Richard Dreyfuss: "Maybe It's Us Who Are the Aliens"

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Richard Dreyfuss

As the 'Close Encounters' star communes with space once more in the upcoming 'Astronaut,' he addresses earthbound issues like growing intolerance, the 2020 election and his family's own entanglement with Kevin Spacey and #MeToo.

There was a 10-year window in which Richard Dreyfuss was the biggest movie star on the planet. It was perhaps an unlikely turn of events for a 5-foot-5, balding Jewish guy from Los Angeles by way of Brooklyn.

But something about his wry smile and dogged intensity charmed a young Steven Spielberg, who put him in two of the most important movies of all time: 1975's Jaws and 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Dreyfuss also won an Academy Award that year starring opposite Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl

The years that followed saw ups and downs, career-wise. Comedies were consistently kind to him — 1986's Down and Out In Beverly Hills, 1987's Stakeout and 1991's What About Bob? all stood the test of time — plus Dreyfuss enjoyed one more dramatic triumph with 1995's Mister Holland's Opus, which earned him a second Oscar nomination.

Along the way, he had been very open about his battles with addiction and mental health (he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder). Much of his memory of the early 1980s was lost to a blissful haze of cocaine, prescription pills and alcohol. In the 2009 book Moments of Clarity, Dreyfuss recalls the time he crashed his Mercedes into a palm tree; came to consciousness suspended upside down from the wreckage; then watched helplessly as police recovered cocaine and Percodan from his vehicle.

He finally sobered up after the birth of his daughter Emily in 1983. He had two more children with his then-wife, Jeramie Rain — Ben, born in 1986, and Harry, born in 1990. The couple divorced in 1995 and Dreyfuss married twice more, most recently to Russia-born Svetlana Erokhin in 2006. 

In 2017, son Harry, then 27, wrote on BuzzFeed of an incident that had occurred a decade prior. He described a disturbing evening in a London hotel room in which he, his father and Kevin Spacey were present. Harry was 18 and extremely shy. Spacey was directing Dreyfuss in a play called Complicit and Harry was visiting on Christmas break. What Harry alleged was a disturbing sexual power play on Spacey's part, with the actor following Harry around the room and repeatedly placing his hand on his thigh, in plain view of his father, who was engrossed in a script.

"And then he did it," Harry wrote. "Over the course of about 20 seconds, centimeter by centimeter, Kevin crawled his hand from my thigh over toward my crotch."

A few days after that startling revelation, Dreyfuss faced his own #MeToo accusation, with a woman named Jessica Teich alleging to Vulture that, while working as his assistant, Dreyfuss approached her in a trailer. "His penis was out, and he sort of tried to draw me close to it," she wrote.

Dreyfuss replied with a statement: "At the height of my fame in the late 1970s I became an asshole — the kind of performative masculine man my father had modeled for me to be. I lived by the motto, 'If you don’t flirt, you die.' And flirt I did." He continued: "I emphatically deny ever 'exposing' myself to Jessica Teich, whom I have considered a friend for 30 years."

Dreyfuss, now 71, next stars in Astronaut, a low-budget movie due out July 26 in which a retirement home dweller wins a trip to space. It sounds like a comedy, but it's more of a melancholy rumination on growing older and how the world tends to dismiss and/or underestimate the elderly — topics very much on Dreyfuss' mind lately. (The actor uses a cane to get around these days.)

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Dreyfuss by phone from his hotel in London, where he's appearing Thursday in An Evening With Richard Dreyfuss, in which he will reminisce about his four-decade career and take questions from the audience.

I noticed they seem to be a little prudish there in the U.K. about language because you keep speaking colorfully on TV and it's making headlines.

You mean I cursed?

I don’t even consider "bullshit" a curse, but they were clutching their pearls. They seemed very taken aback by it.

Yes, yes they were. Exactly that, they were clutching their pearls. If I had given it some thought, I probably would not have used that phrase. But things have gotten pretty loose in the U.S., so I forgot to let it hold me back.

What was the point you were trying to make before the whole thing got derailed? 

I don't remember, now that you've brought it up. I have not a clue.

It was something about Jaws.

Yeah, it must have been something about Jaws. That's a good thing to say just in terms of the odds.

That's remarkable — 40 years later and the fascination continues. Not that I can't connect it to Astronaut. Because I felt there was a similarity there where you were running around, trying to warn people and no one was listening to you.

(Laughs) Yeah, well, sometimes that's, like, the story of my life.

What is it about you that you keep getting cast in these parts where you’re the voice of reason and yet these corrupt officials don't want to hear the truth?

There are certain things that I value and that I will feel the loss of. In my case, it's the fact that we don't teach civics in our schools, and not teaching civics is not just handing out kids some free time. We were the most important political evolution in the history of mankind and that's no joke, and we have reason to be proud of it.

You've devoted your life to preaching that and it's very admirable. I have to wonder, what do you make of what's going on now in the federal government and Donald Trump's administration so far? Do you feel it's eroding the republic?

I think that without getting into the personality of the president, if you're not taught the Ten Commandments you're not going to know them. And you have to be taught what is of major importance in terms of running the government and in terms of why our government is so different than others. And if you don't learn that, you ain't gonna know it.

And if you don't know that, you always can be victim to the paranoia of living next door to someone with a different last name than you. And America is not that country. America has always been the country that offers something new and different and allows the common man to run the government. Without that we have no identity, we don't know who we are. There is a lot more ignorance going around than we'll admit to.

Are there any candidates that are running for the 2020 Democratic ticket—

(Interrupts) Oh, no. No, I think the system is really rotten at the core.

Do you identify as independent?

Yeah. I am what I call a pre-partisan person. I am not a Republican, I am not a Democrat. I am in favor of the American Constitution.

I read somewhere that you're a distant relative of Alfred Dreyfus, is that true? [Dreyfus was a Jewish officer in the French army tried and convicted for treason in 1894. He was later exonerated after it was found that he was the target of an anti-Semitic frame-up.]

Yes. And even if it wasn't true, it would be true and I would claim it because it's such a great story. 

You also said Kaddish at a Holocaust ceremony in front of the Pope. Is that correct?

Yes. I participated in the first acknowledgement by the Catholic Church of the existence of the Holocaust.

I wonder what you make now of the rise of anti-Semitism around the world, and the parallel rise of anti-Zionism?

Anti-Semitism is on the rise, yes, but we should be more afraid of Jews not behaving like Jews. Jews are given quite an extremely detailed lesson in how to be Jewish, and that's a good thing. It's not to be taken lightly. We'll sound very much like our own worst enemies in trying to protect Zionism and protect our own reputations. We really do need to explore what it means to be Jewish and not let it go away.

You mentioned the Ten Commandments before. Have you become more spiritual as you've gotten older, or have you always been deeply rooted in your religion?

I am more spiritual and less Jewish than I have been. Because I'm not a temple Jew. I don't have to practice. I once asked my dad, "Why don't we practice Judaism?" And he said, "I don't have to practice, I'm very good at it." And I think the Jews are a great moral template. So I’m very proud of being Jewish and I'm very proud of being a cultural Jew. But most Jews are willing to celebrate their own history of being oppressed, and then they'll get up and oppress other people. so, I don't want Jews to do that.

To get back to Astronaut, in it you take a trip to space. Is that something you would do if Elon Musk invited you on SpaceX?

Yes, absolutely. I have reservation number 86 from Pan Am and I got that on the day we landed on the moon.

No kidding? Really?

No kidding. Yeah.

Pan Am was selling tickets to the moon?

Pan Am was saying that they would honor tickets to the moon in the same way that they took reservations for flights across the Pacific in the '30s. So I have number 86 and Albert Brooks, the comic, has reservation number 11.

But Pan Am doesn't exist anymore, so it might not be worth anything.

But that really shouldn't stop anything, should it?

Astronaut reminded me of your other space movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Do you believe in extraterrestrial intelligence?

I have no opinion about extraterrestrial alien life. I have often wondered why people didn't think that maybe we were the first. Maybe it's us who are the aliens in the sense but we're going up into space. We keep saying we haven't heard yet from anybody else. Maybe we're the first ones. Maybe we are actually setting it up so that other life forms can become terrified of us.

Two years ago, your son did something very brave. He came forward and told about a very difficult moment with Kevin Spacey, who was directing you in a play in London at the time. I'm wondering how difficult that was, the aftermath of that, and how it impacted the family after he came forward.

It impacted me because I was accused of being a hypocrite, and if I had let that stand it would've been unacceptable. And it was important for my family to understand that there were consequences to one's actions. I think in the long run, the #MeToo movement is going to gain a kind of balance because if we think that there can be or should be a gender advantage of any kind — men over women or women over men — that's the one easy way to know that homo sapiens on this planet will not succeed in getting off this planet. And you can't do that, you can't allow or encourage the crimes committed against one gender over the other to prevail. Men are not at war with women and women are not at war with men. And if they are allowed to think so, then they're going to kind of allow themselves to be reduced, not expanded, not heightened.

And let me tell you, especially in America, when you allow yourself to say that the crime committed against me is so terrible that it deserves special treatment, you are encouraging the end of due process and encouraging all the legal and spiritual progress that we have made. We are more than that.

I want to make sure I'm clear on this. You said that the impact of your son's revelation was that you were accused of being a hypocrite. What do you mean by that specifically?

I was accused of being a hypocrite by someone who I had known and worked with and had respect for. And I don't buy what she said as valid at all.

But you did acknowledge that you were substance abusing at the time.

No, no, no, no. It wasn't about substance abuse at all. It was about the sexual oppression of a male, of powerful males, of movie stars over their research assistants or something like that. And I said "bullshit." And I do say that now. But it needs far more than the remaining two minutes that we have.

But as far as your son goes, it had to upset you. Did you ever confront Spacey?

No, I didn't, because I wasn't told about it until seven or eight years later.

Would you say something if you bumped into him in London?

Yeah, but I'm not looking for him. It's not Kevin Spacey's crime that is at the top of my list, it's how do you react to the complexities of these things and is it kosher to be called a hypocrite because one didn't know that your son was being groped. I think it's silly.