Richard Dreyfuss on the extremes of his career, from Shakespeare to Valley Of The Dolls

Richard Dreyfuss on the extremes of his career, from Shakespeare to Valley Of The Dolls

Richard Dreyfuss started his onscreen acting career in 1964, picking up a small collection of minor roles in various sitcoms and dramas. Within a decade, he was on the path to becoming one of the biggest movie stars of the 1970s. After starring in box office smashes like American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, and The Goodbye Girl, Dreyfuss entered the ’80s with a solid reputation as a dependable actor in both dramatic and comedic roles. But he surprised many in 1990 when, after having predominantly done projects set in the present day, he turned up in the film adaptation of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. The Shakespeare-inspired comedy, which follows two minor characters from Hamlet rather than the titular prince of Denmark, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Dreyfuss spoke to The A.V. Club in conjunction with its release on Blu-ray, discussing his experiences on the film and his background in Shakespeare as well as a few other notable moments from his career.

The A.V. Club: How did you find your way into Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead as the only American in the cast?

Richard Dreyfuss: Well, I have a distinct memory of Tom Stoppard coming to my house, and I literally had no idea why at the time. [Laughs.] But I was complimented! And then he said he wanted me to play the Player King, and I froze for a minute. My triple-A Apple computer in my mind went through that like shit through a goose, and I said, “Absolutely! But… I want to play it like Donald Wolfit!”

Donald Wolfit was the English actor who was the basis for the actor that Albert Finney played in The Dresser, and he was always playing outraged archbishops. He was a supporting player in movies, but he was a huge actor on the stage in London. He’s nothing like me, and I’m nothing like him, but I said to Tom, “I want to play it like him.” And he looked at me and said, “Oooookay.” [Laughs.] And it’s a kind of acting that I would never do as an actor now, but it gave me the chance to do that kind of acting, which was the kind of acting that preceded the modern era. And he’s always saying [With maximum bluster.] “To be… or not to be. That is the question!” You know, like that.

I looked forward to the day that we were shooting that scene for months! [Laughs.] And then we shot it, and it was so much fun. I kept asking him to shoot it again because I’d gotten a word wrong. I hadn’t gotten a word wrong. I just wanted to do it again! But he said—and this was true—that they were on a tight, tight budget, so they didn’t have time to indulge me. But I remember doing the speech, and I wish I had it in front of me! In fact…

[Dreyfuss calls to his assistant and asks her to hunt up his copy of Hamlet, specifically the Player King’s speech.]

What Tom had done, by the way, in the play version of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern was to give the Player King the role of the character who can step out of the play at any time and play with the audience and play with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He was a character who was in the play and out of the play: He could talk directly to the audience, and he led them through the experience of letting them find out that they were, in fact, in a play. They weren’t real, they were in a play, and they were going to keep doing this and keep getting hung. [Laughs.] “And then we’re going to start again and keep getting hung for all eternity!” It was always fun to do. He had, I would think, easily the best part in the play—or the film version—and it just was a continuous kind of stick in the ribs.

Ah, here we go. Let me see...

…aaaaaand like that. And it was fun.

AVC: It was fun to hear it, too.

RD: There’s one particular speech that is known as the Player King’s Speech, which is the one that they ask him to do when he first arrives at the castle. They say, “We’ll have a speech right away. Come on, do a speech.” And he says, “Certainly!” And he jumps up on this table and he does this speech about the death of Priam in the Trojan War. And it’s great. And I wish I could remember more than two words of it. [Laughs.] So you’ve got to take it on faith! “And Richard Dreyfuss said that he was wonderful!”

AVC: About a decade prior to doing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, you played Iago in a televised version of Othello. How much of a Shakespeare aficionado were you?

RD: Oh, well, I’ve done a lot! Or what I think of as a lot. I did two Othellos—the one in the park in New York, one in Georgia—and I did this, and then I directed a production of Hamlet. I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And people keep saying to me, “One day you’ll play Lear!” And I keep saying to myself, “When hell freezes!” [Laughs.] Because I’m not the Shakespearean actor I wish I was. I’m serious! I’m not. I have an idea what Shakespeare should sound like, and… How do I phrase it? I don’t have the physical discipline.

In fact, one time—the only time—I was given a comment by a critic that I learned something from was when Walter Kerr, of all people, saw my production… [Snorts.] “My production.” Our production of Julius Caesar at the Brooklyn Academy. René Auberjonois and I, he was Brutus and I was Cassius, and it was a hideously bad production and known to be such by all the actors at the time. It was really terrible. And Walter Kerr said, “If Richard Dreyfuss wants to continue playing Shakespeare in his career, he should learn to be still.”

That was a true comment. And it was a very telling one. He was telling me the truth: that I was physically distracting. When you move on stage, you’re watched, and I remember seeing another actor doing what I do, and it was very distracting and very off-putting… and then I realized that was what I did. Oops. I never really conquered that. I did take Shakespeare voice classes. I did study Shakespeare at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. But the stillness is something I never achieved. I think if I had learned to be still, well, I certainly would’ve played Hamlet in my younger days.

I had two master classes. I ran two classes. One was when I was in my early twenties, at Theater West, in Los Angeles, and we were just exploring the play. We never put on anything. But we learned a lot. It depends on how much you know or love Hamlet, but I could tell you things that we came to in that first class that would blow your mind. But you really have to know the play. And then when I was much older, I was asked if I would be willing to direct a production of Hamlet, but I would only have 10 days to cast and rehearse. Like an idiot, I said “yes.” [Laughs.] And I was the director that I always hated. I did everything wrong. I moved people around physically, I gave them line readings, and I insisted that they play a certain style. And one of the actors, on the night we opened, said [In a crisp British accent.] “I’ve never had such a distinct disagreement between me and the director about a character that I was playing!” Oops.

But I loved Hamlet. And I loved the basic notion of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. I thought it was brilliant and should be taught in the canon of Shakespeare. If you included Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, it would be a very, very telling and fascinating way to learn the play. Because I’d always thought that these two characters had a raw deal. You know, they show up at the castle and the first one they meet is the king, and the king says, “Boys, Hamlet is nuts.” Now, if the king tells you that the character’s nuts, the first time you meet Hamlet, you’re going to act just like they did, which is with a certain sense of caution or wariness. And Hamlet picks that up and decides—incorrectly—that they’re in cahoots with the king. And that just leads them directly to their doom. But they’re actually quite innocent. They’ve never done anything wrong! [Laughs.] What Tom wrote the play from was that point of view: these guys never understood what was going on around them… and so they died.

AVC: You’ve obviously got a significant background in theater, but it appears that your first time on camera was in 1964 on a TV series called Karen, with Debbie Watson.

RD: Yeah, that’s pretty close! I did a bunch of Universal 30-minute domestic comedies, and that probably was the first one. And I’ll tell you a story about that one, too. I usually played the nerd who wanted to date the girl and was always told, “Get out of here!” Well, I was 14 years old, I was doing a scene with Richard Denning, a very well-known actor who was playing her father, and Denning flubbed a line, a thing I came to know quite well myself. But when he flubbed the line, I went, “Cut!” And silence abruptly fell upon that set.

And Peter Tewksbury, the director of the show, came up to me, and he came very close to me, and he took his finger and he punctuated what he said with a poke in the chest. He said, “You—poke!—don’t—poke!dopoke!—that. Ipoke!—do—poke!—that.” And by the time he finished, I think I was about as tall as a little mouse. You know, my experience was just from watching shows about actors. So I did actually steal his line, but I learned a lesson: don’t ever do that again! [Laughs.]

AVC: What led you from TV into film? Because you soon popped up very briefly in Valley Of The Dolls and The Graduate.

RD: The Graduate was all due to Mike Nichols’ unique generosity: Actors who had auditioned for the role that Dustin Hoffman got were rewarded with lines in the film. I knew that I was too young, but I wanted to at least get to Nichols. You know, there were lines of casting directors between him and us, and I just wanted to conquer each line. And I did. And I was about to see Mike—it was a Tuesday night, and I was supposed to see him on Wednesday—when someone came up me and said, “Mike isn’t going to be here tomorrow. He had to fly to New York, because he’s supposed to meet an actor named Dustin Hoffman.” And I felt the wind of inevitability crawl right up the back of my neck. [Laughs.] I just knew. It was such a great name—Dustin Hoffman—that I knew I was out of that competition.

But some weeks later I’m told to go and have a meeting with Mike Nichols, because he wanted me to play such and such a part. So I went in to see him, and he looked up at me and he said, [Very seriously.] “Are you prepared?” I said, “I’ve been studying with Stella [Adler] for this.” He said, “Okay. Go ahead. Whenever you’re ready.” And I closed my eyes, and then I looked up and said, “Shall I call the police? I’ll call the police.” And he said, “You’ve got the part.” And I said, “Thank you.” [Laughs.] And that was that! And he did that with other actors who auditioned—I can’t remember who else now—and they all had parts in the film as well. But it was his great and deep sense of humor that allowed for that. So I got to not only say the lines in the scene, but I got to watch him direct, which was really something.

So that’s why I was in The Graduate, and I’ve always said that I was in the best film of 1967 and the worst film of 1967, because I had a part in Valley Of The Dolls, which I never admitted to for probably 15 years. But then one day I realized that I had never actually seen Valley Of The Dolls all the way through, so I finally did it. And I realized that I was in the last 45 seconds of the worst film ever made. And I watched from the beginning with a growing sense of horror. And then I finally heard my line. And I thought, “I’ll never work again.” [Laughs.] I actually knew Patty [Duke, who played Neely O’Hara] at the time, and I told her, “I’ve never seen the film.” And she said, “Neither have I!” But I used to make money by betting people about being in the best and worst films of 1967: No one would ever come up with the answer, so I’d make 20 bucks!

AVC: American Graffiti was a major turning point for your career, but have you ever wondered what would’ve happened if the failed pilot you were in for Catch-22 had been picked up?

RD: That would’ve been impossible, at least with me. This is true: I was at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, having just received into my hands the script of The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz, and as I flipped through the script, I realized I had in my hands the best role for a young actor ever. I was trembling. I had to go home, read it, and then I would come back and do a reading, but I was going to do this. It was as if God had handed this one to me, especially after the nightmare of doing the pilot for Catch-22.

So as I was walking down the steps of the Beverly Wilshire, I hear this voice: “Richard!” And I look up, and there was an ABC lawyer there that I knew from the production. And I said, “Hi!” And he said, “Richard, we have another chance!” “What?” “We have another chance with the show! We’ve got that window of opportunity!” And he described some kind of window that allowed for them to reapply for Catch-22. And I looked at him and I said [Clears throat.] “My agent’s name is Meyer Mishkin, 274-5261. My lawyer’s name is Bernie Donenfeld.” And I told him his number, and then I said, “You will see me in jail before I do that part.” And he would’ve. I would’ve gone straight to court to get out of doing that. Because it was so clear that I was holding in one hand the best route through the forest of shit, a great part that could not be overlooked, and in the other hand was Catch-22, which was ABC’s nomination for that year for the worst writing of anything ever. [Laughs.] So I walked away. And they never called me. They never said, “Are you sure?” They just knew I wasn’t going to do that role.

But I did do Duddy Kravitz, which was a great role. And I have looked back, and I’ve always thought to myself, “You know, if you really are honest with yourself, Richard, you weren’t in any way a standout actor in all the 11 years of doing TV parts.” I hadn’t ever really stood out. And then I did Duddy Kravitz, and I was great. And I have no idea why or how that happened. It was like I was Clark Kent, I ran into the phone booth, I changed my costume, and I came out Superman. It was as clear as day, but I don’t know why. I can’t explain that. But it was in my favor. You know, there’s this line from the Bible: “God had turned his face away from Isaac.” And at that time, God had not turned his face away from me at all… and he was beaming! Years later, he did turn his face away, which I was quite aware of! [Laughs.] But that gave me a film career. It gave me a chance to be a film actor.

[So] in my mind, it was like there were three years between American Graffiti and Catch-22. In fact, I’d completely erased Catch-22 from my memory.

AVC: Sorry to have put it back in.

RD: [Bursts out laughing.] Yeah! “Why am I feeling so shitty? Oh, that’s right…” No, but it really was gone. In fact, it was gone from the moment I finished shooting. But it was American Graffiti, Duddy Kravitz, and then Jaws… and then I was a movie star. And that all happened in a jumble. It happened quickly. It’s a little untidy mountain of praise, and the fact that I was in a film that had made more money than any other film ever. But I’m very fair. I never call Jaws my film. You know, there are people who used that kind of language, and I say, “No, no, no. Duddy Kravitz was my film. American Graffiti was George Lucas’s film, and Jaws was Steven Spielberg’s film.” After that, I did The Goodbye Girl and things like that, and those were my films. So I got a chance. But I just like to apply justice clearly and with focus.

AVC: Since Jaws is such well-trod territory, let’s ask this instead: Did they have to twist your arm to get you to do the Jaws-homage role in Piranha 3D?

RD: You know, I had created a nonprofit for the revival of the teaching of civil authority, and I had actually already stepped away from acting and did that. I went to Oxford for four years, and you can’t really do that and pursue an acting career at the same time. I’m always criticized for using this word, for saying that I retired, but it’s appropriate to say that I had to make a choice between these two things. And I did: I stopped acting, and I went to Oxford, and I was there for four years. But there’s a law in California that says you’re not allowed to retire from show business. [Laughs.]

I have this friend, and one night she said to me, “So what are you doing now?” I said, “I’m running this nonprofit organization.” And she said, “No, no, no. Seriously, what are you doing?” I said, “No, that’s what I’m doing. I went to Oxford, and I studied what the damage was for the lack of teaching of civic authority.” And she said, “Richard, come on. What are you doing?” And I said, “Okay, I’m going for the Nobel Prize.” And she said, “Oh, really? That’s good!” To her, that was legitimate. [Laughs.]

And then after the dust had settled and all the other things became clear, I realized the only way I knew how to make a living and feed my family was through acting! So I started all over again. And I really did! I started with one-line parts, and then tiny roles. That’s what Piranha was. I had originally said no, but he said that he was so impressed with what I had really done—quit and come back with a curriculum—that he offered me a salary that was huge. I couldn’t turn that down! And he was saying he was for the nonprofit, and he agreed that we had to have civics taught again, but it was clear that he was not paying me for the role: He was using it to lasso me back, like a pony.

AVC: Was it fun for you to do a role like that, where it was a knowing wink to the audience, or did it feel too obvious?

RD: Well, the boat was being turned one direction and the water was creating a whirlpool, so mechanically it was a bitch. And hard! So it wasn’t anything that one enjoyed. [Laughs.] But I knew it would be funny, and I knew it would be something interesting to open that movie. As was the case with Valley Of The Dolls, though, I’ve never seen it. And, you know, I really should see that. I have to see me in 3D!