In this expanded transcript of Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz's conversation with Richard Dreyfuss, the Oscar-winning actor talks about his apprenticeship in 1960s TV on such shows as "Bewitched" and "The Big Valley"; his work with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg on their earliest classic films; where he hides his Academy Award; and what Civil War general he would like to play.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: So, because we know each other and I think you like me – I think, I'm not sure (laughter) – and we have many accomplishments to talk about, but I would like to start with failure.
RICHARD DREYFUSS: That's the way I usually start things.
MANKIEWICZ: "Producers" in London. How did that go?
DREYFUSS: It went exactly like this. (laughter) And Mel Brooks will disagree. But this is how it went. First of all, I was doing "Sly Fox" on Broadway. And I had had, as my bucket list of things to have, a successful Broadway hit. And that was the only one, because every other time I've appeared on Broadway I closed in a night or two. And this one was hysterically funny. And I was hysterically funny. And the second act was a yippee! And it was also the same theatre where Marlon Brando had done "Streetcar." So, to put two stories together, on the night that Brando died I stepped outta the curtain call and I said, "If Brando had died 20 years earlier, flags woulda been lowered to half-mast everywhere in the country. Anyone who is under 40 will never understand the revolution that he represented, and the greatness of his talent. And to us he was the be all and end all. And this was the stage that he did "Streetcar" on." [And as an aside, Tennessee Williams hated that production because you could not dislike Marlon Brando and the character of Stanley had to be disliked.]
MANKIEWICZ: Tennessee wanted you to hate Stanley?
DREYFUSS: Yeah. And so, to Tennessee the show was not his play until Ralph Meeker took over. And he knew and understood, you know, what Brando was. And he loved him in that way. But it just made him nuts.
MANKIEWICZ: It wasn't his Stanley Kowalski.
DREYFUSS: Right. So on that night I said, "For him in his honor I would like us all to do him a favor." And I explained what it was. And on a count of three, "One, two, three," everyone went, "Stel-la!!!!!!" And we took the roof off. And you could've heard us on 32nd Street. And it was great. It was really something that he deserved.
But he had chosen to make himself a clown for 20 years. So, that was my Brando part of it. And then I had said that that was it. I announced my retirement.
MANKIEWICZ: From acting or from theatre?
DREYFUSS: From acting. And actually from film. I didn't say that. But I didn't mean theatre. Theatre is fun for me and I wasn't thinking I would stop that. But I was stopping my film career. And I had been slowly, doing that, turning down certain roles, but there's a law in California that says that you are not allowed to retire from show business. (laughter) And so every time I said it, people would go, "Yeah, yeah." (laughter)
And so, I was having a dinner with Lori Singer. And she said to me, "So what are you doing now?" And I said "I retired." "No, no, no, really, Richard, what are you doing" And I said, "No, I'm not kidding. I went to school in England. And I'm running a non-profit to revive civics for the grammar schools and high schools." And she said, "Richard, what are you doing?" And I said, "Okay. (laughter) I'm going for the Nobel." And she said, "Oh. Oh." (laughter) As if that was legit!
MANKIEWICZ: Right, right, fine. I guess you retired if you're going for the Nobel.
DREYFUSS: So I went to England. And I went with one obligation, outstanding, which was to do "The Producers" in London. And when Mel Brooks had called me and asked me to do it I had said, "Mel, I don't dance and I don't sing." And he said, "Oh, who cares? You're funny." Six days before the first preview audience I was fired because I didn't dance and I didn't sing. (laughter)
MANKIEWICZ: You're laughing now. I'm guessing you weren't laughing then.
DREYFUSS: No. I was not laughing on the night. It was a Friday night. And I had a bad Saturday. And it was over and gone by Sunday. My son, Ben, was with me. And he made it great. And I attended that night, the Sunday night, an organization of expats called Americans Abroad or Democrats Abroad or something. And I said, "You're gonna hear tonight that I'm not doing 'The Producers.'" And everyone went, "Whoa, boo. Boo." And I said, "Well, but Nathan Lane is taking over." And they all went, "Boo. Boo." And I said, "That makes me feel great." (laughter) And so it was over and done and that was that. I had had a bad Friday. It was gone. And I had told people, I said that Sunday night that I had decided to stay.
MANKIEWICZ: Stay in England?
DREYFUSS: Stay in England. 'Cause I had given myself the six months anyway.
MANKIEWICZ: Oh to do the play.
DREYFUSS: And so, I said, "I'm gonna stay here." "What are you gonna do?" "Well, write articles or make speeches or do debates at Cambridge and Oxford and like that." And I said I would teach. "What would you teach?" "History." "What history?" And I said, "What history you got? (laughter) I'll teach it all!"
And they said, "English history?" I said, "From the first grunt." (laughter) And then Oxford called me and said, "If you submit a project to us that we approve of, you can come and you can be neither faculty nor student. You'd be a senior research advisor." And I said, "You got it." Because I had already done a show for Disney called "Funny, You Don't Look 200: A Constitutional Vaudeville" (1987). And it starred John Gielgud, Randy Newman, the Rat Pack of the '80s –
MANKIEWICZ: Who's in the Rat Pack of the '80s?
DREYFUSS: Oh, Emilio [Estevez] and –
MANKIEWICZ: Oh, that Rat Pack. The Brat Pack.
DREYFUSS: Yeah, the second Rat. And Randy Newman sang a song that was without any irony a pro-American song about the flag. And I got to work with John.
And I had had an experience when I was 16 which changed my life. It was watching [John Gielgud] perform "The Ages of Man" at the Hartford in L.A. And until then I had sought out conversations from my peers when we were hanging out about the nobility of acting and the height of it and all this, trying to get that going because I had this terrible fear that I was gonna end up shooting aliens with big ears and laser guns. And that was not the career I wanted. I wanted a bigger thing. And Gielgud came to L.A. when I was 16. And I was sitting in a balcony. He steps out, opens his mouth. And I bifurcated into two people: One of them was sitting in the balcony with his friends, and the other was experiencing awe for the first time.
MANKIEWICZ: So, even though you had sort of started acting, declaring to your parents at age nine that you wanted to be an actor, at 16 is where it really hits you, and the kind of acting you wanna do hits you?
DREYFUSS: Yes. And I watched him and I was aware of the submission of a great artist to great prose. And I cannot describe to you the length and breadth of the feeling. And I went backstage at the end of the show and I just said, "Thank you." And left.
And 20 years later, in '87 which was the centennial [of the U.S. Constitution], I needed a member of the House of Lords to deride the Constitution, and I wrote out this speech. And I said, "Oh hell," and I picked the phone and called his agent, and asked. And the guy said, "Just send it to me."
And the end result was that I flew to London, and I directed John Gielgud. And to say those words does not even begin to describe the experience and the size of the thing. And when I showed up on Monday morning at the studio at 7:00 he was already in his costume. They'd already done the lighting. It was already the House of Lords in the backdrop, and it was done. And I said – 'cause I was not a director – I described what I wanted. And I said, "Let's just do one and--" So, I turned on the camera, he did it perfectly. And I said, "Okay, let's do it for real." Perfectly. And we did it another angle. Perfect. And we did another angle. And then we were done. (laughter) And I said, "We can't be done this quickly!"
MANKIEWICZ: Right, I need more of this. Yeah.
DREYFUSS: So, I went over to him and I sat down next to him. And I said, "John, you think that you could …" and I said something. Who knows what I said? (laughs) I was amazed that my tongue was working. And I described something to him. And he went, "Oh how amusing, dear boy." (laughter) And he did it perfectly. Twice. We're done. 10:30. (laughter) We're done. And it's in the show.
MANKIEWICZ: Right, he's a professional.
DREYFUSS: He was John Gielgud!
MANKIEWICZ: So, let me run through some stuff here that you reminded me of. So, if you're 16 when you first see him, that's 1963? Something like that?
MANKIEWICZ: So, then you get bifurcated and you realize the kinda dramatic work that you wanna do. And three years later you're on an episode of "Bewitched."
DREYFUSS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I had the greatest inner life because I knew that, first of all, I knew I was gonna succeed. And I wasn't kidding. I knew it as like I know I'm sitting here. And I knew that these were the years of my apprenticeship.
MANKIEWICZ: How did you know you were gonna succeed? What does that feel like? I don't know what that feels like.
DREYFUSS: Yeah, most people don't. And I did. And it was a certainty in my life. It was the only thing I never questioned.
MANKIEWICZ: Did it make you arrogant, do you think? To some people?
DREYFUSS: No. It made me arrogant later! (laughter) It made me probably unlivable with later. But at the time it was simply that I kept saying to my friends, "Why are you trying to get the part now? What would you do with it? You're 17 years old. Are you ready for a famous film career?"
MANKIEWICZ: So, when you get parts on "Bewitched" …
DREYFUSS: And "Gunsmoke" and …
MANKIEWICZ: … and you lie your way into "Gunsmoke" and "Big Valley." (laughter), you think of that as this is apprenticeship. This is me learning this business.
DREYFUSS: And fun.
MANKIEWICZ: And getting paid and it's fun and there's all these upsides to it.
DREYFUSS: Right, and all the times, especially the first one, when I said "No" and I lost my temper and was thrown out of 20th –
MANKIEWICZ: What was that production?
DREYFUSS: I don't know. I never did it! But I was there for the meeting. And I was on time. And when they came they were 45 minutes late. And I went to get a drink of water, and when I got back to Milt Hamerman's office, the director said, "Why are you keeping us waiting?"
And I blew. And I really blew. And Milt calmed me down, brought us in. And he said, "Okay, Richard, tell us what you've done." And I said, "No. (laughter) No. Milt, you know what I've done. I've been here 1,000 times and it's insulting. The whole thing is insulting, the way you treat us." "Get out."
So, on my way to the car I remember distinctly knowing that I felt better doing that than I would have doing the role. And so, I set a different goal for myself which was to be very picky. And when you're doing one-day parts and two-day parts, the little ones, you're not picky.
MANKIEWICZ: Before we get into the big movies, remind us how you lied your way into "The Big Valley." It's a good story.
DREYFUSS: It's the actor's oath. You know, the actor's oath is you do whatever it is they ask you to do and you say, "I was raised on a ranch outside of Las Vegas. Of course I know how to ride."
MANKIEWICZ: Just to be clear to people, you were raised in New York.
DREYFUSS: In Brooklyn. And I've never seen a horse. But as I walked in the door, the director of the segment was Paul Henreid.
MANKIEWICZ: Oh really? Wow. From "Casablanca."
DREYFUSS: You betcha. And I said, "It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Henreid." And he said, "Thank you very much." And I read. And then he said, "Do you know how to ride?" And I said, "Oh yeah. (laughter) Yeah, no problem. I was literally raised on a ranch outside of Las Vegas, no problem."
MANKIEWICZ: Reinforcing the original lie.
DREYFUSS: Yeah. So, we get to the ranch. And I go over to the head wrangler and I said, "How do you ride one?" He goes, "Oh damn it." And he said, "It's harder than just riding." 'Cause I had to drive a buckboard with two little children on it.
MANKIEWICZ: Like, these guys … it's hard. They take it seriously. You can't wing this.
DREYFUSS: Right. And they take its danger seriously. But they also take actors for being what they are which is kind of silly. So, he's cursing me. But he's really good humor.
And then I got with the two kids. And the moment they said, "Action," they said, "Cut," because they could see I was outta control, like wow; the two kids were the problem, you know? Henreid went, "Action," and before you could take a breath the whole crew was yelling, "Cut, cut!" (laughter) And Henreid said, "Do you know why you got this part?" And I said, "I gave a good reading?" And he said, "No. It is because you said it is an honor to meet you, Mr. Henreid." (laughter)
MANKIEWICZ: I like it, guy worked with Bergman and Bogart in "Casablanca," and now he's got some lying Jew from New York (laughter) saying he knows how to ride a horse.
DREYFUSS: Another short guy.
MANKIEWICZ: Yeah, that's right. So, I wanna ask you about "The Graduate." I just wanna point out that my daughter is currently on season four of "Bewitched" and that part of you will be by far the most exciting thing (laughter) when I tell her that. She'll be like, "Jaws," I mean, she doesn't know from "Jaws," right? But "Bewitched," serious business.
MANKIEWICZ: You knew Samantha!
DREYFUSS: When I finished "The Big Valley," Barbara Stanwyck walked up to me and I knew everything there was to know about Barbara Stanwyck. She walked up to me and she said, "You're the best actor who's ever guest-starred on this show." And she walked away.
And I, of course, believed her. So, I invited all of my friends and all of my family to watch the show with me, which I had never done. And will never, ever do again! Because as the show unfolded I backed up unconsciously against the far wall of the room with my mouth like … (laughter) because I was terrible. (laughter) And I knew why Barbara Stanwyck had said that. She said to herself, "If someone doesn't say something nice to this kid, he's gonna blow his brains out." (laughter) And so, she said I was the best actor. In fact, and I can't explain this, I was not a good actor. I was vivid. And I was –
DREYFUSS: Energetic, and like that. But if you watch the performances I gave over 11 years, none of them are even close to being acceptable. And then I got my first job in a real feature. And I was good from that moment on.
"The Graduate" (1967)
MANKIEWICZ: So that great line, though, you have in "The Graduate," your only line – "Shall I get the cops? I'll get the cops" – do people know that line? Do people quote that line?
DREYFUSS: Oh, all the time.
MANKIEWICZ: But you were hoping to be cast as Benjamin, right?
DREYFUSS: No. Every kid in New York and L.A. wanted that role, of course. But I knew, number one, I wasn't old enough. I was still in school. But I just wanted to get to Mike [Nichols]. There were lots of casting levels and I wanted to get to Mike. And I have to say this, I had been driving through Hollywood one day. I drove past the Greyhound station. And I picked up a guy who needed a ride. He was a dwarf. And all of his bags were in his arms. And he just needed a place to stay. And I drove him there. And we talked. And I said "What are you doing here in L.A.?" And he said, "Like you I'm trying to make it in Hollywood." I said, "Well, good luck." And when I went on the casting, he was the first level casting.
MANKIEWICZ: He was casting director?
MANKIEWICZ: For which? For "The Graduate"?
DREYFUSS: For "The Graduate." He had gotten the job and he was doing that. And I walked in and he went … and I went …
MANKIEWICZ: The guy who gave me a ride. The great guy who gave me a ride.
DREYFUSS: Yeah, yeah.
MANKIEWICZ: So, you got a part.
DREYFUSS: I went up to the second level. Then I went up to the third level. And then I was told, "Next Tuesday night you're gonna see Mike." And that's what I wanted.
DREYFUSS: And on that Tuesday I was told, "Mike had to fly to New York. 'Cause he's seeing an actor named Dustin Hoffman." And at the name Dustin Hoffman, I swear to God this is true, I felt the wind of inevitability go right up the back of my neck.
MANKIEWICZ: Even though you didn't know him.
DREYFUSS: I didn't know him. I never knew what he looked like. I just heard the name. … And I heard his name and I knew. And within a week everyone else knew. But Mike was a guy of such class, for real, that he gave everyone who had reached a certain level in the casting process a job in the film.
MANKIEWICZ: Somewhere they'd give you some.
DREYFUSS: Yeah. So, I was told I was in the movie. And I went to meet him. And he says, "Are you prepared?" And I said, "Yeah, I was studying with Stella all week long." And he said, "Okay, whenever you're ready." And I went, "I'm ready. Go ahead. Shall I call the cops? I'll the cops." He said, "You got the role."
MANKIEWICZ: (laughter) Well, I can see why you were so confident. I mean, you nailed it! (laughter)
"American Graffiti" (1973)
MANKIEWICZ: Did you know at the time, like, hey, man, this is Francis Ford Coppola producing, this is George Lucas directing, I mean, did you sense, 'cause you couldn't've known that these guys with vision?
DREYFUSS: No. I, as a matter of fact, was the only member of the cast who did not know that we were shooting a classic. I just thought we were shooting a little teenage movie.
MANKIEWICZ: So when "American Graffiti," Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, they have some sense that this is something special?
DREYFUSS: Oh yeah. Everyone did. Everyone. And I, because people don't remember (and why should they) that there had been a little wave, like, of nostalgia for the '50s and '60s already. There had already been one. And I thought we were overdue and late.
MANKIEWICZ: Oh, you thought that time was sort of past in America.
MANKIEWICZ: I get ya.
DREYFUSS: Right. So, we shot this movie. And had a blast. And George misled me in many ways. One of the ways was that he is the only director I've ever met who doesn't like directing. And we'd be doing a scene, me and Ron, and he'd come up and say, "Is that the way you wanna do it?" And I would say, "Yeah." And he would say, "Okay," and then that was it. And he was wearing a fur parka 'cause it was freezing cold at night in San Francisco.
MANKIEWICZ: Was it San Francisco or Fresno or both?
DREYFUSS: We were shooting in San Francisco and we may have shot in Petaluma, too, I think. It's cold. And I really did get the feeling that George doesn't like directing. And I will tell you, what I think is a coincidence and I've yet even now I've totally forgotten to ask him after 50 years. I had done my conscientious objector alternative service working at L.A. County Hospital in the basement. Then I saw "THX 1138."
MANKIEWICZ: His debut film.
DREYFUSS: Yeah, and I recognized some of the locations as being in the basement of L.A. County Hospital. And I didn't get it from George but other people I seem to have gotten it in my head that that's where he had shot it as a student project. But I never really confirmed it. And I saw it. I liked it. And then I was asked to audition for "Graffiti."
MANKIEWICZ: So, you had to audition for "Graffiti" like everybody else.
DREYFUSS: Oh yeah.
MANKIEWICZ: I mean, there was no, like, nobody thought, "Oh I've seen this guy on stage, or I've seen him in "Bewitched" or "Big Valley" and we want – "
DREYFUSS: No. No, no, no, no, no, no, as the French say. Actually I had made a breakthrough in two plays, both local, and the second one was at the Taper [Forum]. And who saw me were the writers of "Graffiti," and they had kinda passed the word along. But I had made a big splash in this play.
MANKIEWICZ: [Was] Coppola involved in your casting or was he around the production at all?
DREYFUSS: No, no.
MANKIEWICZ: Did you meet him?
DREYFUSS: No. Not then. No. See, what he did is, George auditioned groups at a time. He was auditioning, you know, for the Harrisons and the Richards and like that. And he would put four or five actors together. And that's why it was a very long, extensive process.
MANKIEWICZ: Did you ever audition with Ron Howard?
MANKIEWICZ: What about Harrison?
DREYFUSS: Harrison, I don't think I did. Candy [Clark], I did. And there were different groups that he had done this with. So that finally, when he had cast to his satisfaction, he knew the group completely. And then we went up there – and I just realized this show's gonna be eight minutes long so I'm not gonna tell you of the stories. It could be the Richard Dreyfuss series!
MANKIEWICZ: Yeah, totally. Alec Guinness during "Star Wars" has that great letter that he sent to a friend about, you know, how silly the movie was and the food's terrible and we're out here in the desert, and basically saying these actors don't seem to know what they're doing. "There's one kid" – and he said something like Hank Ford, Henry Ford, I'm not sure – "he seems like there might be something to him." (laughter) Speaking about Harrison Ford, right, that he might have something. And I'm just curious, did you get a sense that, "Oh this guy's pretty good" or there's a presence at least there?
DREYFUSS: Harrison Ford, in a moment of drunkenness, threw me into the swimming pool at the hotel into the shallow end.
MANKIEWICZ: Playfully or out of anger?
DREYFUSS: Oh no, playfully on his part. (laughter) It wasn't on my part. I got out pretty angry. But when you're me and he's him, you don't get that angry. So no, I didn't sense an inevitability about anybody but me. (laughter)
"Catch-22" TV (1973)
MANKIEWICZ: So, did "Graffiti" get you "Jaws"?
DREYFUSS: No. Well, I don't know. I did "Graffiti." And then I did the pilot playing Yossarian in "Catch-22" for ABC which was the most horrific experience of my life. And it was the very first time I had taken a job because the guy who had written it had captured the author perfectly.
MANKIEWICZ: So, you felt like this was Joseph Heller's –
DREYFUSS: -- comedic timing, and it was great. And they gave me the job and they immediately started to pink page the show into oblivion. And [it] became more and more of a situational comedy.
MANKIEWICZ: "Catch-22: The Situation Comedy"?
DREYFUSS: Yeah, and so I went crazy. And not knowing how to war, I went to war. And we're out in Victorville or some place and the unit manager calls me over one night. And he said, "Listen, you have more power than anyone else on this show. But nobody is gonna hand it to you." And I knew the Zen moment of knowing I understood what he was saying, and did not know how to make use of it. I was not old enough, I was not experienced enough, I didn't have the instincts for it. And I just felt this bleak awareness that of course he's right. And what am I gonna do?
DREYFUSS: So, the show was bad enough. It didn't get sold. And then I went for the casting of "Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," at the Beverly Wiltshire. And I went to visit [director] Ted Kotcheff and we talked, and he gave me the script. And I was to come back in a week and do a reading. As I left, I was looking at this and I realized I was holding in my hands the greatest part ever written for an actor my age, ever.
And at that moment I heard, "Richard, we have another chance." What?
And I was halfway down the steps into the lobby. And it was an attorney from ABC!
MANKIEWICZ: I really legitimately thought it was a voice in your head. (laughter) I did not think that that was an actual person.
DREYFUSS: No, I'll let you know when that happens! And this guy says, "We have another chance." I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "You know, it's that six-month thing, that window." And he was describing some second shot.
MANKIEWICZ: At "Catch-22"?
DREYFUSS: Yeah. And I looked at him and I said, "My agent's name is Meyer Mishkin, 274-5261; my attorney's name is Donenfeld, 278-9848. You'll see me in jail before I do that part."
MANKIEWICZ: You were gonna do "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz."
DREYFUSS: God had made it so easy. I was holding in my hand, I didn't have to guess. And so, I told him, and that was that. And then I got the part for "Duddy Kravitz," and took the train from L.A. to Montreal just so I could read it, read it and read it.
"The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" (1974)
DREYFUSS: Mordecai Richler [the writer of "Duddy Kravitz"], he picked me up and he looked like a bum. And he was great. He was great. And his best friend, and had been for many years, was Ted Kotcheff. And so, I had done what a smart actor does, I had done some research on Ted. I discovered that he was a yeller. And there's a puzzle because I don't work well with that. I don't work well with tension. And I knew that about me. And so, we were at dinner and Ted comes to the restaurant and I stood up. I took a deep breath, held out my hand and said, "Hi, Ted. Don't yell at me." And he held my hand. And he looked at me and said, "What?"
I said, "If you yell at me we won't get any work done. If you yell at me, I will go nuts. I'll go crazy. I work well without tension. And so, you have to really hear me." And he looked at me and held my hand for a long time and then he went, "You got it." And he never yelled at me. He yelled at the guy next to me. (laughter) And he's a big man, Ted, and he's got the voice of an ox. And holy moly, and he yelled at everybody. Never yelled at me.
MANKIEWICZ: But he heard you.
DREYFUSS: He absolutely heard me.
MANKIEWICZ: And it's not so much a courtesy, I mean, he understood how to get his movie made.
DREYFUSS: That's right. And he was very much appreciative of the fact that I could articulate exactly what it was.
MANKIEWICZ: So, best part ever for an actor your age. What happened when you saw it? (laughter)
DREYFUSS: You've done your homework, haven't you? I thought that I had given the worst performance in the history of celluloid.
MANKIEWICZ: Worse than "The Big Valley"?
DREYFUSS: On par. (laughter) And-- there wasn't that much distance between the two of them. And on opening night of "Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," it was held at the Place des Arts in Montreal. … I had never seen myself for that long on screen. You know, it's one thing to see yourself in a "Bewitched," and it's another thing to see yourself for 90 minutes.
MANKIEWICZ: Yeah, you're in almost every scene.
DREYFUSS: Yeah. And we did "Jaws," "Duddy Kravitz" opened. And it had a two-page spread in The New York Times. And girls came on the Vineyard from all over in safety boats to flirt with me. And Steven Spielberg said, "What is going on here?" And I said, "Steven, if you had a 40-foot face it would be happening to you, too." (laughter)
MANKIEWICZ: But isn't part of the reason that you thought the performance in "Duddy Kravitz" was so bad you reversed your decision of saying no to "Jaws" and said yes to "Jaws"?
DREYFUSS: Yes. I turned it down twice. I saw "Duddy Kravitz," I called Steven, and begged for the part.
MANKIEWICZ: You were terrified that "Duddy" would end your career.
DREYFUSS: Yeah. Yeah.
MANKIEWICZ: And you wanted to get another movie going.
MANKIEWICZ: And then you make this seminal movie, one of the great pictures of the 20th century.
MANKIEWICZ: Any idea of its magnitude while making it at all?
DREYFUSS: No. I'm, again, the only one who didn't know!
DREYFUSS: Steven had called me and said, "I wanna meet you about 'Jaws.' Don't read the book." To this day I've never read the book, that's how good an actor I am with directors. (laughs)
MANKIEWICZ: He didn't want you to have any preconceived notions about how the character should be.
DREYFUSS: Yeah. And for a very good reason: He said, "I wanna make a bullet." He wanted to make a movie about one thing with tremendous velocity and momentum. And there was oodles apparently of subplots in the book. [Editor's Note: Yes! For one thing, in Peter Benchley's novel Dreyfuss' character, Hooper, and Chief Brody's wife, Ellen, have an affair!] He didn't want any of that. So, I didn't [read it]. And he told me the story, and it was exciting. He said, "You wanna do it?" And I went, "No." (laughter) He said, "Why?" And I said, "Because I'd rather watch this movie than shoot it." Because I'm an idiot! I mean, there's really no other explanation. I'm pretty stupid when it comes to certain things.
And I didn't know enough about the moviemaking process. So, when it was over I actually went on some talk show in New York and I said, "Oh it's gonna be a failure." (laughter) And I said all these things that I then went back and apologized for saying.
MANKIEWICZ: As you were making it, did the three of you – Schieder and Shaw and you – did the shark work for you guys? I mean, I know it didn't literally work. But did you buy it as you're shooting those scenes?
DREYFUSS: No. First, what happened was, they had forgotten to ask themselves one question which was, "Has any other film ever been attempted on the real ocean?" No. I wonder why? (laughter) Now we knew why!. And so, the shark which had no grounding, would come up and go (makes noise) and fall in.
DREYFUSS: So, we knew and the radio mics were so ubiquitous on the island you could follow the plot of making the movie just by walking down a street and hearing from all sides: "Wait, the shark is not working. (makes noise) "The shark is not working. (makes noise) The shark is – " and you could just hear it. And then one day you heard: "(makes noise) "The shark is working. The shark is work … the boat is sinking. (makes noise) The boat is sinking." And I was on that boat. And we were sinking in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean! We had ripped the anchor out and Freddie Zendar, the head of the stunt people, had jumped to the wheel and was trying to power the boat onto the beach at Chappaquiddick Island, screaming all the time, "This is the worst. This is the worst." And Steven with his megaphone is going, "Get the actors off the boat, please. Get the actors off the boat." (laughter) And safety boats are coming and it's a six-foot swell. And, you know, the guys running the safety boats are all local kids. And I'm trying to help a 70-year-old sound man get his leg over the side of the boat, holding his $50,000 NAGRA tape recorder. We lost a NAGRA a week!
MANKIEWICZ: Is that right?
DREYFUSS: Yup. On the very first day of shooting we're in a boat, a little boat, and it was just doing this (makes rocking motion). And then water [comes over], went plump! And the guy goes, "That's a wrap for sound!" (laughter)
MANKIEWICZ: So, you don't have any feel that you've made something great? But you did have faith in Spielberg.
DREYFUSS: Right. If you went and looked and said, "Pick out the person of authority on this set," you'd never pick Steven on "Jaws." After that, no problem. He was crowned and anointed.
MANKIEWICZ: So, you know, they considered some pretty big actors, including Jon Voight and Jeff Bridges for your part. And George Lucas was like, "No, you should maybe look at Richard Dreyfuss."
DREYFUSS: Actually I don't know that until just this minute.
MANKIEWICZ: That Lucas –
DREYFUSS: No, that those two actors that you mentioned were mentioned.
MANKIEWICZ: Yeah, I mean, they were, you know, they were emerging as very big stars right around then.
DREYFUSS: I had told Steven some years later about an experience I had of being deal-broken out of a film. And when I was describing to him what they had said and done to get me to quit a movie, Steven said, "Oh yeah, that's just what we had to do to get you into 'Jaws."" But they had mentioned Timothy Bottoms.
MANKIEWICZ: Yeah, right, he was among them, too.
DREYFUSS: Yeah, so he was the only one I knew about. And I never knew about George's endorsement.
MANKIEWICZ: Well, George's endorsement definitely happened. Because Steven didn't want a giant, established star. You know, [Charlton] Heston wanted to play Scheider's part, wanted to play Brody. And you know, it's Heston. And it's, you know, 1975, [he's] still a big deal. But Spielberg thought his screen presence would overpower the other actors.
DREYFUSS: Right. Roy was second to an actor whose name I don't know but I knew his work. And unfortunately this guy will never know that he was in first place for this part. But he was busy. And Roy was second. And then Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden and then Robert [Shaw, to play Quint]. And Robert and Roy had this thing about billing. And they were always arguing about billing. And I said to Roy one day, "What difference does it make? Come on, you guys should …" and Roy turned to me and said, "Wait a minute, I don't understand why you're not bothered. We all have the same billing." And I went, "We do?" (laughter)
MANKIEWICZ: You thought, "This is great. Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw. This is fantastic. Yeah.
DREYFUSS: I thought it was "… and Richard Dreyfuss as Lud." (laughter) That's what they said on "Big Valley."
"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977)
MANKIEWICZ: So, after "Jaws," you immediately start lobbying Spielberg for "Close Encounters."
DREYFUSS: In the middle of "Jaws." Because they came to the island, Michael Phillips, the producer. And he started talking about the film. And when I understood what the film was originally, it was to star Gene Hackman. You know, a lifer in the military, 30-year man and downhome guy. And then in the middle of "Jaws," in talking to me about the film, he said that he was thinking of changing that character. And I said, "To what?" And he went, "Well, to someone more – ah, forget it." And I just focused. And I decided that I would badmouth every actor every born that could possibly play that role. And I did!
MANKIEWICZ: Yeah, those actors were?
DREYFUSS: They were De Niro, Pacino, you name it.
MANKIEWICZ: What would you say about De Niro?
DREYFUSS: I said, "De Niro has no sense of humor." (laughter) And I would say, "Pacino's crazy." (laughter) And I would just walk by his desk and go –
MANKIEWICZ: "Gene Hackman's impossible to work with"?
DREYFUSS: Yeah! (laughter) And then I said one day I said, "Steven, you need a child." And he looked up and said, "You got the part." And that was not only smart of Richard, it perfectly encapsulated our relationship, because I knew that that character had to have a childlike quality. And I knew also that I had it. And in a sense, I knew that I was being hired at that time for having that quality, and also the quality of awe. And I knew it. And that's why I got it.
MANKIEWICZ: It also suggests to me that Spielberg was seeing what "Jaws" was and I think probably sensed, "Oh, this guy's about to be a big story." You might not know it yet, but he knew it.
DREYFUSS: Well, I think what started to happen is that once we got back to Los Angeles and we were shooting in the tank for just about a week or a week and a half, we'd end the night and I would go with him to his office and work on the film with him. Just throwing out ideas. And I would park without realizing it in the wrong parking place because one day in the morning they called and Steven looked at me and said, "You're under arrest." I said, "Really? Why?" He says, "You parked in Alfred Hitchcock's space." (laughter) So, I ran out to the car and moved it. But by that time I knew if I didn't have an inside track for that role I should have. And I made no bones about it 'cause I had the qualities that they needed for real. And they didn't have to guess. And he wasn't gonna have this character have any affairs, he was just gonna be this awe-struck, grownup, seriously committed. And also, you knew that Steven could see the story through this character's eyes. And when you see the film, you know that every actor in the third act has the same quality on his face. They're all children. All the technicians, all the governors, everyone in that last sequence has got this great quality of childlike wonder. And he needed it. And I knew it. When I see the film now I'll watch that last sequence. And I'm still amazed at how many of those technicians had that quality.
MANKIEWICZ: Is that the Richard Dreyfuss movie you watch most?
DREYFUSS: Oh no. Oh no, no. It is the movie that is asked about more than any other.
DREYFUSS: And so when I've done autograph, convention things I always say to the audience, "I know more about "Jaws" than anyone else in the world. Here's the deal: if you ask me a question that I cannot answer about "Jaws" I'll give you ten bucks. If, however, you ask me a question that I can answer you give me ten bucks." And I am way ahead on this one!
MANKIEWICZ: Oh people, they rise to the challenge?
DREYFUSS: Oh yeah, oh yeah.
MANKIEWICZ: And you take their $10?
DREYFUSS: I certainly do.
MANKIEWICZ: You know why you do? It's a bet. You gotta pay a bet.
DREYFUSS: Hey. And I've made it clear.
MANKIEWICZ: Yeah, that's right.
DREYFUSS: And the first one who ever beat me was a ten-year-old girl.
MANKIEWICZ: What was the question, you know?
DREYFUSS: I have no idea. (laughter) But I just remember looking at her and going –
MANKIEWICZ: I could've beaten you. I could've won ten bucks from you with the Jon Voight and Jeff Bridges.
DREYFUSS: Yeah, yeah. (laughter)
MANKIEWICZ: Damn it. (laughter) Blown opportunity. So, what is it, the Dreyfuss movie you've seen most?
DREYFUSS: After the first screening I usually never see a film from first to last again unless it pops up in some way on television. And then I'll watch depending upon where in the film it is. And "Jaws" is not the one I would watch most. Well, "Tin Man" and "Let it Ride" and there's certain films from the '80s that I adore. And I think they're great.
MANKIEWICZ: "Down and Out in Beverly Hills"?
DREYFUSS: Yeah, "Down and Out." I considered myself at a certain point one of Paul [Mazursky]'s actors. But I had first turned him down, because of Marlon Brando. He wanted me to do a film called "Next Stop, Greenwich Village." And I read it. And it was about my life had I lived contemporaneously with [him in] the early '50s. And I came into the meeting with him and I said, "Paul, can I ask you a question?" I said, "You have all these actors in the movie. And you have no one mention Brando. Why?" And his first response was, "Why should I?"
And I said, "Because that's the only thing they talked about then." And I mean it. I mean, that was everyone's subject of conversation. Even though I wasn't there – I was too little – but I knew and I made it my business to know such things. And I eventually said, "No, I don't wanna do the movie," because –
MANKIEWICZ: " – Because you don't respect Brando enough."
DREYFUSS: (laughter) Because I didn't know Paul enough. And we had been told, both Paul and I, "Boy, when you meet one another are you gonna fall in love." Well, that's doomsday.
MANKIEWICZ: Right, of course.
DREYFUSS: I didn't do the film.
MANKIEWICZ: But you got together later.
"The Goodbye Girl" (1977)
MANKIEWICZ: Let's go back a little bit 'cause we're on that run. So, "Close Encounters," great experience. It's two straight films with the prince of Hollywood.
DREYFUSS: I was a prince. He was the king.
MANKIEWICZ: Then "The Goodbye Girl," which oddly enough had De Niro cast first. Who you had just badmouthed to get "Close Encounters"!
DREYFUSS: That morning, I'll never forget this whole sequence of events. One morning a friend of mine calls and says, "Did you hear that Bobby De Niro got fired this morning?" I said, "No one's gonna fire Bobby De Niro."
MANKIEWICZ: This is the movie he did right after "Taxi Driver."
DREYFUSS: Right. And Mike Nichols was directing, "Bogart Slept Here."
MANKIEWICZ: The original name of "The Goodbye Girl."
DREYFUSS: And before noon I knew he had been fired. Nichols had quit. And I finally called [producer] Ray Stark and said, "Do you wanna talk to me for any reason?" And he said, "No." And I said, "Okay, just thought I'd call." Click. And that was that. (laughter) And about four or five months later, I was at the Warner Brothers commissary. And Ray Stark walked up to me and said, "Do you wanna do 'Bogart Slept Here'?" And I said, "I don't think so. Are you doing 'Bogart Slept Here'?" And all of a sudden there was Ray Stark, Neil Simon and Marsha Mason standing in front of Richard Dreyfuss. And they're asking me to play the lead in the movie that they're doing.
MANKIEWICZ: They came and confronted you in the Warner Brothers commissary?
DREYFUSS: Yes. And I'm saying, "No, no, no," until finally I heard a voice inside myself say, "Richard, shut up. (laughter) Don't do this. It's too clear." And so I said, "Yeah, let's do a reading." And that was what Ray was inviting me to. He wasn't saying the movie. He was saying, "Would you do a reading?" And I said, "Yes."
MANKIEWICZ: And it took four or five months because in-between firing De Niro, Simon rewrote the script?
DREYFUSS: No, no. I love saying that. No, no. No. It took some months because Ray didn't know whether he wanted to pursue this film now that Mike had quit. And finally, whatever he was thinking happened, and we had a reading at his house. And as soon as the reading was over I raised my hand and said, "You're not gonna make this movie. There's no way you can have sympathy for a guy whether he's sitting on a curb crying or his children have been kidnapped by North African Barbary pirates if he's a movie star. You cannot sympathize with his problems." And that was my firm belief. That this was a film that could not happen because it was the story at that moment of what happened to Dustin Hoffman after "The Graduate."
MANKIEWICZ: Right, after he became a huge star.
DREYFUSS: Right. And I knew it. And I said, "No, you're not gonna do this." And Neil, of all people said, "He's right. But I have an idea."
MANKIEWICZ: And if I'm understanding it correctly, it wasn't merely that. It was also this sort of electric chemistry that he saw between you and Marsha Mason and thought, "That needs to be enhanced."
DREYFUSS: We were great. We had more fun that day, the two of us, and it was great. And there was a thing about Neil's work. And about less than a month later we had another reading. And this time it was "The Goodbye Girl," completely different. And that was hysterically funny and romantic and great. And that we knew we're gonna do.
MANKIEWICZ: How much had your between "American Graffiti," "Jaws," to "Close Encounters," to "Goodbye Girl" when you mention your quote, "It had gone up significantly by then"?
DREYFUSS: Yeah. (laughter)
MANKIEWICZ: Life had changed.
DREYFUSS: Life had changed. But it was all very kind of laid out. You know? I was on a talk show once in Canada. And it was one of those interview shows that's only one person. And he said to me what you just asked. He said, "So what happened to you after you did 'Duddy Kravitz' and 'Jaws'?" And I said, "Well, you know, people came to me with projects." And they said, "And your salary?" And I, you know, having heard everyone say to me, "People never tell their salaries," and I didn't quite know why. But I said, "Well, let's put it this way, when I did 'American Graffiti' I got paid this much. And then I did 'Duddy Kravitz' and I got paid that much. And then I did 'Jaws' and I get paid THAT much. And now I'm gonna get THIS much."
MANKIEWICZ: (laughter) That's a good--
DREYFUSS: And then he said, "How much is THAT much?" So I said, "$500,000." And he said, "I can't believe you answered that. You're the first person who has ever answered that question." And I said to him, "Why?" He said, "I don't know." And I said, "Well, how much do you make?" And he went, "I can't tell you." (laughter) And he not only refused to say how much he made, he left the taping of his own show. He walked off. (laughter)
MANKIEWICZ: Because you were asking him what his salary was.
DREYFUSS: You betcha.
MANKIEWICZ: So we feel, like, entitled to know the salaries of famous people.
MANKIEWICZ: No, I think that's a human condition.
DREYFUSS: But I think that if one asks, then you have to answer.
MANKIEWICZ: Oh no question. I'm just saying what that human condition is, no question – if you ask, the person has to answer.
DREYFUSS: Well, but I could've easily said, "That's private."
MANKIEWICZ: Right, you gave a good answer. (laughter)
DREYFUSS: Yeah. But when I said to him, "I'm not going anywhere 'till you tell me. You got me to tell you." Well, by this time, the three cameras are on these floaters, you know. And all the cameras are going, they're laughing so hard, that the guy left the set.
MANKIEWICZ: That's so great. The idea that we don't ask people's salaries, it ends up only serving management. And they don't want us to know because if we know and start talking, then people are gonna want more and to be paid fairly.
DREYFUSS: Well, and it has the story of the beginning of Hollywood. That's the star system.
MANKIEWICZ: That's right.
DREYFUSS: The "Girl with the Golden Curls" [Mary Pickford], when she was named, everyone knew the moment she was named she wanted more, and got more, and became a star, and became a power. And the rest is history. But that's why they kept the names of all those actors [in early silent films] secret.
MANKIEWICZ: So, "Goodbye Girl" is successful. You are nominated for an Academy Award, I believe is what they call it.
DREYFUSS: Yeah. (laughter) Yes. Yeah.
MANKIEWICZ: You remember being nominated, that moment? I know you know the win. But do you remember the call?
DREYFUSS: I certainly do. I had been told when I did "Duddy Kravitz" that I was gonna be nominated for "Duddy Kravitz." And I said no, and they argued with me, my friends. And I bet them. I bet against myself. And I made a bunch of money! Because I knew. I knew that year, you know, I knew enough about it. So that when I got the call in Puerto Rico my agent called and said, "You've been nominated for 'The Goodbye Girl,'" I went, "Wow," and then I said, "Who else is nominated?" And he said, "Woody Allen, John Travolta, Marcello Mastroianni, and Richard Burton." And I went, "I'm gonna win." And Meyer, my agent, went, "Right." And I said, "Meyer, I'm gonna win!" And I'll tell you, you know, not a secret, John Travolta was too soon.
MANKIEWICZ: That's right, no question.
DREYFUSS: Too soon. Richard Burton had just passed the hump. If he had been nominated the year before they would've given it to him in a second and we all would've stood up and given him a standing ovation. No one was ever gonna give Marcello Mastroianni the best actor. And no one was gonna give Woody Allen best actor because it was the year of "Annie Hall." He was gonna win everything else. (laughter)
MANKIEWICZ: Screenplay, director. Right, yeah.
DREYFUSS: Right. So I said, "I'm gonna win."
MANKIEWICZ: Right, very quickly you would assess it's me versus Richard Burton.
DREYFUSS: Right. So then, I win. And I made money. And the next year I made a bigger bunch betting. "Quick, tell me who won best actor last year?" And the answer was me. And I knew that people forget that quickly. And so I made a fortune. And I also learned a great lesson.
MANKIEWICZ: So you would literally bet someone that they couldn't name the most recent best actor when they're having a conversation with the most recent best actor winner?
MANKIEWICZ: That's a great skill. I don't see Joaquin Phoenix doing that. (laughter) Doesn't seem like a Joaquin Phoenix move.
DREYFUSS: Although the chances of that happening now are even greater that I'm right, because now they have ten nominees or something? Don't they have more?
MANKIEWICZ: It's still five for best actor. But there's so many other shows.
DREYFUSS: There are far too many awards by far. And I once I think made a terrible error not purposefully. But I was walking into an evening that was honoring Steven. And I had actually written a whole thing for the program about why. And I was walking in with the head of Universal. And the second head of Universal. And as we walked in I said, "Ah, another tribute to Steven Spielberg." Well, I think they thought I was really envious and angry or something. They didn't know that I was joking because the two of them looked at me like I had grown a third head. And I was never enthusiastically greeted again.
MANKIEWICZ: This doesn't necessarily relate to it, but it reminds me, like, you've told a couple stories. You have a temper.
DREYFUSS: Well, do I have a temper? I've fought for my right to say something. I have never told a director he had to do it my way. I never did something so unfair. But I have fought for my thinking. And I think that's interpreted as a temper. I have had some bad relationships with people.
MANKIEWICZ: In the business.
DREYFUSS: In the business. And one was with an actor. And one was with a movie star. And a couple with directors.
MANKIEWICZ: Do you distinguish between an actor and a movie star? You said one was with an actor and one was with a movie star.
DREYFUSS: Yeah. It's very simple. The first, the actor, was from a class that we were both in and it was prior to our fame, so there was no movie star in the equation. The second guy was very famous. But I just grew up a little. I had not said it, not told the story for about some years. And then I said, "Why am I keeping it a secret?" And so, I told the story, and then after about eight or ten years I stopped. Because I wasn't gaining anything. And it wasn't making me feel good or adult. And so I stopped. And I don't do it.
MANKIEWICZ: That suggests, even later in life, some significant growth.
DREYFUSS: I hope so. I really hope so. I don't know about other people. I know that I have a companion and that companion is me. And it would be silly not to make friends with that companion, and not to do well by him, and to try to grow up. Growing up is learning to be fair and learning that that thing that you did because you thought you had every right hurt people. And when I once had a terrible experience driving home to San Diego from L.A. And I felt at one moment all of the times I had hurt women that I had loved. And I don't know about you, but for me emotional recall is immediate. It's like reliving something. And I had to stop the car, get off the freeway and park the car and just cry for a long time because I had no idea that I had been hurting people I loved. And I had been doing it pretty consistently. And so, when I had the chance I wrote each of them a letter just trying to explain to them that I'd had this very painful revelation and that I apologize profusely for anything that I had done.
And the aggregate answer was, "That ship has sailed, pal." Click. And this is the only life that I know I live. Maybe I get more if I'm Hindu. But this is the one I know. And so, I do want my Wednesday to be better than my Tuesday. And I want to grow up. And if I'm gonna fight, I'm gonna fight for something that's worth fighting for. And if I'm not, don't.
MANKIEWICZ: That response of "That ship has sailed, pal," it's also a degree of growth to hear that and let that go. They're entitled to think that ship has sailed. Your responsibility, right, is to recognize what you did and feel bad about it, and move forward.
DREYFUSS: Right. And I grieve at the loss of each one of them that I had behaved as if I hadn't lost anyone. I would brag about the fact that I never lost a girlfriend and they were still friends of mine. Well, they had been tolerating me. And there's a difference. And I don't wanna keep doing that. I don't like that Richard. I don't approve of it. And I have been, you know, I've been married, I'm married for the third time. And I told my wife once that I didn't think that men were mature enough for a loving, sharing relationship until they were in their fifties. That everything else was just practice. And that I did believe. And I do. And I know that because of her, my wife, who I know is sitting over there but I'm pretending that she's not, she's kicked my butt enough to make me a better person, to help make me a better person.
MANKIEWICZ: What actually impresses me most about you is, you know, you have all this wild success from, like, '73 to '78. And you're in L.A. and it's 1978. And there's a scene which I imagine for a 30-year-old best actor winner who's at the top of his game is very hard to avoid. And you get a substance abuse problem. And you get a famous one 'cause you're famous. And so the crash is famous. I didn't mean the actual crash. I meant the emotional crash is famous. And you recover from that, right? You move past that, I imagine, incredibly difficult process. But you don't stop there. You're not like, "Wow, I got past that. And this is the new me." And it's almost like that could be an excuse to make other mistakes because, "I'm a recovering addict. I fixed it. You want me to fix other things, too? No, I did the hardest thing there is to do." But that didn't happen. May have taken some time but that didn't happen to you.
DREYFUSS: I was doing a play at the Taper. And in the middle of this play I had a revelation about my own behavior.
MANKIEWICZ: When is this?
DREYFUSS: This was in 1971. And the revelation was that if you had no secrets no one could hurt you. And I then proceeded to become a low-down, lying, dirty dog for a bunch of years. I just went against what I had just had a revelation about.
MANKIEWICZ: The revelation isn't the hard part. The acting on it is.
DREYFUSS: Right. And because I have a kind of sense of drama, you know, sense of theatricality I can create the beginning, middle and end of the story. But I got a hold of myself before I went all the way down. I had a friend of mine in New York who saw from a block away a New York Post headline with picture that said, "Dreyfuss busted." And he puked. And that, for some reason, stayed with me. And I could tell you all kinds of things that you don't have time for. But I decided to be a better person. And I think that that's a legitimate goal. And I like that about me.
MANKIEWICZ: You didn't decide at once, you're deciding it today, also. Right? I mean, it's sort of you constantly wanna be a better person.
DREYFUSS: Yeah, well, I really in a sense did decide on a given day, something happened on a given day which insisted itself on my mind, and from that moment on I have had the goal of being a better person. And that's for real. I had an argument, I had a fight with a director. I was at a film festival once. He was there. And I heard that he was coming. And I asked for a napkin, "Do you have a napkin?" And I wrote on this napkin, "As far as I'm concerned we have no argument. I'm done. I'm finished. I have no reason to continue. And I don't hold anything against you. And I'm just telling you this because you should know." And I had it delivered to his room. And when I saw him about a day later, two days later, I could see as I walked up to him that he was looking at me like, "Was that part of the fraud?" And when he understood that I was not kidding, he didn't jump into my arms and kiss me. But he understood I was serious. And that put that away. And I've had reason to do that one or two more times. I haven't done it with [the famous movie star]. And I will. We've never crossed paths. And one day I will write him a note and say, "As far as I'm concerned, it's over."
MANKIEWICZ: Real quick, I forgot, what were you doing in Carl Reiner's guest house?
DREYFUSS: I lived there for years. I lived in the Reiners' guest house for about four, five years. The "Jaws," "Goodbye Girl" period.
MANKIEWICZ: So, mid- to late-'70s, you're living in Carl Reiner's guest house. You won an Oscar, took it back to Carl Reiner's guest house?
DREYFUSS: Eventually, yes. On the night, no. On the night, Sylvester Stallone handed it to me and I didn't let go of it until I was on a private plane to Brooklyn, [where I was] appearing in "Julius Caesar." And I never let the thing outta my hand. So they didn't get it back to do the imprinting on it.
MANKIEWICZ: Oh you didn't do that that night?
DREYFUSS: No. But I put it on the common dressing room table. And every actor that was in the group, they went, "Where is it? Where is it?"
MANKIEWICZ: Of course.
DREYFUSS: Right? And so I said that night, "Now listen, when I come out, they're gonna applaud or something. So just, you know, take a hold." And I came out. Nothing! (laughter) No response! And every actor in that show made it his business to walk by me during the show and, "So what?" You know?
MANKIEWICZ: That's awesome. You know, you said everybody wanted to see it. I literally walked into your house here, into the room where we're taping this, looked at the wall and said to the producer, "Where's the Oscar?" (laughter)
DREYFUSS: Did you?
MANKIEWICZ: Of course! Yeah. Which prompts me to ask, where's the Oscar? (laughter)
DREYFUSS: The Oscar I keep in the refrigerator.
MANKIEWICZ: That's not a joke?
DREYFUSS: No. That's not a joke. It's just that I want people to know that I won the Oscar. I just don't like to brag about it.
MANKIEWICZ: Right, I gotcha.
DREYFUSS: So I figure that sooner or later the guys go, "Got anything to drink in this house?" (laughter)
MANKIEWICZ: My great uncle, Joe Mankiewicz, won four Oscars in two years, writing and directing. Back-to-back years for "Letter to Three Wives," "All About Eve." He spent his life, as did my grandfather, Herman, who wrote "Citizen Kane," regretting the industry that they were in, feeling shame that movie making was not serious art. You were a theatre critic or you wrote plays, that was serious art. Movies were nonsense. Joe adapted to it a little better than Herman. Their father didn't approve, like, pictures were, this is popcorn entertainment. Right? The theatre, books, that was serious. Yet, on the mantel, as soon as you walked into his house in Bedford, New York: Oscar, Oscar, Oscar, Oscar. He may have felt great shame, but somehow he got past it.
DREYFUSS: Yeah, I never felt the shame. But I always tried to keep it in some balance that the list of those actors or whoever who never won an award and were never nominated, is as great a list as those who have.
MANKIEWICZ: He was nominated but Cary Grant doesn't have an Oscar.
DREYFUSS: And Henry Fonda, I worked with him right before ["On Golden Pond"]. I did a play called "The Time of Your Life." And we toured all over America. L.A., Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington. And night his wife overheard me talking about Spencer Tracy, and I was, you know, worshipping him. And Shirlee said, "Why don't you ever talk about Henry like that?" And I said, "Because my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth, that's why." And we had an exit. I'm working with Henry Fonda – my saying that is kind of like saying, "I cured cancer," you know, it's a big deal – so, we had an exit where we go out the swinging doors of the bar. And then I follow him through one part of the backstage and then down another. And then we get to a certain door and I gestured for him. And he gestured for me to go first and I would go first. Then one night we go outta the thing and we get to that door. And I open the door and started through. And he goes, "Getting pretty cocky, aren't you?" (laughter) Wow.
MANKIEWICZ: He was one of the best. He's just about my favorite. You named the other, Tracy, and they were in a different league. And people in the league below them were fantastic.
MANKIEWICZ: But they –
DREYFUSS: He had a thing that really stuns me even now, he's remarkably and eccentrically funny. When he's doing a comedy and specifically it's the film about the tuxedo that follows the tuxedo ["Tales of Manhattan"], he's so funny in this movie. And he's playing a rube. And that's why he's funny. And I still watch it with a kind of amazement because he's not doing anything. And yet he's hysterically funny. He's really unique in that way. Much more so than, like, Jimmy Stewart or Tracy or someone. Fonda's comedy is so hidden, in a way. And he was so Americana for so long. One of the great honors of my life was, I was asked to speak at a dinner in honor of James Stewart at the Waldorf Astoria when I was about 35, 36. And I explained to this audience, including Stewart, who he was and why he was what he was. And how before the war he was America. He was the most innocent of Americans. And I particularly held up the scene from "Mr. Smith" where he's got the hat in his hands and he's trying to talk to Claude Rains' daughter which is, again, hysterically funny. And then I said, "And then he went to war. And when he came back he was never the innocent American again because he had killed a lot of people and a lot of children and a lot of innocents because he'd been in the Air Force and he'd had, you know, he bombed them. And he knew it. And you never saw that innocent American again." And I have always said that film noir is Jimmy Stewart.
MANKIEWICZ: That sort of post-war darkness.
DREYFUSS: That post-war darkness which is neurotic and edgy and sharp and, like, holding onto his morality with a grip. Like, when he played, in every film, except for "It's a Wonderful Life" he always played this.
MANKIEWICZ: There's a little element of darkness in that, too, of course, there's near-suicide, right?
DREYFUSS: Oh, yeah, yeah. But even that darkness was the kind of innocent darkness. And when I finished, and I knew I had said something good, as I was leaving, one of his daughters ran up to me and said, "My dad can't talk to you right now because he's crying. But he wanted you to know that he never realized that anyone had watched him that closely." This guy had been a film star since 1934! And he never realized that someone had watched him that closely. I had. And I had a lot of others. And so, I had a friend standing next to me at that moment who said, "Boy, I wish someone would talk to me that way about my work." And I said, "Let's have breakfast." And at breakfast I told him about his work. And he cried.
I think I'm seriously blessed. I really am. I did something that I loved to do. And I was paid and praised. And I got to do it for 60 years. And the only reason I stopped was to do something that I so passionately loved as much as acting, which is my country. But when I watch actors, and you can separately on or off camera ask my wife that when I watch a film I watch a film very closely. And she ends up watching me instead of the movie because I'm so wrapped up in watching this film that, even if it's a comedy I'm like crying and I'm standing and sitting and standing and sitting. I don't go to a lotta movies anymore because I don't like them, they're not very good anymore. And I probably have missed out on a bunch of really good films. But mostly they're crap. They made a very big mistake when for that one decade they let the lunatics run the asylum. And they made a lotta money, and made some great movies. And then they decided to take it back from the lunatics and make the decisions themselves.
MANKIEWICZ: You mean like '67 to '76?
DREYFUSS: Yes, 1970s was the decade of our generation. And they never should've made that decision. And they still shouldn't. But, if you wanna make a lotta money, then at least tell the truth about it.
MANKIEWICZ: You said something that just struck me because it's a line from "Citizen Kane," which is, "It's not hard to make a lotta money if all you wanna do is make a lotta money."
DREYFUSS: Right, right. Yeah. Money has always escaped me as a talent. (laughter) I'm the one guy that, I was once invited to speak to an investors group as if I'm an investor. And I said when I got up there, "I think I'm about to be thrown off because I'm the guy who made 50 and lost 55." (laughter) And I was thrown right off!
MANKIEWICZ: So, here which is the thing that happens when you're shooting television and movies – why do you think people responded to Richard Dreyfuss?
DREYFUSS: I have a certain constituency, I like to say. And they are Upper West Side, college educated, mostly white people, although I am very popular in the black community (laughter), and I like to say that. And it's usually those people who live, you know, somewhere above Lincoln Center and the guy's hairy and 60 and his second wife is 30 and beautiful with long hair down to her ankles.They're the ones who like my work. (laughs) And I think the fact is that almost every film star, male film star, who could be defined as a romantic leading man has in common with one another a sense of danger as best personified by Bogart in "Casablanca."
MANKIEWICZ: Right, a threat.
DREYFUSS: Yeah, you know that off screen he has been hurt by someone. And is very capable of that violence or something. And I don't. I don't have that. And I think it's rare that actors don't have that. And that has something to do with my appeal. I'm urban. I look as if I'd gone to college, even though I haven't, until I was 50 when I went to Oxford. And I'm intelligent and I play intelligence. And George offered me – oh, this is a good story. George offered me one of two roles [on "American Graffiti"]. He offered me the one I had, Curt, and he also offered me the part that Charlie Martin Smith was playing, and I chose Curt. He said, "Why?" I said, "Because I love to play self-awareness. And Curt is completely self-aware," meaning that he knows that night that he will remember that night 30 years from now. He's totally aware of that. And that is a quality that I love to play. And think I have.
MANKIEWICZ: You definitely think you have that. I'm sure you do have it.
DREYFUSS: Although probably not as much as (laughs) I should!
MANKIEWICZ: None of us have as much of the thing we think we have.
DREYFUSS: Yeah, yeah. And also I don't know, can I play outside of my century? In other words, I'm a 20th century person. And can I play outside of that? John Wayne could play the 19th century fabulously.
MANKIEWICZ: Easier than the 20th century.
DREYFUSS: And yet he couldn't play the 17th century. And Charlton Heston could play any century including eternity which is why he played God. So only one actor I know could do that. And that was him. I'm an urban 20th century college-educated guy. Self-aware. And there's certain things that certain actors share in common. One of them is, no romantic leading man ever initiates a kiss.
DREYFUSS: He lets the woman start, and then he kisses her back. Except for one. Me. (laughter) I have never been able to hold back if a beautiful woman is coming at me to kiss, I'm there! I have never been able to wait. So a kiss is a kiss is a kiss.
MANKIEWICZ: I think you could play visionary 19th century scientist.
DREYFUSS: I wonder if I could play Grant.
MANKIEWICZ: Ulysses S. Grant?
MANKIEWICZ: I think you could play General Grant. Yeah.
DREYFUSS: So do I.
MANKIEWICZ: Yeah. It's interesting, why would you wanna play General Grant? That's not who I would imagine when you think of a 19th century figure.
DREYFUSS: Well, I know an awful lot about him. And he's the only man I know who actually rose twice. He failed and rose from failure twice. And it's a remarkable quality.
MANKIEWICZ: That is a remarkable quality.
DREYFUSS: And there are stories that are told about him that in the midst of battle when you have the high ground, and the high ground could literally mean two inches. If you were two inches higher than your opponent, he's at a disadvantage. So at the battle of – some battle, when he found that he was subject to a surprise attack and he raced to the front, he got to the front and he was literally two inches above. And what they call a preternaturally calm attitude came over him. And this always happened. He was able in the midst of bullets flying and people being decapitated with shrapnel around him to be able to observe with an incredibly calm demeanor. And he would look and then he would ask what military colleges say are the smartest questions in the smartest order. And he would ask certain series of questions. And then he would answer. And he would give them orders, the best orders in the best order. And that's what led him at one point, he was listening to his men talk about Lee. And he said, "You know, I'm sick of hearing of Bobby Lee. I'd like to hear Bobby Lee worry about me. And so, let's get him worried." And he knew how to do that. And Lee knew. Lee knew.
Lee's subcommander was Longstreet. Longstreet was Grant's best man at his wedding.
DREYFUSS: Yeah. And Longstreet would say to Bobby Lee, "Don't underestimate Sam Grant." And he had written a letter that said early, early on in the war, "It looks like they've forgotten about Sam Grant. Let's hope they continue to do so, because if he gets involved in this war, we're toast." Basically. And he was. He knew him so well.
MANKIEWICZ: I did not expect to get that. That was a rich piece of Civil War history. And I'm a Civil War buff. I'm an American history major. I like that stuff.
DREYFUSS: My favorite character is George Henry Thomas who was the Union general who was born in Virginia and stayed with the North. And Lee and he had served together in Texas in the Second Calvary. And he at one point had said to Lee, "You know why Davis put this unit together? It's not a coincidence that we're all Southerners or mostly Southerners." And he said, "If you are gonna do what I think you're gonna do I'm a major, colonel. And I'm gonna end up a general. And when I do you'd better look over your shoulder because I'm coming for you." And he said, "I used to have respect for Bobby Lee. I have no respect for an oath-breaking hypocrite and a horse thief, which is what you are unless you return that animal to someone in the United States Army."
Dreyfuss has spoken frequently about what he refers to as "Common senselessness" in public life, which he attributes to a diminution of civics in the American public school curriculum.
DREYFUSS: Why did we remove the study of civics from our public schools? It has affected every sector of our society and endangered us beyond belief.
MANKIEWICZ: The abandonment of civics.
DREYFUSS: The abandonment of civics. The curse that we have performed on ourselves. And as everyone knows, doesn't matter which side you're on anymore, we all know that we're in danger. We all know it.
MANKIEWICZ: I'm not sure that part's true. I know, I believe we're in danger. I'm not sure that it doesn't matter what side you're on. I'm not sure I'm not sure everybody's as aware of it.
DREYFUSS: I think that what is hard to admit on one side is that they're looking forward to it, to that. It's about nihilism. We can't deny that our system, the system, has actually betrayed everybody. And we've all been betrayed. No one has gotten a raise, no one in labor has gotten a raise in 60 years. And so, they have a right to be pissed off. I think they went [and] swallowed the wrong, you know, herring, and went in the wrong direction. And now it may be too late to change that, which is why I think they're looking forward to it. Because we've not only lost understanding of love of country and respect for the Bill of Rights, it's been gone for so long it has been out of our cultural vision for 50 years. And that's four generations of children who have gone through our system without knowing any part of it. They don't care about it. They don't know about it.
And unless we revive it and get it into the curriculum of public schools, we will never get it back, and this country will not survive this century.
I have a big dose of Cassandra's curse. Cassandra was a Trojan princess who was cursed by Apollo and told that she could foretell the future, but that no one would ever believe her. I got it!