also owned every single sentence and hour of his time.”
In this scene from the film, we are witness to Marjorie’s paranoia and desperate behavior to keep Bernie in her clutches.
That control and demand pushed even Bernie’s high level of patience.
“There’s the thing inside him that he needed to be loved by everybody,” says Black. ”[That need] also prevented him from ever telling someone to go fuck themselves. He didn’t have that ‘go fuck yourself’ pressure valve that most of us do. And if you don’t have that, then it slowly builds up over time and then you’re susceptible to snapping and just going way overboard.”
And overboard he went on the afternoon of November 16, 1996. While walking to the car in Marjorie’s garage to head out for lunch, Bernie picked up a .22 gauge rifle and shot Marjorie four times in the back.
Bernie went on trial in 1998, pursued by District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson, played by Matthew McConaughey in the film. Among those in the courthouse during the trial was Texas
Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth and filmmaker Richard Linklater. Hollandsworth had heard about the murder, traveled to Carthage, and wrote an article about the incident that Linklater had read. The two came together to watch Bernie’s trial play out and couldn’t believe the overwhelming support for this man even after shooting a, while very much hated, seemingly innocent old woman. As one witness was quoted as saying, “It’s not as bas as people say; he only shot her four times, not five.”
It was that sort of tone that brought out the comedy among this horrible crime, and Linklater took notice. When putting together the script, he revealed to the real Bernie his intent to make his story a dark comedy.
“He says, ‘What could possibly be funny about this?,’ recalls Linklater. ”‘It ruined my life. It ruined her life obviously. What could possibly be funny?’” He wasn’t the only one. While filming Bernie, Linklater remembers, ”I think the churches in a lot of areas didn’t like the idea that we were making fun of it, making fun of the deceased. We were shooting at one location in Carthage and a church across the street from our location we were shooting [had a sign with the message], ‘Murder is dark, but not comedy.’”
It’s safe to say the filmmakers and cast disagreed, because they forged ahead and have produced a film with a unique blend of desperate loneliness and an intense need for love, set against a simple-life minded town that is now marked in history by this whacky true story. Once you’ve read the story and watched the movie, it does leave one unanswered question – why didn’t Bernie just walk away? Black think he has the answer.
“He was seduced by the money and the being able to live this life with her and being able to help other people,” he says. ”That was a big part of his thing. He wanted to be loved by everyone to a degree that was almost unhealthy for him ultimately.”
*Photos Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment