To the critics' trumpet call that "Bruce Dern is back!" Dern himself replies in his reedy voice, "Where've I been?"

The 54-year-old actor had been gratefully reading the reviews for "After Dark, My Sweet," his recent hard-edged thriller based on a novel by the long-neglected pulp writer Jim Thompson.

"A guy in Vanity Fair gave me glowing remarks, but in the middle of it he said, "Mr. Dern has been absent from the mainstream movie scene for over a decade."

"That almost paralyzed me," Dern said. "I just couldn't believe it. I did almost a movie a year for the last 10 years. 'The Burbs' may not have worked on the level everyone wanted it to, but it was fun. 'On the Edge,' 'That Championship Season' -- those are not lightweight experiences."

Such comments are minor annoyances.

"The nice thing about this film is that it's not an unsimilar venture to what got me going 20 years ago at BBS, a small company that made million-dollar films ('Easy Rider,' 'Five Easy Pieces,' 'Drive, He Said')

Now Avenue is another small company that makes the 1990 million-dollar film, which is now a $5 million film. Last year it was 'Drugstore Cowboy,' this year it's 'After Dark, My Sweet.'" he said.

The film casts Dern as a scruffy ex-cop adrift in the California desert. A boozy widow (Rachel Ward) introduces him to a former boxer and mental patient (Jason Patric) who is conned by Dern into kidnaping the son of a rich Palm Springs family.

"One of the things that people seem to be appreciating," Dern observed, "is that I'm not too far from the well. Uncle Bud has a lot of sleaze on him, a lot of little moves on him.

"If there is a `Bruce Dern role,' this might be the ultimate. He's not overtly savage, not an overt bad man. But he's lurking in the area. I'd definitely ask for his driver's license right away if I saw him."

How did Dern get this way? He appears to be an upright citizen; his only addiction seems to be running, which he does for 15 miles, day in, day out.

"I began in television as an actor who worked," he said by way of explanation. "I didn't have a strong, individual, leading-man persona. The jobs I took in order to maintain any semblance of a career were roles in this (villainous) area.

"When you're introduced into the movie business, they remember you in the first strong images they have of you. The images of me were always as bad guys in television shows or movies."

And what bad guys! He was the man who shot John Wayne in "The Cowboys," the crazy who attacked the Super Bowl in a blimp in "Black Sunday," Jane Fonda's war-crazed husband in "Coming Home," the polo-playing cad in "The Great Gatsby."

Dern is quick to cite some of his non-villainous movies: "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" "Smile," "Middle Age Crazy."

"But I don't fight (type-casting) anymore," he sighed.

Dern grew up a rebel in a distinguished Illinois family; his father was statesman Adlai Stevenson's law partner, a grandfather was Secretary of War under Franklin Roosevelt, a great-uncle was the poet Archibald MacLeish. An exclusive prep school failed to calm his wild spirit, nor did the University of Pennsylvania where he was expelled from the track team for refusing to shave sideburns grown for a college play.

His studies at the Actors Studio brought Dern to the attention of Elia Kazan, who cast him in the play "Sweet Bird of Youth" and the movie "Wild River." In Hollywood, Dern found his first steady work as Jack Lord's sidekick in the TV series "Stony Burke."

Dern is doubly celebrating these days, for his own success in "After Dark, My Sweet," and daughter Laura's in "Wild at Heart."

"It's amazing," he said with fatherly pride. "You have a daughter who suddenly explodes on the scene even though she's been around for 10 years. It appears she just arrived in June.

"She's what I call a `townie.' Even though she grew up in the Valley instead of Beverly Hills or Hollywood, all of the kids who grew up here are townies," he said. "Most of the actors in my generation didn't come from L.A.; they came from other lands. Laura and her generation were around (films) all their lives.

"What's surprising to me is the magnitude of stardom they achieve at such an early age. And the ability they have to handle it, the kind of professionalism that Laura and Jason Patric and Nicolas Cage have. These kids have a whole persona, they can do this, they can do that. Nothing fazes them. It was all kind of flustering and flattering when we started out. It took us well into our forties before we got any kind of recognition that they get now."

Does he give Laura any career advice? It's not necessary, says Dern.

"She knows it's a marathon. She got in knowing that in the marathon the race doesn't start until you've done 16 miles. It's what you do with the last 10 that counts."