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“I always knew this was what I was gonna do,” says film and television actor Richard Dreyfuss as we sit down to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. The 68-year-old made his name with a string of terrific performances in great films of the 1970s: George Lucas‘ American Graffiti (1973), Ted Kotcheff‘s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Herbert Ross‘ The Goodbye Girl (1977). But the rest of his life and career — leading up to his most recent and acclaimed portrayal of Bernie Madoff in February’s ABC miniseries Madoff, for which he is a strong contender for the Emmy for outstanding actor in a limited series or movie — has been something of a rollercoaster ride. “I realized, years later,” he says, “that I was most comfortable on the hunt — not being a star, but trying to get to be a star.” He adds, “I figured out, in retrospect, that I managed to lose it so I could regain it so I could lose it and then I could regain it.”
Click above to listen to this episode now, or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Amy Schumer, Louis C.K., Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Harvey Weinstein, Jane Fonda, Aziz Ansari, Brie Larson, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart and Michael Moore.)
Over the course of our conversation, Dreyfuss talks about starting out in the business when he was still a kid — in TV guest spots (“I was pretty terrible”) and bit film parts (including one in 1967’s The Graduate, after auditioning to play the lead) — before landing in 28-year-old Lucas’ American Graffiti, thanks, in part, to a casting director, whom he had shown kindness years earlier. Disappointed at not getting the lead in Catch-22, he was delighted to land the lead — for the first time — in the Canadian equivalent, Duddy Kravitz, which he regarded as “clearly the greatest role for a young actor in the world.”
Dreyfuss initially turned down Jaws, and didn’t feel much better about it coming out of the six-month shoot “because the shark never worked, you know?” However, the film became one of the first blockbuster in Hollywood history, establishing the viability of wide releases, and Dreyfuss aggressively lobbied Spielberg to cast him in his next project, Close Encounters, which also proved a hit, despite being overshadowed a bit by another sci-fi film, Star Wars, which had opened six months earlier. But it was The Goodbye Girl that was Dreyfuss‘ favorite filmmaking experience, and the one for which the Hollywood community celebrated him: He became the youngest person ever to win the best actor Oscar, a distinction he held for the next 25 years.
Dreyfuss is the first to admit, though, that he did not wear the crown well. He descended into depression and addiction — he says he “spent those years being a low-down dirty dog and drugging myself into oblivion” — and his low-point came on Nov. 9, 1982, when, under the influence of drugs, he flipped his car, was arrested and was committed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. At the time, he says, he had a vision of a girl, who he later realized was the daughter his wife would give birth to a year later, and he has spent the ensuing 33-plus years trying his best to be a better man.
By the time Dreyfuss was ready to act again, his days at the top of the Hollywood food chain were over. But, as a first-rate character actor, he did standout work in Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Barry Levinson’s Tin Men (1987), Martin Ritt’s Nuts (1987), Frank Oz’s What About Bob? (1991), Rob Reiner’s The American President (1995) and Stephen Herek’s Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), for which he received another best actor Oscar nomination. And, even when he could have used the money, he refused to be a part of any sequel to Jaws because, he says, producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck declined to share any of their immense profits from the first one — “and so my name is manure at Universal, and I’m not kidding.”
After being hired to star in a 2004 West End production of the musical The Producers despite insisting that he cannot sing or dance — and then being fired from it for that very reason — Dreyfuss decided that he’d had enough of acting. He instead devoted himself to study of American civics — he had never been to college because of his early success — and spent the next decade as an “autodidact,” loving every minute of it. “I had no intention of coming back to work,” he says. “I had the intention of taking my wife on river cruises. And then there was a family crisis problem and there was no money, and I had to go back to work because I literally did not know how to feed my family unless I was acting. And so I started all over again with one-day parts and two-day parts and stuff like that. And I made my way back to Madoff.”
For his work in the ABC miniseries, which makes the “sociopathic son of a bitch” title character not just an embodiment of evil but a fascinating three-dimensional character, Dreyfuss has received rave reviews. He’s frustrated with ABC for blocking the production from naming Madoff’s co-conspirators — “They actually told us we couldn’t name the banks or the financial institutions that had already been named as culpable,” he says with disbelief — and from not showing Madoff even smoking a cigar, which Dreyfuss feels would have been far less disturbing than what Madoff and associates did to others. “The financial industry is at the top of the list of those who either will burn in hell or be responsible for the end of this nation,” he vents.
Does Madoff mark a full-fledged return to acting for Dreyfuss? “I have to act — I have to do the thing I love — because I have to feed my family,” he says (while noting that he’s also writing an American civics book with several historians and the Navy SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden). But, despite his frustrations with the network, Dreyfuss clearly relished the opportunity to play a big, meaty, leading role once again, to say nothing of the applause that has come with knocking it out of the park.
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