Richard Dreyfuss sat shifting his weight on a stool, face to face with an audience of 2000 Minneapolis housewives. The actor had come to tape ‘The Phil Donahue Show,’ to talk about his new movie, ‘The Big Fix,’ and maybe even to get a little zetz going with Donahue, whose political barbs during interviews had impressed him.
Instead, Donahue introduced Dreyfuss as “a real hit in this business” and began to field inquiries from the audience. Forty-five minutes later, Dreyfuss began to show signs of restlessness.
“Richard,” came yet another question in a Taster’s Choice testimonial voice, “you look like such a troublemaker. Did anyone ever tell you that you remind them of James Dean?”
“No,” the actor replied with yet another burst of cheerful acidity. (Later, back at the hotel, I asked Dreyfuss if the two names had ever been mentioned in the same sentence before. Dreyfuss dropped his suitcase and held up a single finger. “James Dean,” he said, putting his head against the wall and moaning softly. “I hate James Dean.”)
Suddenly Dreyfuss acquired a different look. He clutched the hand-held mike and stood up. “Do you know,” he started, pacing before the crowd, “what this is all about? I have this forum, this open line to the public just because [impressive pause] I am a star. [Another pause] You see, you should think about this. I could talk about anything. . . Richard Nixon. . . and I have the right because of this position I’m in. But how does that qualify me? Think about this. . . .”
It was as if the star had been briefly taken over by some Zulu spirit. Dreyfuss waited for a response. There was none.
“Well, that’s fascinating,” said Donahue. He handed the microphone over to another housewife.
“Richard,” came the inquiry, “do you like the Annie Hall look or the big-cleavage and tiny-waist look?”
“Well,” Dreyfuss said, “I like the first, but I love the way you put the second.”
The audience howled. Dreyfuss, looking startled, surrendered to the applause. He basked in it, smiling as if to say, “Okay, so I’m another witty movie star doing ‘Phil Donahue.'” Such is the dilemma of Richard Dreyfuss. Something is obviously nagging at him, telling him it’s just too goddamn comfortable being Richard Dreyfuss these days.
Just thirty-one, Dreyfuss already has been seen in three of the biggest-grossing films of all time: ‘American Graffiti,’ ‘Jaws’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind.’ He has always wanted to be an actor, has always, according to nearly everyone he’s ever known, been geared for success. Now he is all but synonymous with the word. Last year, after only seven features, he received his industry’s highest accolade when he won the Oscar for Best Actor of 1977 (over Richard Burton) for his performance as Elliot Garfield in ‘The Goodbye Girl.’ “I have never,” Dreyfuss proclaimed backstage that night, “paid what you might call dues.”
That is what you might call exaggeration. The son of a lawyer, Dreyfuss was born in Brooklyn and raised in Beverly Hills. At the age of nine he stood up from the kitchen table, declared himself an actor and walked across the street to win an audition at the West Side Jewish Community Center. It’s conceivable that he knew even then he would soon be reading it in a biography not unlike this one.
When he was twenty-one, Dreyfuss was spotted by director George Lucas in a play. His teeming intellectual energy was perfect for a role Lucas had written for ‘American Graffiti.’ Dreyfuss would play Curt Henderson, the scared scholar about to go off to college. He took the part to get out of Los Angeles and to forget a girl who had just broken his heart. He wrenched teen desperation out of that role — especially when he sees the Girl in the White T-Bird and pleads for Ron Howard and Cindy Williams to take off after her, saying, “You don’t understand. . . somebody. . . out on the streets. . . loves me.” People did not forget Richard Dreyfuss.
SIX YEARS AFTER ‘AMERICAN Graffiti’ and a few months before ‘The Phil Donahue Show,’ Dreyfuss was deep in postproduction work on ‘The Big Fix,’ which he produced himself with boyhood best friend/commercial filmmaker Carl Borack. The day I met him, Dreyfuss had wandered into the Universal commissary unrecognized by the hordes of Instamatic-packing tourists loitering outside. Wearing a wrinkled work shirt and dirty blue pants, his short, flat hair entirely and naturally gray, he looked like an elderly janitor.
We shook hands and Dreyfuss sat down to discuss a lingering commitment to doing the ROLLING STONE interview. Leaning forward, within inches of my face, he said, “You don’t want to talk to me. I have a BAD reputation.”
Indeed, Dreyfuss had all but disappeared in the months since winning the Academy Award: he dropped out of Bob Fosse’s ‘All That Jazz’ several days before the beginning of production, costing himself $350,000 in reparations, and broke up with longtime girlfriend Lucinda Valles. People had begun to talk about the man on whom they bestowed the title Mr. New Hollywood Establishment.
“What bad reputation?” I asked.
“Don’t you read? I’m an arrogant asshole. I’m a loudmouth S.O.B.” I was not sure if he was genuinely hurt by the labels or if he wanted me to agree with him. Instead I told him it had been interesting talking with some of his old high-school buddies. I had some questions about him running for president of Beverly Hills High on a platform of bringing Paul Newman to the school as a speaker.
“You mean,” he said, “if we did this interview, I might possibly have a chance to hear some of this stuff that people say about me . . . and respond?”
I nodded tenuously.
“You may not have enough tape for that . . . ”
And so we struck a bargain. After finishing ‘The Big Fix,’ Dreyfuss would be leaving the Hollywood guest house of Rob Reiner, Where he had been staying. We would meet again in Manhattan and I would give him a report on his BAD reputation in exchange for the ROLLING STONE interview.
Everyone in Hollywood, it turns out, has a Richard Dreyfuss story. In most cases, the moral is the same. For some time the only person who believed in Dreyfuss was Dreyfuss. “They called him arrogant a long, long time ago,” said Carl Borack. “It comes from Richard telling people he would be a success. I happen to think it’s him being fucking honest. He’s always believed that he was at least good.”
Beyond this fact, Dreyfuss is a collection of paradoxes. He is a left-wing Social Democrat and a millionaire. He has a genius IQ and a bad school record. He is a staunch supporter of the equal rights amendment and has a reputation in the press as a womanizer (“It’s just that most of my friends are women,” he said).
According to some, Dreyfuss never improvises before the cameras. Others swear that he comes alive once they’re rolling. “He scared me,” said Teri Garr, his costar in ‘Close Encounters.’ “There’s this one scene, and it’s still in the movie, where he’s digging up grass outside the window . . . and just puts his head through the glass. He had this look in his eye. It was unrehearsed, and I thought he had truly lost it. It’s an incredible scene.”
Nothing, however, would prepare me for my next meeting with Dreyfuss as much as a comment made by author/screenwriter Roger Simon, who has worked with Dreyfuss on “The Big Fix’ for the past year. “He’d love to hear every one of your tapes,” said Simon, “because he really wants to know what people think. When we ran some audience tests on ‘The Big Fix,’ Dreyfuss wanted to call up some of the participants and talk to them. Not the extreme ones, but the ones that had no reaction at all. He’s very much a populist. He loves those Frank Capra stories where the little guy stands up for what he believes.”
RICHARD DREYFUSS CAME walking through the revolving door of New York’s St. Moritz Hotel with a slow swagger. Hands thrust into the pockets of a tan corduroy suit, he wore an unburdened glow. In the weeks since we’d last met I had seen all of his films again — with the exception of ‘The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz’ — and had begrudgingly taken on a few of his mannerisms. Like Curt Henderson’s mercurial “cute. . . cute.”
Dreyfuss greeted me warmly and excused himself to call a friend, who was joining us for lunch. I heard him arguing with a hotel operator. The operator hung up on him and Dreyfuss stared into the phone. “Cute,” he said, “cute.”
In many ways, Dreyfuss is the ultimate Richard Dreyfuss character. He is luxurious with the one-liners and even quicker with his acerbic laugh, which now identifies him in any public place. He is always thinking, always reasoning. On the streets of Manhattan, he is a hero. Most stars can walk around there in anonymity. Not Dreyfuss. As we walked down Fifth Avenue, he was accosted by hot dog vendors, people yelling “Hey, Jaws” from cars, grandmothers who pinched his cheek and told him he reminds them of a young Paul Newman (“Stop it,” Dreyfuss would say, motioning wildly for more). Proud to be a man of the people, he stopped to chatter with anyone who wanted to joust with him.
We agreed to sit down in Minneapolis that night, where Dreyfuss would be flying for ‘The Phil Donahue Show.’ He had done one interview since winning the Academy Award, and as we were flying to Minneapolis, well, things got sticky. Dreyfuss slapped me on the arm with a rolled-up copy of ‘Esquire,’ featuring him on the cover with the headline: RICHARD DREYFUSS OUT OF CONTROL. “I am kissing this route goodbye,” he said.
Dreyfuss was still subdued as we began our talk later that evening at the Registry Hotel in Minneapolis. He did not touch the champagne left him compliments of ‘The Phil Donahue Show.’ Instead, he picked at a bowl of fruit and, stretched out on a brown leatherette sofa, seriously considered each answer. At first his manner was brisk and professional, as if he was clearing every thought some intricate checklist before parting with it.
By the end of the evening, of course, he would be coming at me with an empty Perrier bottle, threatening me with passages from ‘From Here to Eternity.’
* * *
IN TALKING TO THOSE around you, I get the impression that you are tremendously concerned about ‘The Big Fix.’ It’s the first time you’ve made a film and acted in it yourself. Do you feel as comfortable about the finished product as you seem?
Yeah [opens mouth to show mash of grapes].
When did you last see ‘The Big Fix’?
Three weeks ago in Los Angeles.
What was your feeling then?
Seventy-thirty. Little things here and there I’d change, but . . . better me make the mistakes than someone else.
Are you happy with your performance as Moses Wine?
I enjoyed playing the part, but the demands were not great in this performance. In my worst times of thinking about the experience I thought, “Well, another wiseass performance by Dreyfuss,” and at best times, “Well, it’s not that bad. I’m not a bad actor.” The character was very close to me and it wasn’t that difficult. It was, in a sense, like Curt Henderson grown up.
You had no idea it would be your follow-up performance to. . . .
To the Academy Award? Absolutely not.
Is this something you think about late at night while staring at your bedroom ceiling?
Nope [smiles ingenuously, opening mouth to show grapes again]. This is all the cooperation you’re going to get.
You must have been difficult in school.
I was a glib shitter in school. I was real smart and never did any work. I was the one they pulled into the principal’s office and asked, “You have the knowledge of fourteen men, why are you getting Ds?” I literally never did homework. When it finally got to the point where I really had to expend effort, I didn’t know how, I had no training. As I grew up there were two words that I could never really relate to or understand. One was work. The other was effort.
Isn’t acting a matter of discipline?
I love acting. It’s not a question of discipline. I’d do it anytime . . . wake me up at three o’clock in the morning and give me a part. I’ll read it. People would always call me a hard worker, a workaholic. I’ve always been acting, but it’s all been play.
So you’ve gotten more serious?
That’s a good word, I guess. I’ve started to pay attention to my life, that’s all. The fact is that we all unconsciously believe we’re immortal. When I realized one day that simply wasn’t so, I felt this indefinable terror. I started growing up.
What did that mean in your case?
Trying to retain those things that are childlike and dispense with those things that are childish. It sounds pompous, but that was my confusion for a long time. I created enormous problems because I did not know the difference between those two things.
What kinds of problems?
None . . . of your business. [Disgusted pause] I thought you were going to talk about The Big Fix? [Longer, more incredulous pause] You know, one of my problems is I don’t know who the fuck to talk to. I realized this on the plane today. I speak to journalists sometimes with the idea that they’re my psychiatrists. Why do I do that? I imagine to get some kind of understanding back, some kind of journalistic vision . . . I always get me. I want to read what you feel about me, and you’re only twenty-one. C’mon.
Richard, you ignorant bastard. . . .
Shana, you lascivious twit. [Enter puzzled-looking bellboy with Perrier.]
You want an observation? It’s always you that winds up talking about your personal crises.
My problem is me, not you. I need a little of Robert De Niro’s insecurity or hesitancy or brains or whatever it is that shuts him up.
Do you know the phenomenon of getting up on a talk show and becoming someone else? Do you know that that exists as the norm? There’s a thing about knowing the eight-minute life span. Gore Vidal, Burt Reynolds, whoever it is . . . they know how to assume a posture on talk shows that has no relationship whatsoever to their real life. They get out there, hey, they know how to get the name of the book or film out there every thirty seconds. It’s a mathematical process and hey, Johnny, I got a list of anecdotes, BOOM. Now, I didn’t go to that school. If I’d known the course was offered, I would have taken it. All my life I’m taught by my family to keep it going, don’t get boring at the dinner table. When I learned I could do that by just being honest, whole vistas of trouble opened up. I get on a talk show, I get talking and whoa! Trouble city! For me, not for you. Not for Mike Douglas. He loves it.
Truthfully now, how hard is it for you to come up with those show-business anecdotes? Surely you’re sitting there thinking, “This guy is going to ask me about ‘Jaws,’ ‘Close Encounters’.” . . .
[Very sincerely] Not really. I’ll tell you when my stock answers come, when people ask me about my past. How did you start in this business? WellIwassittingwithmymotheratthekitchentablandsaidIwanttobeanactor, shesaiddon’tjusttalkaboutitsoIgotupandauditionedforaplayattheWest SideJewishCommunityCenter . . . boring. When it gets to the later stuff, in terms of my interior monologue, my interior perspective, I don’t have any raps down. My attitudes about things I’ve done five years ago have changed completely. I would feel like a liar if I had raps down.
So what’s in the notebook? Give me a little zetz.
A friend of yours said this about you: “Ricky’s a true believer, an enthusiast. He will take something on faith; it’s a very trusting and vulnerable thing. If somebody he trusts presents a facile argument or a well-reasoned opinion, he will adapt it without really thinking it through. Then, if somebody presents a conflicting viewpoint that’s equally facile, he gets shot down real quick. He is a believer and that makes Dreyfuss a great actor.” Do you agree with that?
That’s a facile argument, I’ll go along with that. I want to hear every comment in there.
Here’s another one: “Dreyfuss has never sat down and made a five-year plan for himself in his entire life.” Have you?
So you’ve just careened into whatever direction was most attractive?
Absolutely. I always had a general overview of where I was going, but I never had a five-year plan. I had a twelve-year plan. And this was it. Real simple. From the time I was twelve to the time I was eighteen, I knew I would be a star when I was thirty-two. Okay? All that means is I’d do TV and theater and travel around the country with plays and I’d be a star.
By the time you were attending Beverly Hills High School you were already appearing on ‘Mod Squad,’ ‘Room 222’. . . .
Oh yeah, I did a lot of prime-time shit. Judd for the Defense, Gidget, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. I was a success, but it was an absolutely irrelevant term to me. I knew what a movie star was and that was over there. I was just apprenticing and having fun. “You mean $325 is the minimum? I’m not allowed to make any less? O-kay.”
Would you have been shattered if the success never came?
People who don’t become successful didn’t have the right ambition. Or they didn’t wait long enough. Paul Ford didn’t become a star until he was forty-five. So I admit to it being an incredible amount of luck. My luck is eerie. It’s the eeriest luck I’ve ever seen. I’m just trying to deal with the world as it presents itself to me day to day, which is only lately becoming half as much fun as dealing with the whole thing as a fantasy [laughs].
Was it depressing, then, to realize that you’d already achieved the life dreams of most actors when you were only thirty?
It was thrilling. After Duddy Kravitz and Jaws, people would say, “Richard, you’re a star.” I would say, “No, I’m not. I’m a commodity.” I’ll know when I’m a star.
I’ll tell you what a star is: I’m riding in a cab with my mother in New York and we see Radio City Music Hall. She looks at the theater and says, “Robin and Marian, what’s that about?” I say, “You know, Robin and Marian, later on.” She says, “Sounds boring . . . oh, Audrey Hepburn! I’ll see that!” That’s a star. When I felt, after Goodbye Girl, that I’d become a star, I felt real good, not real bad.
What has been stardom’s greatest benefit?
Power. It means having the ability to choose what you do rather than be told. That’s the best part of being a star. I’ve never looked down on being a star. I never dreamed about the Academy Award, oddly enough, but I always dreamed about being a star and being this great stage and film actor. I got, not sidetracked by the events of the last six years, but they led me toward one thing. I never just wanted to be a film star . . . racquetball player, restaurateur.
Has your stage experience put you ahead of most film actors?
There are times when I think I’m real good and there are other times, happily not as often as the other, when I think, “When is someone going to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Oh no, we’ve made an enormous error, you’re terrible . . . go back to unemployment’?” I can’t isolate that feeling through my experience as a stage actor. I don’t think of stage acting as a background. I think of it as something in my present.
Do you miss having a certain underdog charm? You are no longer a supporting actor. Do you enjoy the pressure of a leading role?
I did a tour of a play once with Henry Fonda. We were in Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. For four months I was with Henry Fonda every day. I said maybe fifty words to this man. I was so in awe of him, I was so tied up around this man. Henry Fonda. He actually spoke in Washington at the American Film Institute. They were doing a tribute to him, and he answered stuff that I would have loved to ask him in private. I learned more in this public meeting than in months on the road with him. One of the things he said was that he never wanted to be a star. This is the man who had been a star from the MOMENT he came to Hollywood in 1934. Bingo. He’s a star for more than forty years. He said he always liked being a supporting actor. I thought, “Awwww, bullshit.” Now I know what he means. Supporting actors get the best scenes, they usually die — which is fun — and the weight of it is not on their shoulders. [Pause] Well, I never wanted to be a supporting actor.
What about your reputation? Most everyone you’ve worked with said they enjoyed the experience. Even Jeremy Paul Kagan, director of ‘The Big Fix,’ said, “He has a bad reputation because he tells people he has a bad reputation.”
Not true. I have a difficult reputation and I don’t know where it comes from. And yes, I always talk about my difficult reputation because I’m fascinated by it. People are always saying to me, “Boy, you have a bad reputation,” and I say, “What is it?” and they all say, “I don’t know.”
Where do you think it comes from?
I don’t have the slightest fucking idea.
It seems to bother you that people find you arrogant. During interviews you say things like, “I always knew I’d be a star.”
I don’t know why that’s taken as arrogance. You know, the funny thing about being arrogant and all that shit . . . I probably am more insecure and more publicly self-denigrating than any other person I’ve ever fucking known. But because I’ve also said the opposite, that’s all they hear.
Are you usually surprised by the way people react to you?
Constantly. I’m surprised when people don’t like me. I’m surprised when they do. I mean, I am the guy that’s sitting here talking to you. It comes out and it is what it is. But I’ll tell you, it hurts to read I’m an S.O.B. or a loudmouth. I mean, if it turns out that I’m the asshole you read about, I don’t want to know.
If you had been an actor under the contract system of the Thirties, like John Wayne, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, you would have done maybe a hundred feature films by the time you were sixty. These days people criticize actors for having all the power: they organize packages around themselves rather than act with other strong actors. How do you feel about that?
I certainly think my expertise as an actor would have been far greater if I’d been forced to do six movies a year. But I am only alive now. The audience is a whole different animal. They’re used to free experiences, television. You can get awfully sick of paying four dollars every film, seeing the same guy four times a year, unless they’re real different roles. Spencer Tracy won two Academy Awards, in ’37 and ’38, for Captains Courageous and Boys Town. In between he did four other movies. Six movies in a year and a half. Okay? Elliott Gould did six films in two years. People got sick of Elliott Gould real quick. That’s too bad. Elliott Gould is a good actor.
How carefully do you choose your roles now?
Carefully. When I decided to do Moses Wine, I had not thought of the overview of my body of work. What I was literally divining of was, “What do Carl [Borack] and I first produce?” I turned to Carl one day and said, “You don’t know Roger Simon, do you? He’s got this project and why don’t we do it together?” Put it on the back of my acting and we’re off. We have our dream. It wasn’t until after The Big Fix was finished that I’m walking down the street in New York and I thought, “Now, wait a minute, isn’t there a certain common denominator in my work that I’m a little uncomfortable with?”
You’re aware of a Richard Dreyfuss type?
The wiseass urban intellectual. All the roles I get now are the Cabbie with the Big Mouth. The Harvard Assistant with the Wiseass Response. The Newspaper Guy with the Fast Quip . . . rackarackarack. It’s time for something new.
Are you thinking about a major departure for your next role?
I don’t know what I’m thinking. I’m thinking about the Heisenberg theory: the act of observing the phenomenon changes the phenomenon itself. I don’t know what I’m going to do next.
In the past, much has been made of the fact that you are the Everyman movie star. One friend of yours said: “He’s never been afraid of playing an unflattering vision of himself. Dreyfuss is unafraid of getting vulnerable in unpleasant areas. He’ll appear unshaven and shitty-looking. The only thing he won’t appear as is paunchy.” [Dreyfuss winces.] Now you’ve lost a lot of weight; you play the romantic lead in ‘The Big Fix.’ Do people really want to see Richard Dreyfuss looking this handsome?
[Laughs] Who was the cunt bitch who said that about me? I don’t care what people say, but who was the fucking prick cock-sucker who said that?
Your old buddy who wrote the screenplay for ‘Jaws,’ Carl Gottlieb.
Okay, thank you, Carl. Mark him.
I was once told, very recently in fact, in a script I’m considering that the character is plump. I said, “If I can manage to get thin, fuck being plump.” And this guy said, “Well, this character is plump.” I said, “Verisimilitude be damned. I’d rather put on pillows.”
How did you lose the weight?
Liquid protein . . . boring. Can I have a look at those quotes?
Is there truth to the rumor that you ran for class president at Beverly High, promising that you would get Paul Newman to speak at the school?
Thought that would win me the election. I lost by one vote. We were asking for an investigation of the election and the principal said, “Richard, how do you think it would look if there was an article in the L.A. Times saying, ‘Cheating found in Beverly Hills High School elections’?” And I said, “Well, how do you think it would look if it said, ‘Cheating found in Beverly Hills High School elections, nothing done about it,’ sir?” Pretty smart, pretty fast.
Had you met Paul Newman?
Nope. I just said that I would invite him.
This afternoon you ran into an old friend from grammar school walking on Fifth Avenue. You hadn’t seen him, you said, since 1962. How did it feel to see him again?
Do you know who the fuck that was? He was one of the first assholes . . . one of the first mouth-breather, jock-asshole types. He was a bully. Rob Goldman [not his real name]. Now he’s got two kids, lives in Jersey. You know? I mean, ROB GOLDMAN. He used to make fun of me when I was rounding first base. “Hey, little motherfucker.” [Catches himself] I don’t know. I mean, I’m thirty-one years old and all that stuff is right here [points to shoulder]. My defense against Rob Goldman was my mouth. I’d say, “No, I won’t meet you at the flagpole because you’ll hurt me and you’ll still be an asshole and what’s in it for me?”
And that’s when Rob Goldman busted you in the mouth?
No, he never did. He was really afraid I would chop him.
Did your parents teach you to be savvy?
No, as a matter of fact I was drop-the-coffee Rick most of the time. That was something I learned on my own, leading this double life.
How did you react when you first saw ‘American Graffiti’?
[Laughs] I really went crazy. Let me tell you, man, I was with my girlfriend Dorothy at the time and we were down on Melrose Avenue. We go into this restaurant and see a guy who worked on Graffiti. He says, “Hey, going to the screening tonight?” Now, I’m just learning about being paranoid in town, right? There’s a screening tonight and they didn’t invite me? [Laughs psychopathically] I went crazy.
So we raced over to Universal. We’d done the film about six months before. I go in, and as it turns out, it was a technical screening just for editing. I was the only actor there. But I sit there and I watch the movie. About ten minutes into it, I go clammy cold [gets up, starts rubbing bands together, paces the hotel room]. First of all, look. I walk around in here. I’m inside here. I’m not you looking at me. I’m inside here, looking out. All I see is the vague outline of my glasses. All of a sudden, I’m seeing me [pause] and I look like . . . a pear. I’m shaped like Smokey the Bear and I’ve got the profile of a gopher. And I’m hearing this awful monotonal nasal voice and I’m the worst, right? I had these Ronald Colman fantasies, and they were ripped up and dispensed with in my subconscious at that moment. I watched the movie with this absolutely lunatic point of view of “How do I cut this performance out of the movie?” By the end, I had it all figured out. The lights come on and George Lucas sees me and says, “What are you doing here? What did you think of the movie?” I said [gulps, then whispers], “Well, it’s a nice movie but I’ve already figured out how you can cut me out.” Lucas told me I was crazy. They had a screening later at the Academy . . . yeah, I’m going to do that when hell freezes over. At 12:30 that night, people are calling me, telling me the audience went crazy for it. “Yeah, right, FUCK YOU.” The film is going to make $50 million? Right. I never went to see the film until years later. I still love the character.
You turned down the sequel to ‘American Graffiti.’ Why?
Not enough money. They offered me one-tenth my salary [laughs] and I said no. I didn’t ask to improve my salary, but I certainly wanted it matched, and they were unwilling to do that. I don’t see any reason for me to work for less when there are people involved in the film project who make millions and millions. There’s a certain phenomenon that can occur in Hollywood. If four people are being cheated and one guy says, “I don’t want to be cheated,” he’s the bad guy. The other phenomenon is, “Hey, man, I stuck a knife in your neck, I admit, and I had the gun at your temple . . . but man, I put the gun down.” I said, “Go fuck yourself.” I think it’s a great idea for a film and I hope it’s very successful yadayadayada. I still get along with Lucas, he just won’t be telling the story of Curt Henderson.
Is it Curt Henderson that people remember most?
People remember Duddy Kravitz, actually. I mean, more people saw Jaws then there are people in the world. They still remember Duddy Kravitz.
‘The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz’ was your first lead. You played a very complex character, one that was manipulative and driven to lie and cheat for success. Most people point to that performance as the moment they were convinced of your talent. You, however, are very much on the record as saying you despised the performance.
Most people don’t know how to watch acting.
You mean as other actors watch acting?
I admit to being totally subjective in my response to my work. But ultimately, I know. That’s why I know my reaction to Duddy Kravitz is righteous. My performance is not relaxed. We didn’t have time, didn’t have rehearsal. When I put down that performance it’s not like me being crazy. It’s not like me saying I could never do it either. I can fucking A do that role and be very happy with it. I didn’t have the time, I was nervous, I was insecure. I can spot it when I watch the movie. The energy level is a lie. I’m not the only person I do this to. I watch other performances and do the same thing. It’s my job. I love it.
You are an ambitious man. How did you feel being likened to Duddy Kravitz? There were more than a few articles with the headline: IS RICHARD DREYFUSS DUDDY KRAVITZ?
That was cheap and easy journalism — Richard Dreyfuss is Duddy Kravitz. Everyone is Duddy Kravitz. You want to talk about acting a minute? Duddy Kravitz taught me a great lesson. Duddy Kravitz in Canada is this guy who. . . everyone knows him, everyone has read the book. He’s like Holden Caulfield, except he’s considered this schmucky character. I didn’t know this. I read the book, I fall in love with Duddy Kravitz. I relate to Duddy Kravitz. I relate to every character I’ve ever done. Why did I love Duddy Kravitz? He was telling a lot of truths. He’s got fears, insecurities, he’s tender and, yes, he’s manipulative. He’s got it all and he shows it all at one time or another. I tried to get in touch with all the manipulative things I’ve ever done. I deny that there’s a human being on earth who has never been manipulative. But I do the role and start to read articles saying I’m Duddy Kravitz. Whenever someone asked me, “Are you Duddy Kravitz?” I would say, “Yes I am, and so are you.”
Do you believe that you deserve. . . .
No, not Best Actor.
Well, that answers one question, but the one I was actually going to ask was do you think you deserve to be called great? Most people are so quick to heap on superlatives. How do you keep your perspective?
I make up for most of the criticism that is lacking right now. I have given some performances I’m quite proud of — Boy Wonder in Inserts, Elliot Garfield in Goodbye Girl — but I haven’t given the performance, you know, that had you standing for the bow. It just hasn’t happened. [Pause] Ed McMahon was once describing the perfect martini. He went through this whole analysis of this martini he’d made. It was so good that he made two. And as he lifted one up to drink, the light came in the window and God picked up the other one. [Pause] So, no, God has not applauded one of my performances yet.
They say that as soon as you hear your name called out for an Academy Award, an incredible experience happens. You accept it, and before it’s even sunk in, they’ve whisked you off into a room backstage full of reporters and photographers. Then they take the Oscar away from you for engraving and lead you back out to sit among the same people. As if nothing happened.
Well, first of all, they never took the Oscar away from me. I still have it in a bank vault and it’s not engraved. I went back to New York with it in my hand and it wasn’t until I was back in L.A. five months later that someone said, “The Academy called and they never got your Oscar for engraving.”
It’s true that from the second they call your name it becomes a series of still photos, very much like slides presented about your summer vacation. Shoosh. Up onstage. Shoosh. Mouth open. Shoosh. Backstage. Shoosh. Walking to the elevator to go back to the main floor. You’re gaga. And I must say that the surprise about the Academy Award is that over the last April, May, June, July, August, September — six months — I’ve gotten, on occasion, whiffs of absolute happiness. They just go flooding through my brain. I’m real proud of it. [Laughs excitedly] Goddamn, I won the American Academy Award for Best Actor of ’77. I mean . . . I was real thrilled. Still am.
Do you know that in one year I got the Academy Award, the Drama Critics Award, the Hasty Pudding Award, the Golden Globe, the David di Donatello [Italian award for Best Foreign Actor]. That’s five, right? Until that year I had never won anything ever. I was the best actor at Beverly High. Everyone knew that. I never won. Greg Findley [now doing commercials] won Best Actor. I was a funny guy, but Albert Brooks was funnier. In school, his name was Albert Einstein. I came in third for every award at Beverly High in 1965. Then, in one year . . . ooooooo, ahhhhhh. Thank you.
Did you run into any of the other Best Actor nominees after you’d won the Oscar?
No. I ran into John Travolta before. He came back behind me and said good luck. I wished him good luck, too.
Did you see ‘Saturday Night Fever’?
No. [Sue Di Puccio, Dreyfuss’ assistant, who was sitting in on the conversation, added, “Tell him about Jack Nicholson.”] I had just won the Oscar, right. I get in the elevator to go back downstairs. Jack Nicholson gets into the elevator. There’s me, a few other actors. Nicholson stands at the back, adjusting his shades, saying nothing. Then, just as the doors are about to open, he says to me, “Bet you’re glad I didn’t make a film this year.” I was.
So you took the role in ‘Jaws’ because you were depressed and afraid that it would be your only offer after the supposed debacle of ‘Kravitz.’
Yes. I went with the fish movie.
How do you look back on the experience?
Jaws was good work. Memories. [Imitates megaphone] The ship is sinking. The ship is sinking. The shark is working. The shark is working.
In Jaws, we all lived and wrote that movie together. We sat and improvised and Carl [Gottlieb] would go away and write a scene and he would come back and we would rewrite that whole scene using Carl’s as an outline. Every night for three months.
Supposedly you walked into the ‘Jaws’ casting room at a hotel in Boston, and Steven Spielberg looked at you and said, “Perfect. Get three more of what you’re wearing from wardrobe.”
Well it wasn’t quite that dramatic. I was cast in the film three days before shooting started. I had already turned it down three times. All I did was get a lot of books about sharks and marine biology. We talked about it for a day in Boston, I said okay and called my agent, Meyer [Mishkin], to say, “You can start negotiating.”
I was once in a situation where I walked into a room and people said, “That’s Benjy,” and I turned it down fuckin’ cold. Soon as they said the word Beniy, I knew exactly what the character was. In television there was a certain classification known as the Dipshit Friend. I was always playing the Dipshit Friend. They had names like Lionel and Alfred. My brother says they’re the characters who wear a size-nine belt because they wear their pants up here [points to neck].
Even after ‘Jaws’ had made $200 million, you were still living in Silverlake, California. Takeout food was everywhere. Week-old pizza, empty Courvoisier bottles, half-eaten hamburgers . . . shall I go on?
I lived that way for fifteen years. Except for the cognac, that was only two years old. I’m a known slob.
You’re wearing suits now.
Like this? I have no idea what I’m wearing. I just wanted to start dressing my age. I used clothing as a device to keep young. I looked like a slob: “It’s okay, you don’t have to respect me, I’m just a kid.” So I’d have to work double hard to get them to respect me. Now I just want my clothes to reflect whoever I am.
You are constantly plagued with dog analogies. People say you have a puppy dog way of gaining endearment. Even the ‘New Yorker,’ in Pauline Kael’s review of ‘The Big Fix,’ said Dreyfuss “acts like a puppy surprising his master with little tricks he’s thought of all by himself.” Does this bother you?
I’d love to talk to you about this, but I have to go visit the fire hydrant. I feel a number one coming on.
Are you surprised that women, especially since Elliot Garfield, find you attractive?
[Nods vigorously] For a long time, women have said things to me like, “Why didn’t we sleep together?” Well, why didn’t you ask me? I don’t read that very well. I’ve got a lot of normal or slightly abnormal male insecurities. My father once said . . . I told him I was sick and tired of being precocious and wanted to grow up. He said, “You want to be an adult, huh? Adulthood is a myth. The only thing that an adult knows that you don’t is that they know how to keep their mouths shut.” People writhe in insecurities until they’re eighty. Silence has an incredible power. I’ve got to learn that.
What constitutes a good love scene in a script?
I think seriousness is a prime factor. At least for me, when there’s a lot of laughing going on, it just doesn’t get me aroused. Other people are different. A big yuk gets them hard . . . not me.
Did you write anything in ‘Close Encounters’?
One speech. They cut it out.
Did you know you were in a race with ‘Star Wars’ when making the film?
No. Steven may have, I didn’t. I still think that if we had come out first, we would have done better.
There’s always the sequel.
I’ve got a lot of sequels to deal with. I’ll tell you, I was never very comfortable playing Roy Neary in Close Encounters. It was my greatest departure, so it attracted me. I’m not a person who grew up liking the word challenge, but in a willy-nilly way I’d like to try the character again. Roy Nearly is not in the sequel. So I guess Spielberg’s taken it out of my hands. [Pause] I would have gotten on board.
What was the atmosphere on the set? So much was made of the top-secret locations.
Hot. Real Hot. I spent most of the time in my dressing room, which was air-conditioned. And I had a Pong game, so the crew spent a lot of time in my dressing room. [Laughs] Steven spent a lot of time playing Pong with me.
Are these your most vivid recollections?
There’s nothing more boring than shooting a movie. I mean, you don’t stand there and watch fascinating things happen. It’s more like you stand on the set and [looks wonderously at the ceiling] they pay you enormous amounts of money to do this. You read a script and you know what it’s going to be a year later. That’s when you get excited.
When was the last time you were broke?
I’ve always been broke. I was broke until Close Encounters.
Do you consider Spielberg a close friend?
Yeah, well, I like to think so. Steven is a very private guy, and I also think that I’m the one who’s wanted to be more friends with him than he wants to be with me. And his girlfriend says, “God, Steven’s always complaining that you don’t come over enough and you don’t really like him.” Steven’s like me, except he shuts up.
Have you noticed that I imitate Steve Martin? I’ve been doing this against my will for about a year now.
At this point, though, it’s some strange dialect all your own.
Listen, I imitate Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart but nobody knows I’m doing it. There are certain things that I do steal. I walk backward like Marlon Brando walks backward, did you know that? What were we talking about?
Let’s talk about other actors. What do you think of Nicholson’s work?
Incredible. His greatest role so far, The Last Detail. I don’t even love One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest as much as I love The Last Detail. It was a mindfucker. Pacino . . . Serpico. De Niro?
I used to want to be the greatest actor on earth. Then I saw Mean Streets. “Who is this person who’s destroyed my life? Who is Robert De Niro and when is he going to get hit by a truck?”
Do you tell other actors when their work has affected you?
Shit, are you kidding? When I first met De Niro, it was like . . . Mike Medavoy [West Coast production head of United Artists at the time] said, “Robert De Niro, Richard Dreyfuss . . . Richard Dreyfuss, Robert De Niro.” [Affects cool] “Hi, how are you?” Then I went, “Oh, God, I can’t be polite, man. I think you’re great.” The greatest actor of our generation.
As a little kid I used to go see Beckett all the time — Burton and O’Toole. Well, it’s be a cold day in hell when anyone is as good as Dustin Hoffman was in Midnight Cowboy. And Jon Voight. Those two burn in that film. I’m going to go see Nick Nolte in Who’ll Stop the Rain. Everybody tells me he’s great in that. Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story. I’d like to work with all of them . . . put us in a movie together. In the Thirties and Forties, every studio was like another dutchy. Now it’s the actors who are separate dutchies. Bullshit. I’d like to work with Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Gary Busey, Nick Nolte, Jon Voight. Let’s all work together. Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek, Carrie Fisher. . . .
Whoa. You say your fee is over $1 million. . . .
There are other ways to finance a film. Lots of ways. I’m always willing to work for less if the financier is still splitting fifty percent. I don’t want to hear that they’re the only ones taking a risk. My career is on the line every goddamn time I make a film. Their money is, too, thank you very much, but they’ve got it all locked up with TV and sales and territory. Don’t tell me about it. I know all about it. That’s the thing about the last year. I learned a lot of that shit.
When did you take such an active role in your negotiations? Was there ever a point when you wanted just to be the artiste?
Yes. Until one day I found someone with his hands on my balls and a saw in one hand. He said, “You be the artist, I’ll . . . [makes sawing noises].” I said, “I’m being fucked with here, get off me.” I realized that negotiations and money and all that stuff was just a way of people getting your neck in their hands.
How old were you when you realized this?
Eighteen and a half.
Do you think there will come a time when you do a film for money alone? Look at Sir Laurence Olivier in ‘The Betsy.’
There already has been. I once worked only for money. I used to say I’d never work for money. Talk is cheap. Someone came to me and said $50,000 a day for five days. And when I woke up, I was doing Raid on Entebbe. I hope I’ll never do that again, but I’ll never say never. And about Olivier, the English don’t look at that the way we do. British actors finance a stage career by working in movies.
It sounds like you can’t wait to get back onstage.
I’d like to be the best actor in the world, man. I would . . . wouldn’t you like to be the greatest writer on earth? Well fuckin’ A.
You have been associated very strongly with success and popular projects. What do you think of the quote “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the public”?
That’s bull puckey. It’s true and it’s not true. The same person can turn around and act intelligently.
Here’s a quote from an executive you’ve worked with: “I really respect what Richard’s doing. He’s getting into areas where his knowledge is superficial — ad campaigns, theater bookings, legalities. He’s out of his league producing films, though. He’s dealing with a corporate system that goes back fifty years. No way he’s going to learn it the first time out. I don’t think he’s prepared to eat the humble pie he may have to eat.“
[Long silence] Well, I think I am prepared to eat that humble pie.
Jeremy Kagan tells a story about showing you ‘The Big Fix’ for the first time. He wasn’t really ready, he said, but the time had come to show you a rough cut. You sat there, acted out the part with yourself and when it was over, you excused yourself to go to the bathroom. When you returned you said you liked it. Did you go to the bathroom to think about your reaction?
I went to the bathroom because I had to go to the bathroom. I’m watching the movie and I realize for the first time it’s my movie. It wasn’t Steven’s. It wasn’t [Goodbye Girl director] Herb Ross’. It was mine. Listen I don’t like giving interviews, but you do it, you do it right. There was a certain moment I looked at Big Fix and said, “This thing needs work.” Either you do the work or you throw up your hands and silently slip away into the night. Well, I have no intention of doing that. On reading Arthur Schlesinger’s book on Robert Kennedy I realized he knew how to get the truth. Bobby Kennedy knew how to say, “All right, thank you, but what’s the real story here?” When I was younger, I had a thing about if I didn’t do anything well, I never did it more than once. Well, I’m learning. We made mistakes. But we also did okay. It doesn’t help when someone says, “Hey, it’s great.” They’re doing it to be nice, to be kind, whatever. That’s why I don’t go to previews. There’s a real danger of not hearing the things you should be hearing. On the other side, I’ve got a personality that seeks the negative.
What was so pleasurable about ‘The Goodbye Girl’?
When I look at a film, I don’t see just the performance. I remember the days I shot the film. I still can look at moments on the big screen and not like what I see because I was in a real bad mood that day. I can see the day. Well, I loved every day of Goodbye Girl. I loved who I worked with. I loved Herb Ross, I loved Marsha Mason, loved Neil Simon. To me, good work on any level is based on relaxation. I got to a level of relaxation I’d never been to on that film. And that’s what I see in Elliot Garfield, too. Also, he’s the nicest person in the world. I have never had any pretensions to be Steve McQueen or Mr. Virility or Mr. Grotesque or Mr. Anything. Elliot Garfield is totally human and he’s kind and good and intelligent and witty and sweet and lovable. Who wouldn’t want to play that?
You have many of the same mannerisms and facial expressions as Elliot Garfield.
If you are trying to get me to say I am all of those things, of course I am. I am also insensitive, manipulative, rotten, cruel. It’s a question of if the actor’s honest he finds it in himself.
Do you think it’s amateurish for an actor to think tragic thoughts to prepare for a serious scene?
Fuck no. I think anything that works for an actor is absolutely valid.
What is your method for a separating your own reality from that of a character?
I don’t have any method. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s not. What I do is believe the situation of the character. There was one day in The Goodbye Girl when I just couldn’t get it together. It happens to every actor.
Do you think you know what you do best?
To an extent. I can delude myself and not test myself, which is why I need a strong director. It works both ways.
Are you a perfectionist?
If I were a perfectionist, The Big Fix would never have been released. If I were a perfectionist, the film would have cost $18 million. If I were a perfectionist, I would be cut from American Graffiti, Duddy Kravitz would have been prevented from being sold in the United States and Jaws would never have been edited. That’s if I were a perfectionist. I have this compulsion to say . . . I stink. I’m a professional pessimist. Blue sky out there, I’m going to say, “God, there must be a tidal wave in Japan.” That’s me.
Does being ultracritical of your own work have its roots in wanting to be told you’re wrong?
It may have elements of that. I also think it’s a very honest way of approaching my work. You don’t hear me criticizing Elliot Garfield. It’s just that I’m not satisfied with my work in Duddy Kravitz. Why I’m so eager to say it all the time may have its roots in the guilt that I have felt.
Guilt over what? The fact that you’ve only done seven major features. . . .
Hey, I’m the luckiest motherfucker you ever met. It’s amazing, it really is. Strangers think you’ve made them happy. I do my work and I make a lot of money and I like doing it and I do it well. It took me a long time just to be able to make that last statement. Most of my friends are much less successful.
Looking at your personal history, it seems you were always pointed for success. Then it came to you, and you found it difficult. Surely you planned for that kind of turbulence, just like you had planned to be a star in the first place.
Life has a subtlety all its own. [Pause] And I’m not a very subtle guy. I didn’t anticipate any of it. You know, we all grow up being the center of our universe and that’s it. All of a sudden you become the center of everyone else’s universe. That makes you crazy. That will begin to really get to you and make you frightened and insecure and nuts. You need privacy. I went through a very long, hard, painful period of self-denigration and self-loathing and guilt and yeah, yeah, all right . . . I’m out of that now.
You talk very openly about being in therapy.
I don’t mind people knowing. It’s the dwelling on, the taking out of context and blowing out of proportion, that makes me crazy.
Even you use that word — crazy. It’s in nearly every profile about you. Zany. . . crazy. . . .
Oh, that’s all shit. Crazy’s relative. Look, everyone’s not healthy, okay? I’m not totally healthy inside. The easy way of saying that is crazy. It’s cheap and it’s easy to quote. And it’s also my sense of humor. I’ve never looked at therapy as something to do because I was going off the deep end. Therapy has helped me in my list of priorities. It’s just someone giving you a sounding board.
Do you worry about sustaining your popularity?
Those thoughts really don’t occur to me. You work because of the work, not to maintain a career. I’m in an insanely wonderful position. I can fall back on making a million and a half. It’s nice. It’s weird. I certainly don’t plan to make six bad films in a row. I certainly don’t wake up in the middle of the night going, “Oh my God.” People either like it or they don’t. If you know what you’re doing, you’re going to do good work. Listen to me. Ask me in three years when my next three films go right into the toilet. It’s easy for me to talk about this now, I don’t know shit.
Your next film will be a sequel to ‘The Goodbye Girl,’ won’t it?
Yeah, and that is not a departure, obviously. I’ve already played that character before. The visceral reason I’m doing it is because it was such an incredibly wonderful experience that I want to do it again. I really don’t know what I’m going to do in terms of stretching myself as an actor. I have certain images of a classical career, of being a classical actor with perhaps a twinge of Paul Muni. I get a pleasure out of playing characters who think well and tell the truth. There’s a power in truth. I would love to update the Frank Capra ethic.
Is it easier to focus yourself when you’re living alone?
That’s a personal question I choose not to answer. [Wags finger] Trying to sneak something about my personal life in there.
It’s your working process.
My working process is to say no comment.
There was a review of ‘The Big Fix’ that said it was a definitive portrait of Seventies cynicism. Did you see ‘The Big Fix’ as a means of making some kind of comment on the times?
I just wanted to expose a certain type of personality connected to the Sixties, that’s all. I mean, I think that’s entertaining. I am a child of the Sixties.
Were you ever a hippie?
Took a lot of drugs. But I was never tempted to give up acting and join a commune.
Ever get the feeling that you had more fun in the Sixties? Like Moses Wine?
All the time. I mean, in terms of my living with the world . . . the reason I saw Moses Wine as a vehicle for expression was that he shows my growth away from that Seventies cynicism. I still feel it, though. The Seventies have been a much more insular, much more gracelessly selfish time, much less noble. It’s funny, I’ve had the time of my most incredible personal success in the Seventies and I’m still hard pressed to remember what year it is. I can remember the Sixties month by month. I look at the Seventies, between ’72 and ’78, as a fuzz. Broken not by outside events, but by interior events. I’ve marked my inner calendar not by the Warren Commission or Martin Luther King, but by, “Well, I did The Goodbye Girl. I did Jaws and was going with this girl.” It’s not the world I’m attached to.
Maybe you’re just less political.
I have become more career-oriented. But I see politics as something I will probably get back into. I’ve been accepted as a member of the board of the American Council for the Arts, and that deals with lobbying the government and advising on funding and organization of art councils and agencies. It’s putting me back in touch with political processes.
How do you look back on lobbying for the amnesty program in 1975? You spent some time in Washington then.
I see that as a remnant of the Richard Dreyfuss that had existed ever since I was twelve. Until I got swamped with my life. I stopped being Richard Dreyfuss and started being RICHARD DREYFUSS. I’m just now getting all that away from me, and I’m coming back. Going to Washington was my last gasp of the Sixties. It was my moral idealism, and the fervor and passion of my righteous position. I thought I would turn these politicians around. Well, some very straight and honest people didn’t respond to my Frank Capra plea. Ten years from now I’ll know a little more about the political process in a real way.
Think you would have been blacklisted?
Are you kidding? Half of my inner psyche is aiming to be blacklisted now. I’ve got this romantic notion of getting called up before some committee in the right-wing backlash of 1989.
Sounds like you’ve still got a healthy dose of moral fervor.
I just think it’ll be nicer on your deathbed to think that you gave equity to a number of people. Do you know, it’s quite possible that the noblest thing I ever did in my life was to make people laugh. I’ll tell you . . . when a great dramatic actor dies, people mourn. When a comic dies, people grieve.
THE NEXT DAY, WHILE Dreyfuss taped ‘The Phil Donahue Show,’ I moved around the crowd and collected comments from the audience. Most were positive, “He looks so thin and great,” etc. But one woman, arguing with a friend, kept saying, “I don’t know, I just think he thinks he’s better than us here in Minneapolis.”
On the plane back to New York, I told Dreyfuss about the comment. For the first time in all the instances of reading him back quotes, I sensed the fragile hold Dreyfuss has on it all.
“Really,” he implored. “I’m surprised, always surprised at the way people react to me. Like that applause today. I loved it. I really did. But I’ll tell you something else. The fact that that lady said that . . . really bothers me.” He looked at me accusingly.
An hour earlier, Dreyfuss had been rapturously walking the stage of the prestigious Guthrie Theater. He was given a quick VIP tour of the playhouse on his way out of Minneapolis and mentally caressed the empty stage. “This,” he said at one point, “is better than sex.”
I sat in on a quick meeting between Dreyfuss and Alvin Epstein, the artistic director of the Guthrie. Dreyfuss immediately asked if there were any openings.
“You know,” said the director,”that we have the English repertoire system here, so it’s a matter of a commitment of several months.”
“I’m prepared . . . about two years from now . . . to jump in all the way,” said Dreyfuss. “I have a film to do in July. . . .”
“Well,” asked Epstein, “what would you like to play?”
Dreyfuss stood up, as he does when latching on to a passionate thought. “Albert Einstein. . . but not as an old man. He was only twenty-six when he discovered the theory of relativity! I want to play him when he was young! You know, a young physicist on the make. . . .”
The next day Dreyfuss was off again, this time to London to look at a play and check out a possible role. Returning three days later, we met at the New York ROLLING STONE offices, where Dreyfuss went around introducing himself as Al Pacino. When I asked him for a final comment, he stood up and pointed his finger. . . .
You know what no one ever talks about? Acting.
What do you mean? We talked about other actors, your method. . . .
We talked about part of my approach to the work. Acting is a big subject. Acting. What it is, how it’s seen, what a particular actor personifies. There’s an enormous country out there about acting that no one ever, ever talks about. Acting is the one art form that doesn’t have a body of criticism behind it. You look at a piece of music by Beethoven, you could find a shelf of analysis and criticism in the library. Acting is an art form that’s capable of holding up the same body of criticism. No one has ever written about it, about the specific art of Marlon Brando versus Spencer Tracy.
Do you think it’s because of the public image of the actor?
Yes. Actors scare people. They are lunatics and children. And they are gods, because they are personifying existence. Everyone has this schizoid attitude toward actors. They’ll either elect them governor of California or they won’t let them into the tavern.
Marlon Brando claims that everyone acts all the time.
Yes, of course, everyone talks and lies all the time. That’s not acting. Acting takes structure. I don’t care if he puts it down. I don’t care if he has the mind of a tortoise. It doesn’t matter. The man is the greatest actor on earth. When you really watch what that man does. When you watch his performance in Julius Caesar and see his anger . . . and then you see the same middle-class anger in The Ugly American, you begin to see the specificity of detail in his work. In Julius Caesar, he’s the only one who knew how to wear the goddamn toga. People laughed at him, but it’s such a work of immaculate detail. It’s scary. [He springs up and begins to act out the part of Fletcher Christian as portrayed by Brando in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty.’] And they called him faggoty for that performance! It was one of the most remarkable acting jobs ever and he got spit on for it.
You aren’t nearly as objective about your own work as you are in jumping to Brando’s defense. Look at your role in ‘Duddy Kravitz.’
I know when I’m good and I know when I’m bad. I don’t give a shit when you say I’m not being objective. Duddy Kravitz is not good. I don’t care what people say. I don’t care that Stephen Farber said I wasn’t good in The Goodbye Girl. He was wrong. He’s dead fucking wrong. I’m real good in The Goodbye Girl. I’m not real good in Duddy Kravitz. Here I am. What happens is I get called arrogant because I say I’m good in The Goodbye Girl [plops back into his chair, exhausted from the outburst]. You got me going.
I’m seeing a screening of ‘Duddy Kravitz’ today at 2:30.
[Lurches forward] No shit? I’m coming.
THE LAST TIME DREYFUSS had seen the film in a theater had been the Canadian premiere, one of the last such events he ever attended. At the film’s end, he was crying. When the last person left the theater, he was still crying and rejecting the consolations of the three friends who had come with him.
Within the first five minutes of watching himself again, Dreyfuss was churning with nervous energy. He draped himself over the chair in front of him, snapping his fingers in and out of a fist. When the film was over and the lights had come up in the Paramount screening room, Dreyfuss picked up his coat and began to head for the door in silence. . . .
How do you feel?
The same way I did when I saw it four years ago. I was crying in the balcony I was so upset. Friends are telling me, “You’re great, you’re fantastic.” I knew. I still know. [Puts his coat back on] FUCK! I see that movie and I can see it’s all here [circles mouth]. Not here [points to stomach]. It’s not organic, I can see me trying. It bothers me that it’s still there to be done well. I would do this role tomorrow if I had the chance to do it again. [Long silence] FUCK!
You take yourself very seriously.
People don’t want actors expressing themselves in a way that says they are not simply an emotional tool. That’s my other problem. Yes, I take myself seriously. Yes, I know what I can do best and I will do it yet. I don’t need people telling me I’m great and I don’t care if they say I’m not objective . . . you know, you’d be surprised how many people tell me I’m too intelligent to be an actor. Well, I’m so intelligent . . . I LOVE BEING AN ACTOR.