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Richard Dreyfuss Returns to Hollywood for a Visit, But Not to Stay

The 66-year-old attended the TCM Classic Film Festival and spoke with THR about his work in the 1970s, why he turned down sequels to "American Graffiti" and "Jaws" and why movies are no longer his main focus.

Richard Dreyfuss - H - 2014
Associated Press
Richard Dreyfuss

Richard Dreyfuss hasn't given many interviews over the last few years. Perhaps that's because the legendary 66-year-old actor, who is best known for a string of instant-classics from the 1970s -- American Graffiti (1973), The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and The Goodbye Girl (1977) -- has, of late, been primarily focused on things other than acting, including and especially his nonprofit organization The Dreyfuss Initiative, which promotes civic education. But last week, Dreyfuss, who now lives in San Diego, came back to Hollywood to revisit his glory days at the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival. And, after the first of his two appearances there -- one a conversation with Ileana Douglas, the other a Q&A with Robert Osborne -- he found about 30 minutes to chat about his moviemaking memories with The Hollywood Reporter.

"I moved to L.A. when I was 8 years old and I said to my mom that I was gonna be an actor," Dreyfuss tells THR, "and she said, 'Don't just talk about it!' So I walked out and I went to the Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard., I auditioned for a role and I've never stopped." In his teens, even while working mostly anonymously in local theater and on a wide assortment of television shows (ranging from Bewitched to Gunsmoke), he never doubted that he was destined for stardom. "I was in no hurry. I knew I would make it." He explains, "I know how to be a star -- I'd know how to be a star if I was a journalist, if I was an architect -- because stardom is the ability to bring something completely unique and eccentric and at the same time familiar and comfortable." And, from the time he began playing leads in films, that is precisely what he did.

STORY: Richard Dreyfuss to Co-Star in Political Sex-Scandal Drama 'Zipper'

Dreyfuss' first film credits date back to 1967, when he appeared in bit parts in The Graduate and Valley of the Dolls. But things really took off for him a few years later, when, after losing out on the role of Yossarian in Catch-22 (1970), he landed the title part in Ted Kotcheff's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, for which he had been promoted by the noted casting director Lynn Stalmaster (who was profiled on The Race several days ago). He quickly concluded it was "the greatest role ever offered to a young actor -- ever" in the adaptation of "the Catch-22 of Canada -- the most important book." Still, as the Montreal-based production moved forward, Dreyfuss grew darkly pessimistic about the quality of his performance and of the film itself. (Indeed, he wasn't convinced until just a few years ago, when he rewatched the film, that he was any good in it.)

Shortly after Duddy Kravitz wrapped, Dreyfuss was up in Canada's Laurentian Mountains when he got a call from his friend, the actress Cindy Williams, imploring him to come back to Los Angeles to audition for a 1950s "nostalgia film" called American Graffiti, which was co-written and to be directed by a 28-year-old up-and-comer named George Lucas. (Lucas' only previous film, 1971's THX-1138, happened to have been partially shot in the hospital at which Dreyfuss worked while fulfilling his duties as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.) Though Lucas was a relatively unknown quantity and the production would be a low-budget affair demanding 28 nights of shooting, Dreyfuss was thrilled to be cast as Curt, a high school student agonizing over his post-graduation plans, because, he immediately recognized, "It was a great part!" (The scene from the film about which he is asked most is the one in which a blonde woman in a car pulls up alongside the car in which he is a passenger and appears to mouth "I love you" to him, to his great excitement, and then drives away. "I always say, 'We never met until the film was over,' " he laughs.)

Graffiti was completed after Duddy Kravitz but was released before it in the U.S. and it made Dreyfuss a hot up-and-comer. When, shortly thereafter, Lucas' friend, Steven Spielberg, approached Dreyfuss about playing Hooper, a shark expert, in a horror movie called Jaws, the actor initially turned it down. He reflects, "All I knew was that the shark came up and goes '[Blahhh]' and I thought, you know, 'Obviously, this film is gonna tank.'" Upon further thought, and largely out of fear that Duddy Kravitz would, upon its release, harm his career, Dreyfuss decided that he couldn't afford to be so picky and and agreed to join Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw in the film's cast. Meanwhile, shortly after the beginning of the famously troubled production, Duddy Kravitz came out -- and was, to Dreyfuss' astonishment, a hit. He recalls, "All of a sudden, safety boats began to come out [to where Jaws was filming off the coast of Martha's Vineyard] with these young girls, and Steven said, 'What's happening?' And I said, 'Steven, if you had a 40-foot face, they'd be coming for you, too.' "

But Dreyfuss' stardom would only reach its apex after the release of Jaws, which proved to be the first true "blockbuster" in Hollywood history, making more than $7 million -- then considered a fortune -- in its opening weekend. Dreyfuss himself had realized it was destined to be a hit when he sat in, incognito ("I was the only white face in the entire balcony"), on a distributors screening in New York before it went into general release. "When I saw Jaws for the first time," he marvels, "I forgot I was in it. It scared the crap out of me." He continues, "That night, I heard something I'd never heard before. They [the audience] went crazy, and then they silently watched the scroll and then they clapped again."

Dreyfuss is now the sole survivor of the film's principal cast; Shaw died of a heart attack in 1978 and Scheider succumbed to multiple myeloma in 2008. He was recently in Ireland and granted a talk show host an interview, before which he was unexpectedly introduced to Shaw's 14-year-old granddaughter, which caused him to cry. "Robert is the largest personality I've ever met," he tells me of Shaw, to whom he still often refers in the present tense. "He's a great writer, he's a great actor, he's a great drunk -- he's a mean drunk and he's a benign drunk -- and he picked me to pounce on, and he had my number. He made me believe I couldn't do something I knew I could." Still, Dreyfuss can't help but feel affection for his late comrade and says his tears in Ireland were tears of joy at seeing Shaw's soul live on through his progeny.

Two years after Jaws, Dreyfuss and Spielberg reunited for a very different sort of film, the sci-fi drama Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Dreyfuss only landed the role of Roy Neary, a blue-collar worker who is among the first to spot a UFO over Indiana, after considerable lobbying of the director. "This was the one time when I knew, 'I have to be in this movie,' " he explains, adding that he recognized that the story about humans and aliens finding a way to peacefully interact "was a noble idea that would outlive us." Still, as happy as he was to be in the film, Dreyfuss couldn't resist the urge to point out to Spielberg that this was the second film in which the director had hired him to largely react to things that weren't actually there. "I said to Steven, 'I figured out the name of the book I'm gonna write. It's called, Steven, Have They Figured Out What I'm Looking Up in Awe At?' " He also submits, "Just imagine a slightly different world: If Close Encounters had opened six months before Star Wars [which, in fact, came out six months before Close Encounters], we'd have a totally different culture. It would have been the one."

The one that assured that the first sentence of Dreyfuss' obituary will one day refer to him as "Oscar winner" came later that same year: The Goodbye Girl, in which he portrays an eccentric, struggling theater actor who, through a mix-up, comes to share a New York City apartment with a prickly single mother and her precocious young daughter, both of whom he comes to love. It was one of the happiest working experiences of his career, he says -- he adored the script, by Neil Simon; the director, Herbert Ross; his co-stars, Marsha Mason and young Quinn Cummings; and himself, at least at that time. (He would go on to experience a number of darker years in the early 80s, during which he battled depression and addiction, which prompts him to remark, "Thank God I got it when I did.") He explains, "We all [everyone on the set] fell in love with each other. And it never happened again until Mr. Holland's [Opus, in 1995, for which he received his other Oscar nomination, which also came in the category of best actor]."

Dreyfuss is particularly proud of his work in the scene in which Mason tells him that Cummings -- "the kid" -- is sick and he goes into her bedroom to try to comfort her. "We'd shot it, and Herb was coming in for a close-up. I said, 'Wait, wait, wait -- let me do it one more time?' And I did it, and I jacked it up -- I mean, wow, up -- and then he turned to me and said, 'No coverage.' That was the biggest compliment I ever got."

When the actor later learned that he had been nominated for an Oscar for his performance, he recalls, "It was a shock -- but the next thought was, 'I'm gonna win it!'" He explains, "I sussed it. I knew. And I bet money -- and made money. Made a lot of money." But, he cautions, "The Oscars are great, but then they're yesterday's news." Case-in-point: "I was doing Julius Caesar when I won the Oscar. I flew back and I said to the other actors, 'All right, now, look, when I make my entrance there's gonna be applause.' And I made my entrance -- nothing." He chuckles, "Every actor in that show managed to go, '[ribbed him when their backs were to the audience].' "

Over the ensuing years, Dreyfuss starred in numerous other notable films (in addition to Mr. Holland's Opus, 1986's Down and Out in Beverly Hills, 1987's Nuts and Tin Men and 1993's What About Bob? all stand out from his long filmography); reteamed with Spielberg (on 1989's Always); and morphed into a fine character actor (1986's Stand by Me, 1995's The American President and 2008's W.). When he was approached about starring in sequels to American Graffiti and Jaws, though, he always said no -- and not just because, "The scripts just weren't good."

During the lead-up to More American Graffiti (1979), for which all of the other original principal castmembers returned, Lucas -- who did not return as director, but did serve as executive producer -- pleaded with him to reconsider. Dreyfuss recalls, "George said, 'I'm not asking the Richard Dreyfuss who won the Academy Award to do it, I'm asking the kid --.' I said, 'George, I don't want to work with the guy who directed Star Wars, I want to work with the guy who directed THX-1138. What the f--- does that mean?!' "

As for Jaws 2 (1978), for which only Scheider ended up returning, Dreyfuss says, "I knew what made Jaws good, and we weren't talking about Steven [Spielberg] directing it [the sequel]." He also notes that, in the ensuing years, [Producer] David Brown said, 'I never understood why you wouldn't agree to do a sequel.' And I said, 'I never understood why you didn't give us Latvia.' We were not bonused -- not at all -- and you would be embarrassed at how much they paid us. I said to David, 'You could have given us Eastern Europe.' And not only did he not, but he didn't again and again."

By contrast, he points out, "You know what George [Lucas] did? This is the sweetest story. George took one of his gross points, divided it up among the 10 actors in Graffiti and we all made money. As a matter of fact, I made more money in that one-tenth of a gross point than I did on Jaws."

Now, well into his seventh decade, Dreyfuss is proud of his film career, but he is decidedly less enthusiastic about making additional movies than he is about doing other things to make a difference. He recently told another journalist, "I wouldn't recommend to a young actor anymore to become an actor because I think the film industry has changed so terribly. The tools in the director's tool kit used to be story, dialogue, character ... after that came cinematography and editing. Now it's special effects, editing and we [actors] are way down at the bottom part."

Dreyfuss adds to THR, "Film acting is about the hollowest experience you can have as an actor," explaining, "When you do a film, it's out of order and sequence and everyone around you is working -- even directors now are behind the little video thing -- so you're alone. You're working for yourself."

At this point, Dreyfuss emphasizes, he would prefer to work for others.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg