The Actor: Richard Dreyfuss, an actor who rocketed to super-stardom thanks to memorable roles in iconic classics like 1973’s American Graffiti, 1975’s Jaws, and 1977’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. He also picked up an Oscar for Best Actor—at 30 he was the youngest man ever to win the award at the time—playing a struggling thespian opposite Marsha Mason in 1977’s The Goodbye Girl. After wrestling with drug addiction in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Dreyfuss scored a huge comeback with 1986’s Down And Out In Beverly Hills. Memorable roles in 1987’s Tin Men and Stakeout, 1991’s What About Bob?, and 1995’s Mr. Holland’s Opus followed, along with television and voiceover work. Dreyfuss has inched away from acting this decade to concentrate on political activism and promoting “The Dreyfuss Initiative,” a plan to teach civics and the fundamentals of democracy more extensively in American schools. He has continued to appear in films, however, playing Vice President Dick Cheney in 2008’s W. and a goofball widower in last year’s My Life In Ruins. Dreyfuss spoke to The A.V. Club while in Chicago for the opening of Naperville’s Hollywood Palms theater.
The Day Reagan Got Shot (2007)—“Alexander Haig”
Richard Dreyfuss: I thought I was miscast. He’s a character I could empathize with. He’s totally human. A physically bigger person should have played him, but it was fun, and it was especially fun because it was true, and it was a really well written script in that way. But playing him… You know, every actor wants to play the villain. The trick is not to wink at the audience and say, “I’m not him.”
The A.V. Club: You don’t want to distance yourself from the character you're playing.
RD: Yeah. And that’s hard sometimes, because everything in you says, “I am not Dick Cheney. I am not.” And you want the audience to know, but if you let the audience know, then the quality of your art goes down.
AVC: One of things that impressed me about Josh Brolin’s performance in W. is that he didn’t play him as a villain.
RD: Well, he played him as… I thought he was wonderful. I didn’t know his work until then at all. I’d never seen his work, and so I was really impressed. What didn’t impress me, though, was the script that they had, because what were they talking about? His father was jealous, he was jealous of his dad, who cares? It was a small, diminutive story, when there was this large story sitting there, eating bananas.
Victory At Entebbe (1976)—“Colonel Yonatan ‘Yonni’ Netanyahu”
RD: I met his brother [former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] afterwards, and his brother gave me as short a shrift as you would expect him to. I didn’t really learn very much one way or the other about that. I mean, it was just really just a physical kind of thing, you know? And I got to work with Anthony [Hopkins], and I got to work with Burt [Lancaster]. But I also was a real snobby, asshole-y kind of cocky kid, and I thought I was a whore for working there, and that’s part of me I don’t like. And the complexity of Israel and its neighbors is so great, and the irony is that neither of the two sides is guilty of the original sins. They’re all victims. And I wish someone could tell that story, that these two cultures are clashing with such tragedy and they’ve been manipulated into it by others.
Inserts (1974)—“Boy Wonder”
RD: I gave the script to my agent, and I had an old-fashioned agent. He was great. I went into his office, and he started to say something like, “You’re nuts.” And I said, “Meyer, whose side are you on?” And he said, “Do it.” Because on paper, it’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever read, and John [Byrum] is not a great director, but he was a fabulous writer, and the tone of it was never decided on correctly, but the level of intelligence and the fact that all of those characters, it could be said, later went on to be Louis B. Mayer and Gary Cooper was fascinating.
What About Bob? (1991)—“Dr. Leo Marvin”
RD: How about it? Funny movie. Terribly unpleasant experience. We didn’t get along, me and Bill Murray. But I’ve got to give it to him: I don’t like him, but he makes me laugh even now. I’m also jealous that he’s a better golfer than I am. It’s a funny movie. No one ever comes up to you and says, “I identify with the patient.” They always say, “I have patients like that. I identify with your character.” No one ever says that they’re willing to identify with the other character.
Jaws (1975)—“Matt Hooper”
RD: Jaws, first time I saw it, I forgot I was in it. True. Totally forgot, and got as scared as everybody else, and it’s a great movie. I learned a shitload about my whole life, and I watched Steven [Spielberg] go from being a boy to being a man.
AVC: He was still in his twenties when he directed it.
RD: Yeah, something like that. But he was under pressure you couldn’t believe. And his shark never worked, so they had to re-conceive as they went, and it was because of that mind-fuck that he made a great film.
AVC: What can you tell me about The Dreyfuss Initiative?
RD: It is an obvious and blatant stupidity beyond my ability to articulate how dumb it is for us not to teach our children how to run the government. It’s really stupid and easy; the flaw is as big as this building, and it will kill the country. The only problem is that it’s, for some reason, invisible. You can’t solve a problem until you acknowledge that you have one, and so we just had eight years of evidence of our incredible ability to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the living room. And the two groups that I fear are the sophisticates of New York and the Beltway mentality of D.C. You. No kidding. Because you guys are built, are born, now, with a sneer, and do not believe that if it’s… They don’t believe, as I don’t believe, that politicians are ever authentic. But their attack is too wide, so that people fear their own authenticity when they’re inside the Beltway, and Maureen Dowd is sitting in the first row. And that is a real problem, because ultimately, this country is based upon one word, and that’s “trust.” You must trust your representatives, you must trust the republican structure of a representative democracy. You cannot demonize that which you would share. And you let the worst of us have the closest and most intimate relationship with power.
AVC: I think of Reagan, when he said, “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem.” And what does that tell children when the most powerful person in the government is touting the uselessness of the American system?
RD: And when you say, “You children are the government. Just because no one’s told you how to shape yourself into sovereignty doesn’t mean you’re not sovereign.” They are sovereign. I am, and you, but Jefferson cunningly left out how to make that switch. And he had his own incredibly immoral, disgusting reasons for leaving it out, but we live in his prose, so as an exemplar, as a moral exemplar, you can never dismiss what he wrote. But he doesn’t want you to be expert at what he wrote.
AVC: Do you think Obama’s election has perhaps introduced an element of idealism back into American politics?
RD: Not enough. First of all, if Bush’s popularity points were two points off, Obama would never have been elected. But [Bush] had crossed the line. He’d gotten so blatantly and brazenly disgusting that it was okay to vote for this black guy. And then, what does he do, he acts pretty much like Bush. You know? Signs the same letters, continues the same ban on the torture photographs. Power never turns power down, ever, unless institutionally demanded. And the moment that Obama was elected was his moral high point, and he should have said, very simply, “I disavow the values of the previous administration.” Period. That one statement would have allowed for torture to be removed from the American political lexicon. It would have allowed for Cheney, and his relationship with his company, to be scrutinized. And I speak as someone whose father was a torturer in the Battle Of The Bulge. I’m not kidding. He tortured men and killed them. But he did it in battle. And battle is different than peacetime. Battle is an act of insanity, and peacetime is when Bush said, “Torture? Good idea.” So this country’s going to go down, and its problem is, it won’t change its name, the documents will remain in place, it’ll look like the same country, but it’ll go down, and we will have been the first generation to fail at giving our children what every generation’s has succeeded in doing.
AVC: Meaning something better than what they had.
RD: Yeah. And if you went out and got onto an airplane and heard an announcement that said, “We’re going to pick the pilot from business class today,” you’d get off the plane. Well, that’s what we do with the country.