Dern was born in Chicago, the son of Jean (née MacLeish; 1908–1972) and John Dern (1903–1958), a utility chief and attorney. He grew up in Kenilworth, Illinois. His paternal grandfather, George, was a Utah governor and Secretary of War (he was serving in the latter position during the time of Bruce's birth). Dern's maternal grandfather was a chairman of the Carson, Pirie and Scott stores, his maternal granduncle was poet Archibald MacLeish, and his maternal great-grandfather was Scottish-born businessman Andrew MacLeish. Dern's godfather was Illinois governor and two-time presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson II. His ancestry includes Dutch, English, German and Scottish. He attended The Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) and the University of Pennsylvania. Dern starred in the Philadelphia premiere of Waiting for Godot.