Richard Dreyfuss: The Rolling Stone Interview
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.