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When the soft-spoken, chubby-cheeked Bernhardt Tiede II arrived for his first day of work as the assistant director of the Hawthorne Funeral Home in the little rural town of Carthage, Texas, no one was sure what to think.
The town’s barber called him “peachy and sweet.” Some men who spent their afternoons swapping stories at Leon Choate’s combination barber-and-gunsmith shop just off the town square openly speculated that he might be “a little light in the loafers.”
But it wasn’t long before Bernie, who never had an unkind word to say about anyone, became one of Carthage’s most beloved residents. His greatest attribute, however, was his ability to create beautiful funerals for Carthage’s deceased. As one townsperson said, “With Bernie doing your service, you just knew you were going to get to heaven.”
One afternoon Bernie organized the funeral for Rod Nugent, a rich Carthage oilman and chairman of Carthage’s bank. There, he met Marjorie Nugent, the town’s domineering grande dame, despised by almost everyone in Carthage for her arrogance and rude behavior. Like he did with many of the town’s widows, Bernie regularly visited Mrs. Nugent after the funeral.
Soon, she began asking him to run errands for her, to take her to both lunch and dinner, and act as her escort on trips. Then, in August 1997, in a story that made headlines in newspapers around the country, Mrs. Nugent was found dead, shot four times in the back, and buried under some frozen foods in the large, rectangular freezer in her garage.
In the dark comedy “Bernie,” directed by Richard Linklater, Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, Shirley MacLaine plays Mrs. Nugent, and Matthew McConaughey plays the town’s blustery real-life District Attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, who was determined to get to the bottom of the crime.
“It’s my Fargo in East Texas, where I grew up” says Linklater, “a story that captures all the hilarity, friendliness, eccentricity and absolute strangeness of small-town Texas life.”
What made the story of Mrs. Nugent’s murder so peculiar was that she had been dead for nine months before people noticed she wasn’t around. (“The truth was that no one really cared about looking for her because no one missed her,” one resident said.) What made the story truly bizarre, however, was the announcement by police that Bernie not only had murdered Mrs. Nugent but had been using her money to give to people in need throughout Carthage.
He even donated $100,000 in Mrs. Nugent’s name to build a new Sunday school building at the Methodist church. Almost immediately after his arrest, Carthage citizens rallied around Bernie, going so far as to drive around the courthouse blowing their horns, and begging District Attorney Davidson not to prosecute their favorite assistant funeral home director.
“Bernie” is filled with the kinds of characters that one might think could only be invented in fiction — characters that do things that are simply unpredictable. But much of the movie is a re-telling of what actually happened. Linklater even hired numerous East Texas citizens–many of them Carthage residents who knew Bernie and Mrs. Nugent–to play minor roles or act as extras in the movie.