FROM A BREAKTHROUGH in the seventies alongside one of Hollywood’s soon-to-be legendary directors, to a period of personal trauma and eventual return to the cinematic fold – Richard Dreyfuss may have battled many demons, but he remains an undisputed and outspoken icon of the industry.
“I loved my life as an actor,” a beaming Richard Dreyfuss reminisces. “And I don’t mean that I loved parts of it – I mean I loved all of it. I loved not getting jobs, I loved getting jobs, I loved turning down jobs, and I knew – and I’ve said this to other actors – that if you are handed a great role and you are 18 years old, do you have the life experience to do it?”
Now 69, Dreyfuss is one of the last of his kind: a thoroughly outspoken and independent actor from a bygone age of Hollywood that boasted the likes of Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in their prime – stars who commanded much more than just screen time. Born in Brooklyn to an attorney father and peace activist mother, Dreyfuss would find his first leading role in the George Lucas-directed American Graffiti in 1973 alongside future screen stars Harrison Ford and Ron Howard.
And it wasn’t until much later in his career that Dreyfuss believes he succumbed to the purely financial pressures often exerted on those who wish to make their mark among the bright lights of Tinseltown.
“I look back and I think: I never worked for money until I was 57 years old,” he remarks. “Never. Every single job I had, I did because I loved it. The seventies were a golden age; guys made the films they wanted to. And then the corporate thing took over.”
Dreyfuss may have loved the life of an actor, but his time on the movie that made him a renowned name in cinematic history was almost irreparably marred from the start. From a feud on set with co-star Robert Shaw to a multitude of mechanical malfunctions affecting a certain giant artificial shark, the 1975 thriller Jaws brought together Dreyfuss and up-coming director and fellow Jewish talent, Steven Spielberg, for the first time.
“Spielberg and I have one thing in common,” he explains. “I was an uncrowned prince of the actors; even though I was a teenager, they knew I was their man. And Steven was the uncrowned king of directors. In that way we related to one another. But Steven is an enormous personality and he’s the only director of his generation that has made it in every genre.
“Martin Scorsese, as much as I respect him, has made one film over and over, and George Lucas has actually made one film for 30 years. Steven has been willing to play in every genre there is, and I can’t tell you how much I admire him for that.”
“Jaws,” of course, went on to become one of Hollywood’s most celebrated creations, despite its many teething problems (pun intended). But despite their combined success, when Spielberg went about sourcing talent for his next project – 1977 sci-fi feature “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – Dreyfuss was forced to adopt underhanded tactics to stave off competition from some of the best in the business.
“I badmouthed every actor in America to get that part,” he laughs. “It was the only part I ever did that with. Because I knew it was a noble
film, a film that would be watched in hundreds of years. So I would pass his office and say, ‘Al Pacino is crazy!’ or ‘Dustin Hoffman is not funny!’ And then one day he said, ‘You got the part.’ And when you think about it, it’s the first film ever made that said we have nothing to fear. That’s an amazing thing.”
That same year, Dreyfuss wrote himself into the history books as the then youngest winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work on Herbert Ross’ “The Goodbye Girl.” But although he took the torch from the fabled Marlon Brando, and held that position until Adrien Brody won aged 29 in 2002, Dreyfuss is idiosyncratically self-aware about his youthful victory.
“I won that award far too early,” he agrees. “Because I’m built for the hunt, I’m not built to have achieved something. I’m built to try and get it. And so I won that award when I was 29 and I remember taking it from Sylvester Stallone, making the shortest of speeches and getting out of there. I didn’t know or care about one person in that audience and I knew that I shouldn’t be winning an Oscar when I was 29.”
Dreyfuss’ reservations about his career proved true. By the end of 1978 he was in rehab for a crippling addiction to various narcotics that resulted in him blacking out while driving and crashing his car headlong into a tree. Thankfully, it proved to be the catalyst that Dreyfuss needed to snap out of his drug-induced reverie.
“The accident happened on November 9th, and 10 days later I sobered up,” he says. “And it took me 20 years to realize that November 9th was the day my daughter, Emily, was born.”
Intriguingly it was Emily who reverberated in some of Dreyfuss’ self-described visitations by supposedly heavenly creatures. It’s just a further layer to add to the star, who has always spoken his mind about everything from America – “the most revolutionary country in the history of the world” – to his own struggles with conventional theology.
“Both before and after my accident I had had some of the strangest encounters in the world with what I call angels,” he reveals. “I’m Jewish and I’m an agnostic – and I think an agnostic is the only mature thing to be – but I’ve had some serious encounters with people who gave me advice and disappeared. And one of these angels was the girl who wore horn-rimmed glasses, and my daughter wears horn-rimmed glasses now.
“Then I met my current wife, who is Russian, and a vivid person in her own way. I began to accept a part of the Christian mythology, but did I believe it? I don’t know, but G-d works either as fact or as metaphor. So at the same time that I wanna punch him in the mouth sometimes – although I’ll probably never get the chance – I have conversations with him all the time. Because I think I’ve led a blessed life: I got to do what I adored, I was paid for it, and I was praised for it. What’s wrong with 40 years of that?”
Now nearing his 70th birthday, Dreyfuss has spent time pursuing his off-screen interests, including setting up The Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, which aims to enhance the teaching of the duties of citizenship to young people in America in order to empower future generations. His latest televised project, the as-yet-unreleased “Shots Fired,” examines the repercussions of the death of an unarmed white man by an African-American police deputy.
It’s yet another project that attests to Dreyfuss’ unique, and respected, interpretation of American culture and his desire to cross-examine its flaws while highlighting its fundamental strengths.
“I am very attached to the idea of America,” he concludes. “Six thousand years ago, 98% of the world had their heads chopped off if they learned how to read or write. Then America said, ‘If you can get here, we’ll give you all of that for free’. And that began the greatest mass migration ever and it’s still going on, and the only ones who don’t understand that are our children because they aren’t taught.
“When we made the people the sovereign power, it was about as revolutionary a move as you could think of.” He pauses, eyes twinkling. “But actually I’ve never been obsessed with revolutionary characters, and that’s why I’ve only played revolutionary schmucks!