TORONTO – Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss says that of his classic 1970s films, he believes “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” will be watched a hundred years from now.
“I thought it was the first film that had a noble ambition. It was the first film that said there was nothing for us to fear from looking up into the stars,” he said in a recent interview. “I wanted to be a part of that.”
Dreyfuss, 66, will be in Toronto this weekend for Fan Expo, a massive gathering of science-fiction and superhero buffs akin to Comic-Con. Many who flock to meet him will do so for “Jaws” and “Close Encounters,” two Steven Spielberg-helmed hits that helped usher in a new age of the blockbuster.
But Dreyfuss famously turned down “Jaws” when it was offered to him — twice. In fact, the only reason he took a chance on the shark thriller was because he thought “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” which he had recently filmed in Montreal and Ontario, would be a flop.
“‘Jaws’ was my being stupid. You know, I had no real reason to turn it down other than I was lazy. I don’t enjoy horror films. I don’t go to see them. I just thought it would be a bitch to make,” he recalled. “Then I saw ‘Duddy Kravitz’ and I said, ‘I better get this job, because if anyone sees ‘Duddy Kravitz,’ I’ll never work again.”
Dreyfuss said it took him 20 years to appreciate “Duddy Kravitz,” adapted from the Mordecai Richler novel, for the masterwork that it was. When the film was released in 1974, it cemented his reputation as an up-and-coming star and reportedly brought hordes of young women to Martha’s Vineyard where “Jaws” was filming.
Asked if the movie was as difficult to make as he had predicted, Dreyfuss exclaimed, “Yes!” But following the notoriously troubled shoot, the young actor found himself in a distributor’s screening in New York watching “Jaws” for the first time.
“I went totally nuts. I thought, ‘Wow.’ I completely forgot that I was in the movie. I screamed where everyone else screamed,” he recalled. “I knew I was watching a brilliant movie.”
The 1975 film went on to gross $7 million in its opening weekend — then an astronomical sum — and is typically credited with being the first summer blockbuster. Dreyfuss called the film “iconic” and said he isn’t surprised fans still want to talk about “Jaws” at events like Fan Expo, which runs Aug. 28 to 31 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Dreyfuss has been married three times and has three children. His son Ben Dreyfuss, an editor at “Mother Jones,” recently published a conversation with his sister Emily about “Jaws.” Emily revealed she always thought “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” was her dad’s line (it’s Roy Scheider’s) and the siblings jokingly concluded the film “makes no sense.”
Asked about the article, Dreyfuss deadpanned: “I thought it was hysterically funny and they’re out of the will.”
Despite the massive success of “Jaws,” Dreyfuss is known for turning down its sequels because he didn’t like the scripts. He said he is troubled by today’s blockbuster culture, in which it seems every other summer movie is a sequel.
“I think it’s pretty terrifying,” he said. “It’s a pity that the film business has put itself into such a strange corner that the only thing they can make are sequels to blockbusters because they don’t have any new blockbusters, and they only have a blockbuster distribution system.”
The film that won Dreyfuss an Academy Award was 1977’s “The Goodbye Girl,” in which he starred as a struggling off-Broadway actor who shares an apartment with an unemployed single mother and her precocious daughter. He went on to star in a number of noteworthy films, among them 1986’s “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” 1987’s “Tin Men” and 1995’s “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” for which he was also nominated for an Oscar.
He has scaled down his film work in recent years, with two projects currently in post-production. Dreyfuss will appear in upcoming TBS sitcom “Your Family or Mine,” in which each episode focuses on a different side of a young couple’s family.
Dreyfuss said his most important venture now is his non-profit The Dreyfuss Initiative, which promotes civic education. He said he launched the organization because he feels democracy is threatened by a lack of understanding of the role of government.
“If we don’t teach our students how to become citizens, we’re going to die,” he said. “This is an invisible problem that people don’t really connect to. They don’t understand that if they’re not taught civic authority, they’re not being the intellectual resource pool that every generation has to be in order to make republican democracy work.”
A peer of Robin Williams, Dreyfuss tweeted that he was “devastated” by the comic’s death earlier this month. He wrote, “I’m sad. It’s sad. My beautiful friend deserved not to be so sad.”
Dreyfuss has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spoke out about his experiences in the 2006 documentary “Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive.” He bristled at the word “struggle,” saying he has never viewed his mental health disorder that way.
“That was the difference between me and most other people. I outed myself when I was 10 years old, and I don’t think of myself as having a stigma. For me, it was the way I was and the way I am. If people just shut up about there being a stigma, then there wouldn’t be one,” he said.
“There’s no shame involved here. It’s like being ashamed of being a tree. You are what you are and you make what you can make of it. That’s what it is. For me, for most of my life, it was a celebration.
“I think it’s kind of silly of people to then impose their take on it as if it’s some kind of struggle or it’s some kind of despairing pain. It’s not necessarily any more painful. It’s just that it has a name. So let’s leave it at that.”