Richard Dreyfuss was catapulted to success with films like “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in the 1970s. He garnered his first major accolade with a Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Actor for the 1977 drama “The Goodbye Girl.”
In a world where actors come and go like yesterday’s news, Dreyfuss has proven his talents, drive and artistic scope time and again for the last 50 years.
He will bring some of that magic to the Plaza Classic Film Festival during an on-stage interview before the showing of “Jaws” on Saturday, Aug. 12 and before “Mr. Holland’s Opus” on Sunday, Aug. 13. Dreyfuss will also be signing autographs from 1-2:30 p.m. Aug. 12 at the El Paso Community Foundation Room.
What’s Up got down to brass tacks with Dreyfuss during a recent phone interview.
What are you working on currently?
I am preparing to do a film in September and I’m writing a book at the moment about civic authority and teaching it to the young.
What’s the Dreyfuss Initiative?
We no longer teach what we must teach our young, so they don’t know how to run a complex government. It’s important we understand the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and get that thoroughly in kids’ hearts. We created the expectation of due process.
Let’s talk about being an actor. Do you think your roles in films like “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “American Graffiti” put Richard Dreyfuss on the map?
So why did you turn down roles for their sequels?
Because I thought they were destined to be terrible, as sequels almost always are.
Do you regret turning down any roles?
I do have a small list of films that I regret not doing, but that list will never come out of my lips. Those films are not part of it; I have absolutely no regrets about not doing those sequels.
In an article, I read that you said, “[My] body of work truly reflects my principles.”
I never did a movie for money – only until I came back out of retirement and had to continue working. I had to support my family. I have no regrets about that. During the course of my whole career, I think the films I did – whether they were successful or popular or not – were films I was proud of.
I may have played a whole bunch of Republican villains in my life, but they were not celebratory of the character. To play General [Alexander] Haig or [former Vice President Dick] Cheney, I never had to break any principles. I had no trouble identifying with Cheney; all I had to do was find him in me and bring it out. It’s not as simple as that, of course. Cheney was actually quite easy to play. I understood him. He had one overriding desire, ambition, and I have known that feeling in myself.
Can you explain the process?
It’s a willingness to accept a point of view. I’ve said to young actors, “Inside all of us is Hitler and Jesus, and our obligation is to find the appropriate Hitler and find the appropriate Jesus.”
Why do you “want to hit God in the face” when you die?
I have a short list and rarely have had to add to it. [They’re] complaints that start with the third act of human life, which consists of the imposition of humiliation, pain, distortion of brainpower, and ultimately – coincidentally, at the moment where one might achieve wisdom – you die. I think it’s unfair. I think, “God, if he is what everyone says he is – I don’t think he really is – I’m gonna hit him right in the mouth, because he deserves it, and he needs therapy!”
Can you talk about the trouble you had in the ’80s?
I’m a product of that generation that thought of the experience of drugs was akin to the Lewis and Clark expedition. When I realized it was controlling me, then it became icky and took me a long time to get out of it.
There was actually a point in my life when something real bad happened, which was so bad for me, that did affect my work. That was when my first marriage ended. I was so screwed up and unhappy that it affected my ability to work on a number of films, which when I look at them – no matter what anyone else says – I know I was trapped, imprisoned by my depression.
Tell me about Mr. Holland from “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”
At the beginning, he’s clearly a musician with few options. He ends up loving what he does. He’s a person who learns that this affect he has on people has really been wide and deep. One of the great things about that film is that for whatever reason, the extras – which at times were about 1,000 people – the crew and the cast all bonded together in a way that I had never known before. Making it was an emotional experience that was fantastic. It was so emotionally rich, and it covered so many areas – a film I’m very, very happy I made.
Was there a lot of that chemistry making “The Goodbye Girl?”
Absolutely. So much so that it kind of spoiled me. I thought that was the way it was always going to be.
Was it a gradual process realizing it wasn’t that way?
(Laughs.) Oh no, it was right away!
The actress Illeana Douglas described you as one of the best on-screen thinkers she’s ever seen and she described the process in a scene from Jaws. Was that Richard or your character Matt Hooper?
It’s Richard, but it’s also the roles because I try to pick roles that have that. When I did “American Graffiti,” George Lucas actually offered me Charlie Martin Smith’s role or the role of Curt, and I took Curt because he’s self-aware. That’s what I love about Curt and that’s what I love about most of the characters I play; they have some kind of true self-awareness. Some of them have an awareness that’s dishonest. They all are thinkers.
Would you change anything about your life?
There are a couple of things I would change, but I’m not going to tell you what they are. For the most part, I’m very proud of the fact that – mistakes and all – I made the decisions I made, and I made the decisions of my life. I’ve lived the life I was intended to live, and I feel I was blessed to live it.