Rapid Round: Richard Dreyfuss on His Four-Year Retirement From Acting, Why Bernie Madoff Is a "Sociopath" and Why He Was At That Ted Cruz Rally
The star of 'Jaws' and Oscar-winner for 'The Goodbye Girl' on how he sobered up and why he no longer watches movies.
Just a few years ago, Richard Dreyfuss turned his back on Hollywood and left for Oxford, England, where he immersed himself in research about his passion: civics. Now he’s back and, after a self-imposed retirement, he appeared this season as Bernard Madoff in ABC’s Madoff, an acclaimed mini-series about the life of the disgraced (and jailed) stockbroker, recounting his rise and fall with his arrest in 2008. Madoff is currently serving a 150-year prison sentence.
Dreyfuss, 68, an Oscar winner for 1978’s The Goodbye Girl and the star of such movies as 1975’s Jaws and 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, says he felt little sympathy for Madoff and would never want to meet him. But he also has little sympathy for ABC’s standards and practices executives, who insisted that some real-life names, including those of executives connected to the banks that helped support Madoff, not be mentioned.
He spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his work on the series, his wild past (car accident, coke and orgies) and about the person he would most like to meet — 50,000 years from now.
In your preparation, did you speak to people who knew Madoff?
I spoke to people who knew him, I spoke to his victims, I spoke to some business associates and I talked to his family, his wife Ruth. Blythe Danner [who played Ruth] spent a day and half with her.
I didn’t think she’d cooperate.
Well, she had to be convinced because she thought that the book our show was based off was really terrible. And that’s only because she didn’t read any of the books that came after. The biggest question about her and her children is: what did they know? And I’ll guarantee you that they didn’t know anything.
It’s not so hard to figure out. When your father comes home at night and you say, “How is your day?” and he says, “Exhausting,” you don’t suspect that he’s really a crook. You believe everything he says. And that’s true of me and my father. It’s true of everyone I’ve ever met.
You’ve said he was a sociopath. What is a sociopath?
A sociopath is someone who has absolutely no empathy. As my father put it, a moral person is someone who knows the difference between right and wrong and chooses right. An immoral person is someone who knows the difference and sometimes chooses wrong. And an amoral person is someone who literally does now know the difference between right and wrong. A sociopath is someone who has an extraordinary ego and pays absolutely no attention to the wreckage of his behavior. And he actually took a great deal of pleasure in scamming institutions and banks and fellow Jews and gentiles and 13-year-old girls and knowing that he was taking their future from them for the basest of reasons. He just wanted to get his shirts made in London and he was a man who had absolutely no care for anyone else.
Did he fear for himself?
He didn’t have a fear of being caught. He had, oddly enough, no exit strategy. He never wanted to stop and he never took $10 million aside and created an escape route. He found himself in a situation where he could be a hero and he followed that path and then realized that, “Well, I could do that and become immensely wealthy.” And he did it with the knowledge of the other banks on Wall Street. He was punished for what is it called check kiting, where you write a check that you can’t cover and someone else immediately writes a check that covers you. But he did it for 30 years and was caught at it many times. And they just never followed through.
At the beginning of the mini-series, there’s a disclaimer saying that essentially characters, facts, have been changed. What was changed?
Just the names of the institutions. We were not allowed to name them.
Did he have a mistress in real life?
He had many. As a matter of fact, there were many. His company was known for having orgies all the time. They would have parties and just go nuts.
How do you manage to create a character like this?
The distance between me and Madoff or you and Madoff or you and Cheney or you and Hitler or you and Jesus is far shorter than you think. If you examine your life, you’ll see that inside you is already Dick Cheney and Bernie Madoff. You can extrapolate out and create a character.
What was the toughest moment for you?
The toughest moment was being told by ABC News’ Standards and Practices, that we were not allowed to name companies that were guilty. Standards and Practices were afraid they would sue us. And I said, “Not only will they not sue us — because if they did they would have to open their books — but we should be standing on the street corner inviting their lawsuits.” And we should have named them all.
What was their response to that?
“No, you can’t do it.” And Standards and Practices was given the veto. And ABC, which in the ‘80s really did deserve bragging rights for some pretty extraordinary television, is not the same organization as it [was]. We were not allowed to go on CBS or NBC. And all we did was gain an ABC audience and then when they re-ran it, they didn’t advertise the fact that they re-ran the show. Which was a pretty stupid corporate decision.
ABC said you couldn’t do interviews on CBS and NBC?
Right. It’s shortsighted and it means that the people who are running the network are probably new at it. [The project] originated, as far as I know, in the news division, with the book that Brian Ross wrote. Then it was turned over to the entertainment people, which is a chuckle because they’re not interested in making good entertainment. And it was a fight every day. Standards and Practices would not let Bernie Madoff smoke a lit cigar, because it might teach some young person to become a nicotine addict. I said, “Bernie Madoff was a sociopath. You should let him smoke any cigar that he wants.”
You retired from acting for a while? Why?
I feared for my country, because we had taken civics out of the curriculum and we no longer knew the values we stood for, which created the largest and most important political revolution in history and the largest mass migration of humans in the world. And we didn’t know anything about it anymore. So I went to England and I studied at St. Anthony’s at Oxford.
Did you lose interest in acting?
I wanted to do something else. I love acting. But I had been doing it and winning at it for 50 years. And after a while even heaven can get boring.
How how long were you at Oxford?
Four years. I was very shy. I was not an academic, to say the least. And I hadn’t gone to college. And so I found myself researching and experiencing that whole thing mostly by myself. I loved the whole thing. I loved the whole atmosphere. And I was on the debate team, in the debate union. The first debate was “Bush deserves a second term.”
Were you for or against?
[Laughs] I was against. Piers Morgan was on my team.
What do you think of the current political situation? There was a bit of a fuss when you attended a Ted Cruz rally.
I attended Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and [Carly Fiorina] and I would’ve attended Donald Trump but he had been boycotting at the time. And I went because I was curious. I went to see if they were any different in person than on television. And then it became this, “What is Richard Dreyfuss doing at a Ted Cruz rally?” as if that was some kind of sin for anyone to listen to an opposing opinion. We’ve really become totally neurotic in this country. This country is founded by dissenters and dissenters are shot on sight now.
Do you like either of the leading presidential candidates?
I haven’t spoken an opinion on current political issues for about 10 years because I have a curriculum in civic training that starts in kindergarten and goes to the 11th grade, and I’ve called it “pre-partisan.” It’s very important to me that it be perceived as pre-partisan, and knowing that when I walked into a room people automatically defined me — incorrectly — as a member of the gaggle of Hollywood liberals, I would say: “Number one, I gaggle for no one. And two, I’m not a liberal. I am a libo-conservo-rado-middle of the road-o just like all of you.”
You had a pretty wild life when you were younger, then you were in a car accident in your mid-30s. What happened?
It sobered me up. Basically, I was acting like a low-down dirty dog. I was a rude, hostile, angry person taking a lot of drugs, and my car went out of control and I ended up in Cedars-Sinai, under arrest. I spent a week or 10 days in complete denial, trying to forget what had happened and what I was about to face. And I did that by going to a lot of orgies in Hollywood and Malibu. And one night, I went to one of these things and one of the coke whores managed to let me see, against her will, how much she hated herself. And I walked out the back door, never did it again.
What do you mean, she let you see, against her will?
I mean, she was there for the coke and whatever she had to do to get it. And I could see that she was disgusted with herself.
So you changed right away?
Did you then move out of L.A.?
I had been living in L.A. and New York, a decade here a decade there, but I moved to England because I wanted to study civics. And then, when I decided to come back, I met my wife and fell in love and got married and I decided, “Let’s go back to California for the weather.” But I didn’t want to live in L.A. because it’s toxic. So we went to San Diego.
Is your wife from L.A.?
My wife is from St. Petersburg, Russia.
Have you learned any Russian?
Just bedroom Russian.
What do you do when you’re not working? Do you watch movies?
No. I stopped seeing films a long time ago. Most of them are sequels about mechanical monsters living in the deep ocean, for which I have no interest.
You starred in a movie about a monster in the deep ocean, called Jaws.
Yes, and it was brilliant. There aren’t very many Steven Spielbergs around.
Would you have liked to meet Madoff in person?
Nope. I don’t care to meet him. I didn’t want to talk to him. He doesn’t deserve it. What was he going to do, tell me the truth?
If you could meet anybody, whom would you like to meet?
I’d like to meet the Richard who evolves from this one, about 50,000 years from now.