The crowds who’ll line up this weekend at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to get Richard Dreyfuss’s autograph at Fan Expo, or pack a hall for his celebrity Q&A, will be looking to have their own “close encounter” with the man who found existential courage battling a mechanical shark and discovered the secret of extraterrestrial life in a mountain of mashed potatoes.
Part of the 66 year-old actor’s charm is that he embraces those iconic hits of his youth, like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the man one meets today has a lot more on his mind. He’s willing to shift the conversation from science fiction trivia to the trouble on the streets of Missouri and the mental illness that recently contributed to the suicide of his colleague Robin Williams.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” says Dreyfuss in that amiably gruff tone he’s practically patented over the years, “I’m glad I have a considerable constituency who are willing to come out and talk about films that I made 40 years ago, but I’d be the worst kind of megalomaniac if I thought it was really about me instead of the far more lasting movies themselves.”
There’s no denying that at one time Dreyfuss was the voice of the zeitgeist for a segment of the North American population: beginning with American Graffiti (1973), continuing through The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) and triumphantly on through Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), culminating with The Goodbye Girl (1978), which made him the youngest actor to win the Best Actor Oscar, a distinction he held through 2003, when Adrien Brody won it, roughly five months younger.
“I was what the movies needed at the time,” is how he explains it. “I just happened to be the particular guy who came along. Somebody was needed to represent all those Upper West Side New York intellectual geeks who were becoming very powerful and, for a while, even seemed sort of sexy.”
Dreyfuss notes that while Jaws may not have aged that well, Close Encounters is now better regarded than it was at its release.
“I think it’s because Star Wars came out first. If we had opened first, we might have been the bigger hit, but let’s never forget that Star Wars was made for kids and Close Encounters was made for adults.”
Like Camelot, this period of fame for Dreyfuss was “a brief shining moment” that didn’t last very long into the 1980s and he has two theories as to why.
“As far as putting my type of guy in the movies went, they just ran out of stories to be told,” he says. “I probably charted the course for that kind of character, but the movies soon lost all interest in character-based or character-driven stories.”
The other reason is more personal, involving Dreyfuss’s addiction to recreational drugs and subsequent decline, to the point where he crashed his car and was busted for possession, a period during which he described himself as “chairman of admissions for the A--holes’ Centre.”
It took him several years to straighten out and, by the time he did, “the parade had passed me by.”
That doesn’t mean Dreyfuss has had a low-key career since then. Far from it. His 1995 performance in Mr. Holland’s Opus earned him another Best Actor Oscar nomination and, over the years, he’s been cited by the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA for his television work on various specials and series.
But his major passion in recent years hasn’t been stage or screen but the classroom, as he puts his energies behind The Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, an organization created “to revive, elevate and enhance the teaching of civics in public schools, Grades K to 12 in the U.S.”
Dreyfuss feels the real crisis today is that “the kids don’t have any idea how a government is supposed to run, so when it’s run badly they don’t know that they’re being deprived of their civil rights.
“We’re sitting on a four-legged chair with only three legs and we don’t even notice that we keep sliding down and falling on the floor. No one understands how the government works, no one understands how society works and if we don’t change things quickly, we’ll learn what trouble we’re in.”
The recent racial furor in Ferguson, Mo., was, to Dreyfuss, “a logical extension of the mess we’re in everywhere these days. We’ve never been quite honest with ourselves about the subject of racial hatred. We don’t realize that in creating goals like emancipation, we perpetuate racial hatred.
“It’s not something a government can cure. Only God and a changed spiritual environment can cure it. We didn’t give racial hatred a chance to die on the vine, we kept it going.”
Dreyfuss doesn’t blame Abraham Lincoln’s dreams of racial equality for today’s problems, because he believes “that if he had lived into a second term, everything would be different today. Actions he had planned to take, a new climate of moral authority, would have prevailed. But he was killed and his dream died with him.”
He sighs. “And we’re still fighting the battle on the streets of Ferguson.”
Asked if he doesn’t find the presidency of Obama a hopeful sign, he offers a cryptic response.
“We have had good and bad presidents, regardless of their colour. We shouldn’t think because we elected a black president all of our racial problems would go away.”
Another piece to understanding the complex man that is Richard Dreyfuss is to realize that he has been bipolar all of his life and has been treating the condition with lithium since the 1970s.
“I’ve known that I was since I was a kid. It’s not like I outed myself. Anyone who knew me well knew that I had it. It’s not something you could or should hide. It’s what you are.”
That brings us to the recent death of Williams, who was battling depression before his suicide.
“Robin was dealing with a major case of manic depression all his life, whether or not he admitted it. Audiences never realized that the highs they found so hysterically funny would inevitably lead to lows that were equally frightening, only they never got to see them.
“To have ridden that roller-coaster for so many years, and to plummet from success to failure and find yourself with nothing left at the end must have been devastating. He was a sweet man and my friend, and he was only four years younger than me.”
There’s a moment’s silence. “And then, the last bit of news, that he had Parkinson’s disease; I truly believe that was the end for him.
“There are just so many feathers you can put on the headdress before it becomes too heavy for anyone to wear.”