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A Conversation with Richard Dreyfuss

By Brennen Matthews

Photographs by Christian Anwander

For six decades, Richard Dreyfuss has been a staple on television and cinema screens worldwide, starring in popular shows, like Parenthood, and iconic films, such as The Goodbye Girl (1977), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and huge blockbusters like Jaws, What about Bob?, American Graffiti, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Stand By Me. Offscreen, he has made headlines in the realms of political activism and educational reform, launching The Dreyfuss Civics Initiative (TDCI) in 2006, to educate young people about the power of citizenship and American values. For Dreyfuss, his role as a societal changemaker is by far his greatest one yet — and it’s one that he’s proud to own for a lifetime.

You’ve had an enviable career, starring in over 122 film and TV projects, a number of which had great success at the Box Office and inadvertently created the label of summer “blockbuster.” Perhaps your most iconic one has been Jaws, a film that you were almost not a part of and that blew enormously past what was then a respectable budget.

Well, we ended up spending $14,000,000, but when we went to make the movie, it was with an approved budget of $4,000,000.

That is a bit over budget! When you guys were filming, there was, famously, quite a bit of frustration and tension on set due to location and technical problems. At that time, were you able to envision that the film would have such a big impact with audiences?

I wasn’t. (Laughs) Everyone else was. Everyone else was absolutely sure we were making an incredible movie. The original schedule for Jaws was May 2nd to June 28th, okay? And, we started shooting on May 2nd without a script, without a shark and without a cast. I wasn’t hired until May 3rd and the script was all over the place, and no one realized that we, as a film unit, were the first film ever attempted on the real ocean. Just imagine the unanticipated consequences of that ignorance. And, when Freddy Zendar, who was our stunt wrangler and, you know, special effects guy, when he heard over the radio, “The shark is working, the shark is working, the ship is sinking, the ship is sinking,” when he heard that, he jumped to the wheel of the Orca [infamous shark fishing vessel in the movie] and tried desperately to land it on the beach of Chappaquiddick Island, and all the time screaming, “This is the worst! This is the worst!” And, Robert Shaw decided that if he was going to drown in the Atlantic, he was going to be neat. So, he buttoned up his shirt and his sleeves, and he anchored his hat on the top of his head, and he stood at the bow with his arms crossed while 17,000 safety boats were just criss-crossing and trying to get everyone off the boat. And Steven, using a megaphone, was yelling, (in a megaphone like voice) “Get the actors off the boat please, get the actors off the boat please.” And, I was trying to help a 70-year-old sound man with a $50,000 Nagra tape recorder over the side, lifting his legs over the side, and Steven kept on saying, “Get the actors off the boat,” and I said, “Steven, he’s 70 years old,” and he said, “F**k ‘em, get the actors off the boat.” (Laughs) And, that was the second Nagra (portable audio recorder) that went down.

That is really funny!

You have no idea how funny. I mean, seriously. I know everything about Jaws, I really do. I know every f**king nail, and I will say this, if there’s a subject that, if I had a fair choice of reaching for a pistol and putting it in my mouth, I would choose that before I chose talking about Jaws again. But, I have a deal. I will say to [an] audience, “If you ask me a question about Jaws that I have not heard, I will give you ten bucks. However, if you ask me a question that I have heard, you owe me ten bucks. Ladies and gentlemen, I am way ahead on this one.”

The score from the film was so simple, yet it scared the hell out of a lot of people! What was your response to it when you first heard it?

I was walking by Steven’s office one day after we got back, and he said to me, “You want to hear the music?” And I said, “Has [John Williams] written it already?” And he said, “No, you want to hear it?” And I said, “Okay.” And, he played me a cut of — now I’m forgetting the name — an English composer who does beautiful landscape things, and then he did a cutting of a nautical piece that I had not heard and one other — short little snippets, and by the time the third one was over, I had heard the score.


And you liked it right away? You could see how it could be imposing, how it could be effective?

Oh yeah, I mean, immediately. I knew that it would work. I didn’t know how well, and one day when I was hosting John Williams at the Boston Pops, he turned to the audience and said, “I am so sick and tired of people talking about Jaws, and they don’t know how movies are made, and so I’m going to challenge my audience.” And, he turned on some of Jaws visually with no music, and he kept it on for about 15 minutes, and it was a big snore, and then he turned the music on, and everyone jumped. Because, whatever mind melds going on between those two men ... I once said to him, “How long did it take you to figure out the five notes from Close Encounters?” (hums notes) and he said, “Oh, I sat down at the piano and I went (impersonates playing notes)”

Did you always want to be famous?

Well, I wanted to be a star. And a star, to me, when I was growing up, meant that you had influence and power, so that you could, if not name the project and the amount of money and the director and everything else, you were certainly allowed in the decision-making room, and that’s what I knew as a 12-year-old. Now, I have to admit that there’s a certain picture of Cary Grant and Randolph Scott at the Santa Anita Racetrack in, I don’t know what, ‘37, or something like that, and Grant is laughing. He’s throwing his head back, and he’s kind of laughing, and this would be very familiar to you if you knew Grant. And, that picture stayed with me until this second, and I said, that’s what I want. I want that gut-wrenching laugh that comes from knowing that you’re leading such a rare and wonderful, blessed life.


After Jaws, you obviously got a lot more notoriety. How did you handle the fame that came and the notoriety that followed? Was it comfortable for you or a bit overwhelming?

It really wasn’t then. It was after the Oscar that all of that happened. What happened was that there was a bunch, a small bunch that was American Graffiti, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Jaws. And when I had made Graffiti, and I was making Duddy Kravitz in Canada, Cindy Williams called me and said, “Ricky, you want to be a star?” And, I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Well, get your ass down to Joe Allen’s [in New York]. You walk in there, they’ll give you a standing ovation.” And, I was in the Laurentian Mountains in Canada. What the f**k was I doing there? By the time I did get out of there, it was yesterday’s news. But then, Duddy Kravitz opened, and Duddy Kravitz is arguably the best role for any young actor ever, ever. It was just an amazing opportunity, and it opened. I’m sitting on a boat off the coast of Chappaquiddick Island, [shooting Jaws] and someone brought out the Sunday New York Times, and there was a two-pager advertisement for Duddy Kravitz, and all of a sudden, these girls started to come out from these little safety boats flirting with me. Then Spielberg said, “What the hell is going on here?” And, I turned to him, and I said, “Steven, if you had a 40-foot face, (size of a movie theater screen) it would happen to you.” Then, I got to New York, and I saw Jaws. I decided I was not going to sit downstairs with the exhibitors, but I was going to sit upstairs in the balcony with the real people. And so, I went up to the balcony, and I watched the film for the first time without ever having seen it before. I screamed where everyone else screamed. I went crazy, and when that screening was over, that film got the most amazing compliment I’d ever heard, which was, when the film ended, and the crawl began, the entire theater went berserk and lifted the ceiling, and then they applauded and applauded and screamed and yelled and applauded. What’s wrong with that picture? That’s a good way to start a career.

Before the film or even after, did you have a fear or a healthy phobia of sharks?

Am I now? You betcha. But was I then? I was like Peter Benchley (author of Jaws). Peter probably has a fear of finding himself alone with a great white shark, yes. But, did he expect to come into that situation? No. The thing that he went to his grave mourning was the fact that the film scratched open this intense human phobia about sharks, and he never intended that, and he spent the rest of his life trying to tell people that sharks were not that thing. You know, the story of the USS Indianapolis was not — it was still classified when he wrote the novel, so he didn’t include it in the book, but by the time the film came around, it had been declassified, so Steven used it in the movie. And, let me tell you, there are stories like — you know, Peter Benchley was the [grandson of Robert Benchley], one of the great wits of the ‘30s and ‘40s. [Peter’s father] Nathaniel Benchley, was [a writer and actor]. And, one day, his (Nathaniel’s) housekeeper called right after the film opened, and she said that she was not coming into work the next day because her son had died on the USS Indianapolis, and she had never known anything more about it until she watched it in the film. So, that totally freaked her out. Then I got a call from a woman who worked for me on an answering service, and she said, “Can I talk to you for a second?” “Sure.” She said, “My dad was on the Indianapolis.” And I said, “Oh my,” and she said, “No, no, he got out of the water.” And I said, “Is he still alive?” “Oh yeah, he’s down in Long Beach. He’s an automobile mechanic for six months out of the year.” And I said, “What does he do for the other six months?” “He kills sharks.” And, she told me a story that would just raise the hair on your whole body.

When she was a child, she went on a charter with her father, and they steamed out of San Pedro, and they went about nine hours out, and they hooked a great white. The charter party was, I guess, about nine or ten people, and the boat was about the size of the Orca. And then, her father put three barrels into that beast, and the shark took them down. And when that happened, the people in the charter, excuse my expression, began to piss in terror, and then the shark came up at the stern of the [vessel] and began to eat the boat. In the movie, I try to kill the shark with 20cc of strychnine nitrate. In real life, her father put two shotgun shells of 300cc of strychnine nitrate into a shotgun, walked up to the beast, and blew its head off. They tied the remains to the side of the boat, and for the nine hours that it took to go back to San Pedro, he sat in the hold of the boat with a bottle of rye or something, and he just kept saying, over and over again, “He’s gonna wake up.” And, he had a reason to say that.

I know a shitload about sharks now, obviously, and when we first moved to San Diego, the next week, a doctor was killed by a shark. And, the San Diego Tribune’s headline was, “Dreyfuss moves to San Diego, brings his shark with him.”

That’s awful!

I will never walk in from the sand into the water. That, I can’t do. I can scuba, and I do because you can see, but the whole idea of not knowing what’s going on below your waist? Forget it. And by the way, when the film opened, it was never — it wasn’t official, but no one allowed their children to see the movie until they were, like, twelve. Now, five-year-olds see the movie.


What About Bob? is perhaps your most revered comedy film. You and Bill Murray play very well off of each other and it seems quite real that his character is honestly irritating you. Murray has always struck me as a guy who never quite knows when to stop. That could get grating.

You think so? (Laughs) He and I didn’t get along, and I used to not talk about it, and then one day I said, “F**k this,” and I talked about it. And then I grew up, and I don’t talk about it, and it just — it’s one of two or three working relationships I’ve ever had that just was a trial. And also, I have to admit, regardless of him being hard to take, he’s also a much better golfer than I am, and I can’t stand that.

What was the atmosphere like working on that picture?

Not great. It was very difficult — a lot of stress. I’d much rather create the necessary stress out of acting than have to endure it in real life. It was rough, but there were some really great saving graces. One of them was [Smith Mountain Lake], in Virginia, about half a mile from where the recreation of the Battle of Cedar Creek from the Civil War took place. So, I went to the recreation, and there were thousands of people, and I’m a Civil War buff, and they invited me to march, and I did. And, it was incredibly moving and strange and goofy. Then when that day was over, I went back to the set, and I was doing some scene in the front of the house with Julie and the kids, and all of a sudden, I heard this clatter. And, I looked up, and there was an honor guard of Confederate cavalry, and I had forgotten that it was my birthday, and they had come to honor me. And, I mean, one of them drew his sword and bowed, and his horse bowed, and I burst into tears. That was worth the price of admission.

Most people don’t know this, but I was the voice of the Gettysburg Cyclorama for twelve years. And, American history, that war and what it meant, is deeply inside of me. And, when this honor guard — and I’m not Confederate, I’m not a Southerner. The whole of my sentiment is for the Union. When this guy bowed, and his horse bowed, it just, wow. I felt like an American.

Have you done any road trips across America?

I have! The summer of 1965, after I graduated high school, I went with two Larrys. One was Larry Bishop, the son of Joey Bishop, and the other was a friend named Larry Levine, who, I will add quickly, was one of the first teachers killed in one of those insane attacks up in Oregon, about three years ago.

I can tell you two quick stories. So, the two Larrys and I stopped somewhere in, I think, northern Mississippi, and we went into this fast food place to get some hamburgers and stuff, and ... on the way back into the parking lot, there was this old black guy sitting there, and he was just looking at us, and we were looking at him. ‘Hi, how are ya?’ As we were getting into the car, he kind of raised one hand and was trying to get our attention, or wasn’t he? We weren’t sure. So, we drove off, and then Larry Bishop realized, holy sh*t, he left his wallet on top of the car, and so we raced back to this place. As we drove, the old black man said, “I’d seen you leave that wallet on top of the car, and I was trying to get your attention, but I knew you’d be back,” and we all cracked up.

The other was, we were stopped by a highway patrolman, I guess in Mississippi and, you know, we were three naïve Jews from Beverly Hills, and there was this 19 or 21 year-old-cop that stopped us for speeding, and we didn’t really try to get out of it. I mean, we were guilty, and not by a lot, but we were, and all of a sudden the cop goes, “Why don’t you get on out of here, just go on,” and we just went, “Thank you, thank you, really,” and he went on, “I’m a shit, I’m usually a shit, get on out of here.” So, that’s how we were introduced to northern Mississippi.

What was it like growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s?

Well, we thought it was perfect. It wasn’t until quite a ways down the line that we realized that we were experiencing the end, the beginning of a spiral of decay. Into the ‘70s and the ‘60s — when people refer to the ‘60s, they usually refer to the years between ‘65 and ‘75, and those were the 60s, and ... it was brought home very clearly that America had been going off the rails.

By the time things rolled around to the turn of the century, I retired, and I went to England to study at Oxford, and I stayed for four years, and when I came back, I was trying to proselytize for the revival of teaching civics — of teaching government. I would say to people, “The Ten Commandments are not known at birth. You have to teach them. What makes us crazy enough to think that we don’t have to be taught about the American government?” So, that’s how my whole thing with civics started. And, it’s a very different America — very different. It’s not healthy. There’s, you know, goofy things going on, and they’re going on everywhere. Not just politics — socially, politically, and in business and education and everywhere. We’ve just seemed to come unstrung.


With all of that in mind, how would you compare American values of the ‘50s to what you’re seeing today?

Well, we have none now, and we had some then. We have no values. We have none. You know, I mean, if you asked kids in school, “What are the values of the Ten Commandments?” They couldn’t tell you — the ten Bill of Rights? They couldn’t tell you. We don’t teach them, so why would we expect them to know? There’s a phrase that’s thrown around like crazy, where people say, “Oh, the kids today, they feel so entitled.” Well, what’s wrong with feeling entitled to get a great education? I felt that way, and I got it.

I hate to tell you, [but] American values and the government, and how it works with society and how we interact, civility or civil discourse or anything like that has not been taught in America since 1982, and that’s 40 years ago.

I think that at the beginning there was an intentional move — supposedly, for our benefit, because the ‘60s so scared the ones that were in power, that they said, “We’re just not going to emphasize participatory democracy — participatory citizenship. We won’t emphasize that.” We do not study the revolutionary aspects of the American Revolution, because we have become so successful, a kind of middle-class bourgeois something or other, that we don’t want to be revolutionary. So, it’s a big problem because the chances are that it’s early in the century and the United States of America as I knew it, won’t be there at the end of the century. There’ll be a country called that, but it won’t have anything to do with its past.

I’ve always found Americans, especially outside of the big cities, to be very patriotic.

Patriotism is usually referred to as the feeling you get when you say, “America is truly exceptional because it’s south of Canada.” For no particular reason, America is an exceptional country. The fact is, of late, because of my involvement with civics, I’ve turned to a lot of friends of mine who are on the conservative side, and I say, “If you use that phrase ‘American exceptionalism’ one more time without proving it, I’m going to hit you right in the mouth.” Because, American exceptionalism can be historically proven, and it has nothing to do with its might, with its reach, with its riches. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the fact that, for the first time in human history, the very first country, nation, that ever officially openly allied itself with the common person, was us.

If you want one quick one, it’s this: if you were having a conversation like you and I are having right now anywhere in the world, earlier than 225 years ago, we would be whispering. That says a lot.

[People] don’t know what it is that they could take for granted. You know, there was a famous thing that happened last year. Someone went to Yale and was taking names for a petition to rescind the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, and within an hour he got 75 signatures. Wow, I mean, wow. And, the fact is, every [person] has a right to know who they are and why they are who they are, and we don’t.

The First Amendment has always been the point of attack on the part of the right. Last year, when children of the left shut down speakers of the right on campuses, I wanted to puke.

I’m a product of the old left, you know, the guys who fought Hitler twice in Spain in World War II, and they were all blacklisted when they came home, but they loved America like nobody’s business, and I grew up a red diaper baby in that kind of community. And then, the First Amendment was the left, and to see that professors in that, you know, the hoity toity whatever, eastern seven sisters, had been treating the Bill of Rights and the Constitution as if they were an irreparable evil, unable to be corrected, and everyone goes to hell...

I’ve had people helping me write this book and two very, very bright people — one a Republican, one a Democrat, and to get them to admit that America had done anything right, it took pliers, because they just don’t accept it. At one [point] they ganged up on me and said, “You know that you’re exaggerating this whole thing. America didn’t revolutionize the whole world, it wasn’t like that.” And, I said, “Really? Well, give me an example.” And, to make a long story short, they couldn’t. There is no example in history of achieving what we achieved in what I call a near-perfect political miracle. And, what we did was, when we offered it to the world, it took them about a hundred years to believe us, and then we started the largest, most ongoing, voluntary mass movement of people in the history of civilization, and it has never ended. And, no one in this world ever wakes up and says, “I can’t wait to get to Norway.”

In the world of Hollywood, where you’re surrounded by hordes of tall leading men, has your height ever been an issue that bothered you?

I’ll tell you, I have the best story in the world about this. I have always been 5’ 61⁄2”. And that means that from the time I was nine, I surrounded myself with stories about Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and Edward G.Robinson and other short actors. (Laughs) And, I knew that you didn’t have to be Cary Grant or Gary Cooper. And, I was in Italy at a press conference once, and I had brought my mom because I had the opportunity to bring my mother, so I did, and these people in the press conference said, “How does it feel if you’re, like, out of the mainstream, you’re not a classical leading man?” And, I gave them a lesson in film history because I said, “Well, actually, you’re wrong. Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson and Spencer Tracy were all my height, as is Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and so your idea that there were all these tall, lean Midwesterners is crazy, and you’re wrong.” And, they decided to get back at me by calling me a homosexual, because I had brought my mother to Italy.” (Laughs)

That’s crazy.

But then, I was doing a movie when I was 19 where I had to be in an asbestos suit because it was a fire, and the wardrobe guy, as he was taking my measurements, did a half hour on short actors — Jimmy Cagney, and after about a half hour I turned to him and I said, “Are you trying to tell me that you think I’m short?” And he laughed, and I looked at myself in the mirror and said to myself, “This guy is a f**king fruit loop.” I said, “This is the funniest thing ever!” So, I went to my best friends, Rob Reiner, Albert Brooks, Larry Bishop, Carl Borack, and as I went to them to tell them about this crazy wardrobe guy, I realized that I was craning my neck and looking up saying to Rob, “Hey, did you ever...” And, it had never occurred to me that I was shorter than my friends until that minute.

How do you feel about growing older?

(Laughs) When I turned 50, I said to my friends, “We’re entering the third act,” and promptly, two of my best friends dropped dead. It’s a kind of undignified, humiliating experience of lessening and worsening until you hit the cliché of all clichés, and you’re sitting on a park bench describing your prescriptions to your friends. Let me tell ya, it’s kind of like God sets you up and says, “You’re gonna aim for wisdom. Wisdom can come.” And, you spend your whole life trying to become a wise person, and right before, you get a stroke, and you’re dead. And, you spend your whole life trying to understand men and women, and just before you get there, stroke, and you’re dead. Oscar Wilde said, “Oh Lord, please forgive the little jokes I play on thee, and I’ll forgive the great big joke you played on me.” The funniest part of it is, as you get older, and you get closer to death then you are to high school, your thoughts change, and you know, a big part of that is hope and fear. But ideas that you never would have entertained in high school, like reincarnation and life cycles and stuff, all of a sudden, you’re going, “Gee, that sounds pretty good.” (Laughs).

When you watched Stand By Me for the first time, did it speak to you in the same vein as what we’re talking about now, creating a deep and mature need to look back and reminisce about those times when you were young?

Oh yeah, the most important line, obviously, to me in that film was, “You’ll never have friends [like] the ones you made when you were a young teenager,” whatever that line was. That’s the most important line in the movie. I did not see the film before I recorded it. I had read the book — I’d read the short story, and I really felt ... of course now, I must admit that I get it mixed up with the actor and the character. The actor who played the best character in the movie, you know, they say at the end he was killed in a knife fight.

Oh, River Phoenix’s?

Yeah, River died in such a short span of time after the film that I get, I get my emotions confused. I don’t know whether I’m grieving for River or for the character. You know, he had a wonderful, wonderful reputation as an actor. He was young, he was just beginning, and he had limitless potential. So, on all of those levels, it was a real human tragedy, and Rob [Reiner] has this knack for being able to, what’s the word, memorialize our collective youth. There’s something about Rob’s memory, which is almost always a kind of collective.

You know, when Steven Spielberg and I started to work together, I would say that Steven had a love affair with the suburban middle class. And Rob is able to distill the memory of American people, American men, and go back to really the most powerful and impactful moments of our lives. You know, my best friends are still the ones I made [back] then. So, I hope that someday, someone does that in a monograph or a biography of Rob, because there are very few people who’ve ever been able to slice the experience, the human experience, and the human experience of being boys.

Do you worry at all as an actor about your bankability and your relevance at this stage of your career and life?

Yeah. I have to revise the approach to the subject because, for me, it was a question of what I was passionate about. And, I had been passionate about acting my whole life, and it wasn’t until years and years and years later, until really after the turn of the century, that I realized that I had something other than acting that I was as passionate about, and that was America. And I, you know, couldn’t deny that I felt deeply that, if someone didn’t do something and say something and keep saying, that we were gonna lose the greatest compliment ever paid to mankind. And so, I stopped having only one intense love affair with a theme of my life.

Most of my themes have gone back to when I was nine. I still feel the same way about everything. But I knew that it does take — it does take a single individual to make a difference, and no one else is even bringing it up, and they’re still not. So, my life, in a sense, became something else. It had become something else when I became a parent, and it became something else when I stopped acting like a schmuck, and I know I am one of the luckiest, blessed people in the world. I can’t say that without it sounding pompous, but that’s what it is.

As I was growing up — and I knew I was going to be an actor — I had not a scintilla of doubt that I would make it. And I, as opposed to all my other friends who doubted like crazy, I didn’t. I was patient. I knew I was in the apprenticeship of my life. I was in no hurry, and I was able to enjoy every part of it — losing a role, getting a role, learning all that stuff. It wasn’t until I was in my mid ‘50s [when] I decided that I should write this book, that I got all of the insecurities that all of my friends had had when they were 17, and I’m — that has made me tremble because it certainly is as important, and I wish that I had half the facility that I felt when I was younger.

What else fuels and impassions Richard Dreyfuss?

One of the third or fourth run missions of my life, is to make people hungry to see films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, which changed my life, and I — to be able to talk to them and say, “Charles Laughton was the only actor ever to achieve rhythm in prose,” and then I’d show them what I mean. Or, “Irene Dunne, who was the most underrated actor of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and who could not only play a Howard Hawks dame — she could play Queen Victoria in mourning. To watch her is, sometimes — it’s just, your mouth hangs open in awe.” And, there’s a whole bunch of people and directors and, and you want to say, “These things affected my life,” and they really did.

Richard’s new book One Thought Scares Me...: We Teach Our Children What We Wish Them to Know; We Don't Teach Our Children What We Don't Wish Them to Know is now available on Amazon. Grab your copy today.


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