Bernie: Marie Callender’s Chicken Pot Pie Recipe

Year Released: 2012
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine
(PG-13, 104 min.)

"To be loved is fortunate, but to be hated is to achieve distinction." Minna Atrim

True crime TV: Slacker edition. Or East Texas’ Fargo, as director Richard Linklater dubbed it. Any way you put it, this dark comedy has a bumper crop of talent.

And I don’t just mean Linklater, the famed director known best for his 90s trio of low-budget minor masterpieces, such as Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise. Nor am I talking about Matthew McConaughey, the Longview, Texas, native who launched his high profile Hollywood career after a chance meeting with Richard Linklater landed him a small role in Dazed and Confused . And it isn’t just Jack Black in a standout performance in the title role of Bernie, making us fall in love with this mincing assistant funeral director from Carthage, Texas.

No, it is the way the story is told, from the town’s point of view, with its ”large Greek chorus of gossips” leading the way. Here is where Linklater’s talents shine. 

He picked his chorus of gossips from ordinary people, holding auditions in Longview and Texarkana, as well as Carthage itself. They interrupt the narrative to give their little insights about Bernie in ways that walk a fine line between realism and parody. 

And a fine line it is. The facts of the 1997 murder demonstrate the cliché about truth being stranger than fiction. Bernie Tiede, Elmer Gantry turned into a cuddly bear of a man who “loved Jesus and show tunes” almost in equal measure, did, in fact, shoot his constant companion, the wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent four times in the back. He was able to hide his crime for nine months, bestowing large handfuls of her lucre on such varied projects as a new wing for the Methodist church and his very own Boot Scootin’ Western Wear, as well as jet skis, playscapes, and even a small house for those he deemed needy. 

On film, we watch as Bernie weaves impromptu stories for Marjorie’s disappearance -- they start off small with tales of a migraine escalating to talk of a stroke, an out of town nursing home, and Marjorie’s need for privacy. Finally, when the body is discovered in the garage freezer, we find out Marjorie is not living such a private life after all:

And they really did find my Aunt Marge on top of the flounder and under the Marie Callender’s chicken pot pies, wrapped in a Lands’ End sheet. They had to wait two days to do the autopsy. It took her that long to thaw. Joe Rhodes, nephew to Marge Nugent

Maybe it’s these cold, hard facts that motivate McConaughey’s unscripted opening in the courtroom as he plays prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson. “Bring in the freezer, where Mrs. Nugent spent the first nine month of her afterlife.” 

In fact, the real Danny Buck, originally none too pleased about this Hollywood version giving perhaps a sympathetic portrait of “Ol’ Bernie the back shooter,” approved of McConaughey’s theatrics. After seeing the movie he thought he would hate, Buck said,

“I wish there was some way I could have watched it before I had to prosecute ol’ Bernie, because I would have damn sure used ol’ Matthew’s ‘Bring in the freezer’ line. 

Not all cast members were initially pleased with Linklater's free-wielding direction, however. Shirley MacLaine, playing the wealthy widow, wanted more on hands direction, according to Skip Hollandsorth, the Texas Monthly journalist whose original article on the macabre death, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” had caught Linklater’s attention.

“He does all these retakes, “ she complained, “but he doesn’t tell me what’s wrong with the last take.”

Bt the end of the filming, however, she finally got it. “By not telling any of us exactly how we should be, we had to find our characters for ourselves.”

And that’s exactly how Linklater treats his audience as well. He never really takes sides in the case. From the opening scene where we see Bernie demonstrating the proper way to prepare a body for burial, interjecting his own special tips about the dangers of over applying makeup or how to tilt the head ever so slightly toward the viewers in a sort of “good-bye” gesture, we know we are not dealing with a conventional character. 

The Greek chorus of gossips chronicles the kind deeds of the soft-spoken mortician, snarls at the mean-spirited Marjorie, or raises an occasional eyebrow over Bernie’s ready acceptance of the lavish lifestyle Marjorie uses to tether him to her. 

Linklater lets us take all this in and decide for ourselves who the real villain is. How refreshing to have a director who gives his audience that freedom.

— Kathy Borich


Film-Loving Foodie

Given Marjorie Nugent’s nine month residency in the garage freezer, her body resting “on top of the flounder and under the Marie Calender’s chicken pot pies,” it has to be intended irony that the final scene of the film shows an imprisoned Bernie teaching his fellow inmates the subtle art of making the crust flakey and the chicken retain its juiciness for – you guessed it – the perfect chicken pot pie.

Try to clear any images of a frozen Shirley MacLaine “spending the first nine months of her afterlife” nestled beneath these pre-packaged delicacies. Our bird is not nearly so old.

Marie Callender’s Chicken Pot Pie



2 cups water

14 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 carrots, peeled and cubed

2 ribs celery, sliced

1 medium onion, chopped

2 tablespoons chicken bouillon granules

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup butter

4 tablespoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon flour

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1 cup frozen peas


2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup shortening

5 tablespoons cold water, more as needed


To make the filling: In 4-quart saucepan combine water, chicken, carrots, celery and onion. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add chicken bouillon, pepper and butter. Dissolve cornstarch and flour into whipping cream and stir into chicken mixture. Simmer 3 minutes stirring frequently until thickened. Add peas and set aside.

To make the crust: Heat oven to 400 degrees F. 

Combine flour and salt. Using pastry blender, cut in shortening until particles the size of small peas form. Sprinkle one tablespoon of water at a time over flour mixture and toss with fork to blend. Add enough water to hold the dough together. Form into 2 balls. Roll out bottom crust on floured surface to 1 inch larger than inverted 9-inch deep-dish pie plate. Lift dough off floured surface by rolling onto rolling pin and unroll over pie plate. Ease the dough into the plate loosely and press in place. Trim bottom crust even with edge of plate.

To assemble: Pour filling into bottom crust. Roll out top crust, cut slits for steam to escape. Cover filling with top crust and fold top crust under bottom crust. Seal crust and flute edge. Bake in a 400 degree F oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling. Let stand 15 to 20 minutes before serving.

Recipe Source: