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Jawing With Richard Dreyfuss

The cuddly wiseacre from the terrifying motion picture from the terrifying Number One best seller

American, film, actor, Richard DreyfussAmerican, film, actor, Richard Dreyfuss

American film actor Richard Dreyfuss on May 9th, 1975.

John Minihan/Getty

I don’t know,” said Richard Dreyfuss last December when I first called to ask about an interview. “I just don’t know.” His hesitation was understandable. The 27-year-old actor — a standout some months earlier as college-bound Curt in American Graffiti, followed by an equally impressive performance in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz — then in the midst of completing his latest film, Jaws — had just weathered singularly disastrous interviews, almost simultaneously, in two different New York newspapers.

“Perhaps Richard Dreyfuss really is Duddy Kravitz,” suggested the New York Times, having earlier described Duddy as one who “claws, connives and cheats his way to the top.” And the New York Post was no kinder; only less subtle.

“I don’t know,” Dreyfuss told me that winter afternoon. “Those interviews made me sound like an asshole.”

Sympathetic, I agreed, they weren’t.

“And I’m not an asshole,” Dreyfuss insisted. “That is, I don’t think I’m an asshole. And if I am an asshole,” he concluded firmly, “then I sure as hell shouldn’t be doing interviews.”

Asshole!” says Richard Dreyfuss to himself in the middle of a passport application line one spring afternoon deep in the bowels of the midtown Manhattan federal bureaucracy. He slaps his forehead loudly, spins around on his heels and repeats the observation.

A silver-haired woman in the rear of the line gasps audibly, but Dreyfuss takes no notice. He has just discovered that his previous three days of effort toward obtaining a new passport — only five days prior to an extended trip to London — had been altogether unnecessary: His earlier passport, stolen, can be renewed on the spot.

Dreyfuss groans softly and then heads off, at full-speed stride across the linoleum, in search of the proper window and clerk. No one but the silver-haired lady pays much attention: Dreyfuss is one of those screen actors who, thus far, manages to be almost unrecognizable in life. The plump, shiny-cheeked Curt in Graffiti, the equally plump but ferret-faced Duddy — neither comes close to Dreyfuss’s present incarnation. More than one interviewer, in recent months, has failed altogether to recognize the subject of the interview.

Today Dreyfuss wears a trim beard spotted with gray and grown originally for his role in his latest film, Jaws, along with baggy Levi’s, a work shirt and a well-weathered combat jacket. Hustling around the passport office, Dreyfuss looks far more like a guy who delivers Shoppers’ News in the suburbs at two cents a copy than one of the more talented young actors in the country today.

Dreyfuss is, on first meeting, immediately likable. His inexhaustible energy, which keeps him in a perpetual sort of Brownian movement around the passport office, is subtly different from the equally inexhaustible energy of his grasping, prying Duddy Kravitz portrayal. Duddy, poor-boy-on-the-make, used his energy to cut in front or to cut out altogether. Dreyfuss uses his to involve everyone around him in brief, irresistible scenes from the ongoing drama of Rick Dreyfuss’s existence — cops on the street, secretaries, airline stewardesses, waitresses; everyone gets pulled into a benign, swirling vortex of Dreyfuss energy.

How long Dreyfuss will be able to maintain that act remains to be seen. Jaws threatens to make him the sort of major star who can’t be quite so casual about playing on the street. The Time magazine cover story on Jaws pronounced it the major movie of the summer and called Dreyfuss’s performance “perfect. With a cheeky charm he manages to humanize the picture while stealing it.”

Which is not, all in all, a bad way to describe the way Dreyfuss approaches life. One passport clerk, young, Jewish, recognizes Richard from Duddy and efficiently locates an obscure form for him. “You’re beautiful,” Dreyfuss tells him, nearly reaching over the counter to pinch his cheek, and then shakes his head bemusedly, shrugging Duddy-style. “All this chazerai …” Moments later, Dreyfuss is back at the original window, presenting his new form plus passport. “And listen,” he asks the middle-aged, bespectacled clerk, “can you stamp it STUPID for me?”

Twenty minutes later we are in Dreyfuss’s borrowed Broadway apartment, upstairs over a residential hotel; an atmosphere midway between West Side crash pad and colorful hangout. The apartment is filled with magazines, partially empty half-gallon bottles of expensive Scotch and general disorganization on every level.

On a tapestry-covered grand piano sits a compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. In one corner, an immense bag from a Fifth Avenue bookshop, crammed with new books. “Thomas Paine,” Dreyfuss explains as he moves toward the telephone, which has been ringing since the moment he opened the door. “I just bought $121 worth of books about Thomas Paine.” Later this week, he says, he is to recite Paine selections at a counter-Bicentennial celebration near Boston. He answers the phone as I examine the bagful of Paine. Prominent among the books are both a quality paperback edition of the Torah and Confessions of a Winning Poker Player. “Pour me a drink?” Dreyfuss asks, hand over telephone.

“Ma Bell, you cocksucker,” Richard screams into his three-button telephone as his first call is accidentally disconnected. But by then another line is already ringing. “What’s cookin’, good-lookin’?” Dreyfuss answers. Another line lights up; he switches and answers and goes back to the first line, now with a note of desperation: “Can I call you right back? I’m long distance, can’t talk.” He goes back to the second line. “Schmuck! I know you’re going to Boston, I’m going got Boston on Thursday.” He pauses, listens. “Yeah!” he says. “Sure!”

Now a different telephone is ringing. Dreyfuss, telephone in hand, gestures desperately toward the bedroom. In the bedroom, over an unmade double bed, another three-button phone is flashing. I punch all the buttons, but get nothing except dial tones. I return to the living room, shrug at Dreyfuss; Dreyfuss shrugs back.

“All they’re interested in,” Dreyfuss is saying into the phone, “is getting anybody, Charles Manson, Rick Dreyfuss, Tab Hunter, on television. They don’t care,” he says, “if I get up there and go goo-goo.”

He listens briefly, then interrupts. “Listen. Why don’t you just do a leading role in a movie and then you can get taken care of too?”

Now Dreyfuss is scribbling frantically, phone crooked on his shoulder. “Tell them I’m going to do a porno in London,” he says. “Yes.” The other line rings. “Hold on. What? You’ve got to come to Washington. Don’t you know that pleasure and happiness are the goal of American society?” He listens impatiently. “It’ll be fun.” He pauses. “Listen, I’ll call you back.”

He switches buttons, the other line lights up, the telephone in the bedroom rings again. Dreyfuss pauses, glances at his watch, surrounded by telephones. “Listen,” he asks me, “you want to share a cab downtown?”

Stupid,” no matter how politely he asks, is one passport stamp that Richard Dreyfuss will probably never manage to earn. At out first meeting over breakfast in a Seventh Avenue delicatessen, Dreyfuss managed, in less than ten minutes, to drag the conversation onto an extended analysis of C. Wright Mills’s notions of “cafe society.” “Why,” Dreyfuss wondered, “are people interested in personalities? Why is it that I should get to do interviews? What do people get out of that?”

What readers get out of most personality interviews seems, in general, rather a mystery. What magazines get out of interviews is less obscure: readers. And what Richard Dreyfuss gets out of interviews may finally be even less obscure. “I’m going to do them,” he swears today, “until I get it right.”

Dreyfuss, it develops, is exceedingly serious about politics. A few months ago he told no less a record than the New York Times that his goal was to become a United States senator. More recently, on the Mike Douglas Show, assistant to the president Donald Rumsfeld challenged Dreyfuss’s harsh analysis of the state of the union by saying, “Well, maybe that’s because you’re in the acting business instead of going into government.” As Lily Tomlin moaned, “Oh, give us a break, Donald,” in the background, Dreyfuss came back to say that he planned to do just that, and when he did, his approach would differ both in style and substance from Rumsfeld’s.

Indeed. Thus it is, very early the next morning, I find myself in a nearly deserted Penn Station, waiting for Richard Dreyfuss and the first Amtrak express to Washington D.C.

Dreyfuss barely makes the train, rushing into the station at his customary double-time trot, just in time to grab a seat, and in short order, a cup of coffee. He is slightly better dressed this morning; his work shirt is now of the vaguely tailored variety, with epaulettes and more elaborate stitching than the J.C Penney model. He is still, however, no fashion plate, especially considering that a primary reason for this early morning dash to Washington is, in only a few hours, to appear on a local talk show on behalf of the Safe Return Amnesty Committee — a group lobbying for total amnesty for draft resisters and deserters of the Vietnam era.

Dreyfuss’s traveling companions today are two young New York stage actors, Bob Balaban and Lynn Grossman, both previously active in the Safe Return committee and both friends of Dreyfuss, who will provide him with most of his reference material this morning and with considerable moral support for the rest of the day. On the train Dreyfuss immediately buries himself in James Reston Jr.’s The Amnesty of John David Herndon. How, one wonders, did Dreyfuss get involved in all of this to begin with?

Dreyfuss, to begin with, was a conscientious objector himself after a brief stint at San Fernando Valley State College, working two years in L.A. County General Hospital. “Dumb,” he describes it. ” ‘Clean the files,’ they’d say, and I’d say, ‘The files are clean,’ and they’d say, ‘It’s not 4:30 yet, clean the files.’ “And then early this winter, Dreyfuss arrived in New York to work in a play that never got off the ground and became involved instead with Safe Return.

“My first ‘sure’ was very casual and thoughtless,” says Dreyfuss. “And then it became an enormous responsibility.” And also, clearly, the point at which he first began to appreciate the weight of a Hollywood name on the scales of congressional lobbying.

“At first,”Dreyfuss says as the Amtrak lurches south toward Washington, “if someone said ‘no’ to me, that meant ‘no.’ I refused to use who I was. I’d call Al Pacino’s office and say, ‘My name is Richard Dreyfuss. I’d like to talk about the Safe Return Amnesty Committee,’ and the secretary would say [Dreyfuss goes into an officious, Lily Tomlin-style secretarial voice]: ‘Oh! He’s been deluged with so many causes lately.” And I’d say [simpering]: ‘Well, this is only one little raindrop of a cause, but I’d like to speak to Mr. Pacino.’ I didn’t know then that I could say, with any grace [now in rapid-fire, cold-as-ice intonations]: ‘This is Richard Dreyfuss. I was in American Graffiti and I was the star of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, I’d like to talk to Mr. blah-blah, please, da-da, cha-cha, ruh-ruh-ruh … and then they connect you.” Dreyfuss shakes his head. “Amazing.”

Not that it always works. Dreyfuss never did get through to Jacob Javits. “I was told the senator was in Europe,” Dreyfuss says. “Bullshit. It was the first day of the new session, and, in my humble opinion, senators, for those occasions, go to the Riviera, or Monte Carlo, but that’s only my opinion, and I could be wrong.”

Dreyfuss’s lobbying experience has left its mark. Previously, he says, slipping into his most ingratiating voice, his approach was: “Oooh, please, Representative and Mr. Congressman, can I just have a bit of your time, please? I know you’re running down the hall … “Dreyfuss shakes his head and grins and goes back into the hard-as-nails Baby Face Nelson snarl: “Fuck you, you work for me, Charlie.”

Richard Dreyfuss presently lingers somewhere in the public limbo between being a “name” and being a “face.” Jaws — a simple story of a great white shark and its appetite — augers to change that situation considerably. Jaws has been launched with a publicity flood that includes “the biggest, most intensive TV campaign in history,” according to a double-page ad in Variety.

Universal Studios is clearly out to sell Jaws. Whether they’re out to sell Richard Dreyfuss is altogether another question. Universal has come in for more than a bit of untrammeled Dreyfuss criticism in recent months.

Earlier this year, in fact, Hollywood rumor was that Dreyfuss had managed to be so critical of the picture and studio on the Mike Douglas Show that he was compelled (presumably, according to rumor, by Universal) to go back on the show and apologize. The rumor, denied by all concerned, did come up on. Dreyfuss’s most recent Mike Douglas appearance, when Dreyfuss admitted that there had been some confusion about his earlier statements. He hadn’t meant to implicate the producers of the film. (Long pause.) “But I still blame the studio.”

“Richard,” Mike Douglas then wondered, “does being so outspoken affect the kinds of roles you’re offered?”

“No,” Dreyfuss replied, beaming. “I’m still being offered young and chubby Jewish boys.”

Why, one wonders, did Richard do Jaws at all?

Dreyfuss shrugs. “I was paranoid. I had just seen Duddy in Canada and I thought I was awful and that I would never work again. And I got a call from my agent saying that Steven Spielberg [director of Jaws] was flying in to talk about playing in Jaws. Do not read the novel, my agent said.

“Interesting, I thought. So I met Steven — he’s like six months younger than I am, has been directing since he was 20 — and he told me this very exciting story he was going to shoot.

“I said, ‘Steven, I would go to see this movie in a minute. I don’t want to do it.’

“He said, ‘Why?’

“‘Because, as an actor, it doesn’t do a thing for me.'”

Dreyfuss shrugs. “And that was that. The character, as it existed, was just there to give out shark information.” Dreyfuss pulls his chin down onto his chest, goes into a baritone professional voice: “The technoramis macoranis is capable of a 26,000 ton per square inch pressure, dum dum, here comes the shark, da dum, dum dum …” Dreyfuss makes as if nodding out. “Boring boring boring.

“But then I had no money, everybody said there was going to be an actors’ strike, everyone I trust as an adviser said ‘do it.’ So we constructed a character over three days and finally I said okay. I gave in, I surrendered, I was a prostitute.” He shrugs again. “Let’s hope it’s not a habit.”

Richard stares out the train window. By now the Amtrak is somewhere in Delaware, just about three hours from his television date.

“I only read the first chapter of the book,” he says after a moment, “but what I liked about it was the casual view of us as food that the shark has. No passion, no hatred. This is just fresh food. There’s a line I say in the film: ‘This is the perfect engine. All he does is sleep and feed and make little sharks and that’s all.'”

So how does he feel about the film now?

“I haven’t seen it. I didn’t like shooting the film. I liked Steven enormously and would work with him again in a minute. But I don’t like Universal much. Or Martha’s Vineyard [where much of the shooting took place]. After a while, you begin to feel like Papillon and throw coconuts out to sea and do anything to get off the Vineyard.”

What was the problem?

“Incompetence on the part of the studio,” Richard says briskly. He rolls his eyes upward and recites, as if in a voice from heaven: “TROUBLE. The shark, for God’s sake [the mechanical shark that was the center of PR interest during last summer’s shooting], was not only not tested, it hadn’t even been finished yet.

“But,” he says quickly, “it got pulled off, and apparently everybody is very happy with it; a truly exciting, well-put-together adventure film. They think it’s going to make an enormous amount of money. I haven’t seen it. I’m only taking somebody else’s word for it. And I know people who like Death in Venice. So trust me with shit until I see it myself.”

Universal is by no means the only recipient of the critical Dreyfuss assessment. In fact, with the exception of American Graffiti — also Dreyfuss’s favorite performance — Richard is critical of all his films. John Milius’s Dillinger (in which he played Baby Face Nelson), he simply “didn’t like as a film.” The post-production work on Duddy Kravitz was “very poor and destroyed Jack Warden’s performance [as Duddy’s father] and hurt very much my own.”

But Dreyfuss pays meticulous attention to his own criticism. “There’s a woman reviewer in Los Angeles,” he confides, “who doesn’t like me. I learned this when she reviewed Dillinger and said that Richard Dreyfuss draws extra attention to himself by overdoing it, as usual, playing Baby-Face Nelson like a” — Dreyfuss pauses, concentrating, staring toward the ceiling in order to quote exactly — “‘like a rabid pug dog.’ The words that leapt off the pages were ‘as usual.’ This was the first film I’d ever done.

“So she came to the Vineyard to interview Robert Shaw and I walked up and said, ‘What does “as usual” mean?’ And she said, ‘Pardon me?’ and I reminded her of the review and she said, ‘Oh gee, I don’t know,’ We had a pleasant evening together, she went back to L.A. and nailed me again. ‘Richard Dreyfuss, uh, sporting a beard that looks too big for him, gives the impression of a wire-haired terrier worrying an old sock … yata-yata-yata.'”Dreyfuss shakes his head. “And she was a nice lady, too.”

Sounds, I observe, like the lady is into dog metaphors.

“I wanted to call her up,” Dreyfuss says, “and say, ‘Did I offend you in some way when we were infants? Have I hurt your family? Was this something to do with before we emigrated? Is this blood that goes back to Sicily?'”

Dreyfuss is least restrained in his observations on politics. When, on an earlier Washington visit, Senator Alan Cranston’s aide informed Dreyfuss that the chances of the senator’s support for a total amnesty bill were “rather nil, because the senator is in his second tenure in office and is beginning to take the long view,” Dreyfuss’s response was, “Oh! In other words, he thinks this office is his, that he owns it and deserves it forever. I mean, he wants to protect his claim, is that right?” In repeating the anecdote, Dreyfuss snorts: “Well, my ass, man.

“When I was 16,” he says, “a friend asked me what I thought was a successful political career. I said, ‘It’s getting up at the convention, saying you’re available for nomination, refusing to accept any deals and then not getting nominated. That is a successful political career.”

By that standard, Dreyfuss is already assured political success. But his aspirations go a bit beyond that. “By the time I was 12,” he says, “I knew what I would say if I ran for Congress: I enjoy the exercise of power. I have a foundation of morality. I am not your servant. If you vote for me, I will do what I can to help my constituency, but most of all I will be led by my own conscience. You know — say those things that everybody wants to hear, tell the truth, goddamnit. I’d just like to do that. It would be fun.”

Dreyfuss offers an example: “When the guy ran for superintendent of education against Max Rafferty in California, and Rafferty accused him of hiding the fact that he was a Negro. I would call the press and say, ‘I’ve been accused of hiding the fact that I’m a Negro. I would like to tell Mr. Rafferty that I consider him a puerile fool, and if he would like to debate with me on television, he may, because I think he has been hiding the fact that he has the brain of a pillow. That is my only response. And how long are you going to let these things be reported in your media?’ ” Dreyfuss nods firmly. “And then walk out of the press conference.”

Two hours later we are in Washington in a cab on the way to the television station. “When I was a kid,” Dreyfuss says, as embassies drift by outside, “I used to have a fantasy that I’d go on the Carson show. And it would be right at the end of the segment, just before the commercial and Carson would turn to me and say, ‘And what, Rick, would you like to do when you grow up?”

“And I’d look at him and say, ‘Your job, Johnny.’ “

Dreyfuss, however, still does not dress in precisely talk-show style, and when he arrives at the station, there is a sudden flurry of clothes changing out in the lobby. His work shirt has lost a button, and he trades sweaters and jackets with Bob Balaban, who is, all in all, a bit better turned out today. Finally he ends up with a suit coat over his work shirt, Levi’s and hiking boots. Dreyfuss announces that he is uncomfortable in the outfit.

“You look fine,” says Lynn Grossman.

“You sound like my mother,” Dreyfuss grumbles, mock petulant. “‘You look fine.'”

Dreyfuss and company are ushered back to the sound stage that will be used for Washington Panorama. Balaban is immediately on the telephone, calling offices on Capitol Hill to try and discover exactly who Dreyfuss Will be appearing with this afternoon. Dreyfuss paces around the studio, studying his notes and squirming around inside the confines of his borrowed suit coat.

Dreyfuss hoped that former senator Charles Goodell, the New York Conservative who heads the Clemency Board, will show up. Balaban, hands over telephone receiver, announces that Goodell is out of town and will not show.

“Where is Goodell?” Dreyfuss ponders. “He’s probably out skiing today because he was so busy yesterday.”

Another member of the board will show up, Balaban says from the telephone. Someone named James Maye.

Dreyfuss nods and returns to his pacing, and five minutes later, after calling sympathetic congressional offices, Balaban finds out who Maye is. “

He’s a paraplegic, Rick. From Vietnam. He’s in a wheelchair.”

“Oh boy.” Dreyfuss finally sits down. “Oh boy.” This has more than just the scent of a sandbag. There is a brief space of dead silence among the Dreyfuss crew.

“Don’t debate him,” Lynn suggests. “Do different segments. Don’t let them put you on the same stage.”

Dreyfuss, sitting at a formica table littered with empty soft drink cans, shakes his head.

Suddenly the program coordinator, a trim middle-aged woman, strides into the studio. “Richard!” she says in tones of pure delight that she will employ at least ten more times in the next ten minutes.

Dreyfuss looks up glumly, not terribly glad to see her. He is, clearly, a bit nervous. She drags him off into a dressing room to brief him on the show’s format.

On camera, 20 minutes later, Dreyfuss does well.

The overslick young host, vaguely out of a John Lindsay mold, begins with toothsome banter: “I just saw you on television in a terrible movie: The Young Runaways.”

Dreyfuss grimaces. “I thought I’d bought up all the copies.”

“Seriously,” says the talk show host, and he briefly details the highlights of Dreyfuss’s film career to date, emphasizing the success of American Graffiti, which, produced for $780,000, has thus far grossed about $50 million.

“I made it,” Dreyfuss interjects, “solely because I’d just broken up with my girlfriend and I wanted to get out of L.A.”

Jaws, the host observes, is predicted to be even more of a smash.

Dreyfuss shrugs. “From the sneaks,” he says off-handedly, “it sounds like a very successful movie — people screaming, women vomiting, the whole thing.”

There is talk about Duddy Kravitz: The host asks, with some fairly obscure chauvinism, whether Dreyfuss thinks that making a picture in Canada hurt his career.

Dreyfuss appears suitably puzzled. “No,” he says slowly. “The only things that could hurt my career are: a) doing a bad job and b) making a fool of myself on a show like this.”

This afternoon, at least, Dreyfuss doesn’t manage the latter. The next two guests are a Washington journalist and a congressional assistant, each discussing the House of Representatives, and Dreyfuss manages to exceed the host in acuity, if not discretion.

“Is it a duty of the House of Representatives to educate the public?” he asks the assistant at one point. “We don’t even know what communism is, for example,” he says, “but we’re told we’re supposed to take an antagonistic attitude toward it.” The congressional assistant is not quite certain how to respond.

At the next commercial break, Bob Balaban dashes onstage, coachlike, and speaks briefly, inaudibly, with Dreyfuss. When Balaban returns to his seat, he explains quietly: “I told him not to talk about communism unless somebody else brings it up.”

Thereafter, Dreyfuss is more cautious with his metaphors, and when, 20 minutes later, Clemency Board member James Maye is wheeled onstage — the cameras immediately drawing back to frame both wheelchair and Dreyfuss — Richard is positively reserved. Maye, articulate, bespectacled, himself thoroughly reserved, is equally sedate, although he makes it clear that he considers Dreyfuss’s appeal for total amnesty to be fairly naive.

“Do you believe you can choose your war?” the host finally asks Dreyfuss.

“Yes,” says Dreyfuss without hesitation. “Otherwise, the situations at Nuremberg and My Lai make no sense. It must, finally, come down to a personal decision.”

Dreyfuss is, for the most part, cool and articulate; he slips in a favorite analogy for the Vietnam situation as deftly as a thin knife — “If Martin Luther King was not convicted for his violations of the Civil Rights laws in the early Sixties until now — when the Supreme Court has recognized those laws to be unconstitutional — would we still send him to prison?”

Only at the conclusion of the program does a trace of Dreyfuss’s arrogance slip through. Just before the closing credits, Dreyfuss briefly describes the alternative amnesty and clemency bills presently before the Congress: specifically, Bella Abzug’s, which he admires, and Jacob Javits’s, a fairly muddled bit of legislation that Dreyfuss clearly despises. “It stinks,” Dreyfuss says this afternoon, and the talk-show host obviously is somewhat taken aback with the candor.

The show ends amicably and, moments later, Dreyfuss is beside the wheelchair of Amnesty Committee member Maye who, it develops, is also the president and chief lobbyist for the Paralyzed Veterans of America. After a brief discussion, Dreyfuss, eloquent and persuasive in the style of a young James Stewart, is trying to convince Maye that their two causes — amnesty and the handicapped Vietnam vet — could successfully be pursued together.

Maye, stocky and serious, is clearly uncomfortable. His people, he explains carefully, are really not terribly in favor of amnesty for deserters and draft evaders, for fairly obvious reasons. And he won’t, he emphasizes repeatedly, do anything to jeopardize his people’s cause.

Dreyfuss homes in: The constituency, he insists, is the same, the concerns are the same, the people involved in both have been wronged, in different ways, by the same war.

Maye is polite, hesitant, attentive. The longer Dreyfuss talks to the tiny audience left in the TV studio, the more agitated and rhetorical he becomes — and the more withdrawn, Maye. “You’ve got,” Maye finally says, “a long, long row to hoe.”

Just as Richard is leaving the studio, a middle-aged autograph seeker materializes to snare him. She’s missed her tennis, she announces, to get him, as he begins to sign her book. She turns to her blond three-year-old. “This is Richard Dreyfuss,” the woman tells her child. “You haven’t seen any of his movies,” she explains, “because …”

“Because,” Dreyfuss interrupts, not looking up from the autograph book, “they’re dirty.”

The remainder of the afternoon is spent in frantic lobbying on Capitol Hill, rushing from one marble office building to another, visiting congresspeople, waiting in lobbies, constantly on the telephone. In each meeting, Dreyfuss is articulate, persuasive and almost impossible to interrupt once he gets started.

Dreyfuss, clearly, is high as a kite. In the course of the afternoon, he frequently switches into a role vaguely akin to Capitol guide, launching brief essays on how the Federalists and anti-Federalists were in fact misnamed, or how it is that the “Gettysburg Address” was preserved. “This is why I want to be a senator,” he says, midway in the afternoon, as he rushes into an elevator with a half-consumed commissary cheeseburger in hand. “The cigarettes in the Senate commissary are only 35¢.”

Leaving the elevator, he spots a young representative from Connecticut. Dreyfuss inhales the rest of his cheeseburger, charges across the lobby and collars the representative. Did the man from Connecticut see the Florida Chamber of Commerce ads in Variety, after the release of Lenny, that extolled the virtues of location shooting in Florida? Why, Dreyfuss wonders, doesn’t Connecticut do the same? Dreyfuss, for his part, will see what can be done. … The young representative strolls off, clearly considering the notion.

Now Dreyfuss and company are off to the office of an Illinois representative who is in the process of gradually losing his voice for reasons thus far mysterious to medical science. The representative seems to take his condition rather stoically, although by now his voice is only a hoarse, intermittent croak.

Dreyfuss and Lynn Grossman pepper their amnesty discussion with recommendations for a New York City voice specialist who treats most of the professional singers they know, and the representative promises to visit same within a few weeks.

When they leave, Bob Balaban corners Dreyfuss with another bit of advice. Dreyfuss should cut out his argument about World War II. Until now, Richard has cited the traditional Sixties draft board query for conscientious objectors — “What would you have done if asked to fight in WW II?” — with his fairly relativistic response: “Which World War II do you mean?” A lot of these congressmen, Balaban points out, got their jobs primarily due to their World War II exploits. Like communism, it’s another topic better not brought up until someone else brings it up first.

The afternoon, ends, well after six, in the somewhat disheveled office of Senator Gary Hart, Democrat from Colorado, the rangy, cowboy-booted veteran of the McGovern campaign and object of some hope for the Dreyfuss party. Hart, however, turns out to be thoroughly stone faced, sitting on the edge of his desk, nodding occasionally, disagreeing frequently. He is the first, today, to puncture Dreyfuss’s Martin Luther King/Civil Rights Act analogy: The authority to raise a standing army, Hart points out, is altogether constitutional; racial discrimination was disallowed on equally constitutional grounds.

Dreyfuss and crew leave the Hill unhappy. In a cab, on the way to dinner with a sympathetic Michigan representative, Donald Riegle, the discussion centers primarily on disappointment with Gary Hart’s attitude. Dreyfuss, however, is not so sure. In fact, he avers, he might work for Hart as an aide, should the opportunity arise. “But think of the publicity it would give him,” someone says. Richard Dreyfuss, I say, working as a congressional assistant, has to at least be worth a page in People. Dreyfuss, unconvinced, stares out into the D.C. dusk. He has, as it develops, another offer to consider, only minutes hence.

Riegle, the Michigan Democrat, young and enthusiastic, and his wife, cheerleader attractive, have been waiting at an Italian restaurant in Maryland almost 45 minutes before Dreyfuss’s party, tieless and thus earlier prefaced as “hippie types,” arrives.

Dreyfuss immediately corners Riegle at one end of the table, and, leaning forward, begins a long, loud, enthusiastic recitation of the day’s events. It is only Dreyfuss’s second trip to Washington, after all, and the charge he gets from being close to the reins is obvious. “Think what’s going on in all these buildings.” Dreyfuss had said earlier that day on the Hill. “Do you know what was the last movie playing in Paris before the occupation? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

The dinner is rushed, the last plane to New York is soon, but by the time it is over, Dreyfuss has his offer of a summer job in Washington. Riegle, it develops, does not need terribly much persuasion to be talked into allowing an up-and-coming movie star to work in his office.

“Listen,” Dreyfuss says over the coffee. “I want to be the kind of legislative assistant who can disagree with you. I want to be the kind who can say, ‘I don’t think so-and-so’s bill is very bright.'”

Sure, says Riegle, nodding, smiling, and appearing, all in all, just a touch bewildered by the barrage of energy from across the table. “Sure,” he says. And by then it is time to head for the airport.

The stewardess on the last Washington. N.Y. flight looks to be no older than 19 or 20. She isn’t exactly sure who Richard Dreyfuss is, but it’s clear from the energetic way that he occupies his space that he must be somebody, and so, inconsqicuously, she hovers in the vicinity.

“Can I have a toothpick?” Dreyfuss asks her, little boyish, blithely innocent.

She frowns. “We don’t have toothpicks anymore.”

Dreyfuss appears stunned, unbelieving. “You don’t have toothpicks?”

“Well,” she said, smiling tentatively, “we did, but now we don’t anymore. But I’ll go look anyway.”

“Hmmmmm,” says Dreyfuss, glancing away, as if suspecting some dark conspiracy to rob him of his toothpick.

“Trust me,” says the stewardess.

“Trust you?” Dreyfuss exclaims. “This is American Airlines!”

As the plane lifts, Dreyfuss talks more about his political ambitions — and for the first time today, he seems to run out of gas. Finally, he is briefly silent, sighing. “It depends, really, on whether I have the time,” he says slowly, shrugging. “It’s something I could put off for ten years.” Dreyfuss suddenly looks very tired. “Pretty boring,” he says, learning over to talk into my tape recorder microphone. “Well, you don’t have to use everything.”

He leans back in his seat as the plane gains altitude, staring straight ahead, and slowly he begins to smile again. “What’s that guy’s name,” he asks casually, “guy who runs your magazine?”

I tell him.

Dreyfuss, smiling more broadly now, nods and leans over to speak into the tape recorder again. “Oh yeah. Trying to make a lot of money off leftist magazines, huh? Ohhhhkay! Ever hear of profit sharing, you capitalist pig?” Dreyfuss turns to me, smiles brightly, cheerful and invigorated again. He shrugs. “Well, you don’t have to use everything, you know.”

The landing gear on the plane comes up, gratingly. Dreyfuss glances out the window. “Are we crashing?”

Let’s talk about your boyhood, I suggest.

“I have a mother and a father,” says Dreyfuss, still gazing out the window.


Dreyfuss nods solemnly. “My father is a kind of entrepreneur type; owns a restaurant, some land, a building.”

I say that I had the impression that Richard had come from a left-leaning family.

“Listen,” Dreyfuss gestures flatly with both hands. “All the ex-C.P. members I know are $80,000 a year hospital administrators. What are you going to do, give up your property? My father is a leftist, politically, but he’s in business. I’m in business, too, and I’m a leftist.” He glances back out the window, considering. “No,” he says. “I don’t know what I am. I have to stop using those terms. I mean, I’m going to have to redefine them.” He pauses again. “Let’s talk about acting.”

I know that Dreyfuss’s first part was at age nine, at the Westside Jewish Community Center; Theodore Herzl, complete with spirit gum and beard. But what was his first professional part?

“It was when Kennedy was killed. It was called In Mama’s House; about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, Lower East Side — Jewish. You may not know it,” he nods solemnly, “but I’m Jewish.”

Dreyfuss leans back in his seat and sings, à la the Mamas and Papas: “Cal-i-for-nia Jewish …” He nods. “My temple was so reformed that we closed for the High Holidays.”

Well. Jews in California, I say, do tend to get assimilated.



“I don’t feel that,” Dreyfuss says firmly. “As a matter of fact, Christians are very alien to me. There’s a whole metabolism, a texture …” Dreyfuss leans over and whispers conspiratorially: “You can spot a Jew a mile away. They all look alike, they all dance alike, they all play basketball alike …” He straightens up, shakes his head. “What are we talking about?”

What about his television work?

“I did television from 16 until I was 22, 24. I played all kinds, father rapers, murderers, kidnappers, various psychopaths.” Dreyfuss assumes a twisted face, a husky, driven voice: “How is she? She killed my baby!” He nods. “I also played dinks.”


“The guy who has a size-nine belt because he wears his pants up around his neck. Dinks wear owl glasses and ask Sally Fields to go to the prom, and she turns them down. He’s the guy who’ll grow up to be either a screaming queen, or else an enormously successful and prolific writer, who at the age of 60 will admit publicly to being a screaming queen.”

What shows did he do? Dreyfuss answers slowly, assuming a deeply serious, contemplative demeanor. “I did that series, that Winston Churchill series. I played Winston Churchill. I played opposite Edwin Booth in Hamlet and Othello. I was in the touring company of Paul Robeson’s Lear. And I was also the first man to step out of the chorus in ancient Greece.” Dreyfuss snorts, shakes his head, picks up his drink. “I did Mod Squad, Judd for the Defense, Love on a Rooftop. Crapola city, you know? But it was fun. And good practice.”

Where, I wonder, did Dreyfuss get to be so well read? Earlier, I had remarked on his apparent knowledge of politics and he had replied with a shrug: “I talk a good game”; a bit of modesty so uncharacteristic as to suggest just the opposite. Was Dreyfuss a good student?

“No. I was a classic underachiever. Twice a year they’d call me out of class and sit me down in a room and say [German accent]: ‘You haff the IQ uff Mt. Everest; so vy are you actink like a little lump?’ And they’d give me tests. Finally, in the eight grade, I said, ‘Listen, if you had a class in taking tests, I’d get an A.'”

We talk briefly about Dreyfuss’s previous roles, and I mention his portrayal of Pretty Boy Floyd in Dillinger.

Dreyfuss pauses, smiles slightly in the direction of his drink. “Baby Face Nelson,” he says softly, and then he sits up straight in his seat, searching out the stewardess. “Stewardess!” he says. “Can I change my seat please?”

Actually, I explain, when I saw Dillinger, I didn’t know exactly who Richard Dreyfuss was.

“Ah-ha,” Dreyfuss says. “Thought I was Timothy Bottoms, eh?” He shakes his head. “I was once at a Hollywood party and Julie Christie was there, a little drunk, and she sat down next to me and talked for about ten minutes, very nice, and then she leaned over and said [slightly haughty British tones]: ‘Pahdon me; I’m very drunk. You are Timothy Bottoms, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Aha! This is a notion I will disabuse you of very quickly. Not only am I not Timothy Bottoms, but Mr. Bottoms and I have very little in common.’ And later she actually wrote me a letter to apologize.” And then Dreyfuss releases his first Duddy-style cackle of the day.

The pilot announces that we are on approach to LaGuardia; the stewardess comes by to remove empty glasses. Where, I wonder, did Curt come from, in American Graffiti?

“If Curt wasn’t me,” says Dreyfuss, “then he was the fantasy I had of myself. It was like rolling off a log.”

In preparation for landing, there is a sudden noise from the underside of the 727. Dreyfuss nudges me. “That’s not the wheels, that’s the bottom of the plane falling off. No” — he corrects himself — “those are the South Vietnamese Army officers who are hanging on to the wings.” Dreyfuss is silent for a moment, watching the lights of New York. “There’s one thing I put into Graffiti that I wonder if you saw. I wasn’t going to tell you.”

Tell, I say.

“I loved being Curt. That was one thing I told [director] George Lucas: Curt has a great sense of self-awareness — he’s even aware that he’s not aware of something. He’s aware of his own existence at all times. Does that make any sense to you?”


“Okay,” Dreyfuss says to the tape recorder, “86 on that.”

He doesn’t, I suggest, mean self-consciousness.

“No. Self-consciousness is when you’re conscious of yourself and feel arhythmical and awkward. But, for instance, I’ve always had a consciousness of my own persona, and I like it — I enjoy me — and that’s what I put into Curt.”

The plane touches down, and Dreyfuss stares out the window. “Why,” he asks, “do you suppose we seem to be going faster on the ground than we were up there?”

How, I wonder, does Dreyfuss see his own persona?

“I understand,” he says slowly, “that I have a public persona — one that can be interpreted as obnoxious, and it reaches some, you know, and bleeaaaah. When I’m in my healthier moments, I say, that’s me, fuck it. Other times I get very embarrassed about being Rick Dreyfuss, his talent or lack of talent, his brains or lack of brains or just my metabolism, my style.

“Those times I feel like an asshole, and then there are other times that I say, well — I’m an asshole. Everyone’s an asshole sometimes. So what? Fuck ’em. Be an asshole. But be a good asshole. You know, be a pretty asshole. Pretty. Really pretty. Graceful. Even be a graceful asshole.” He nods once, emphatically, glances back out the aircraft window. “It’s possible.” 


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