Richard Dreyfuss
Photo by Larry Busacca

Richard Dreyfuss: “I have achieved all my dreams”

Short Profile

Name: Richard Stephen Dreyfuss
DOB: 29 October 1947
Place of birth: Brooklyn, New York, United States
Occupation: Actor

Richard Dreyfuss stars in Astronaut, out now.

Mr. Dreyfuss, is it true that you reserved tickets for Pan Am’s first moon flights in the late 1960s?

Yes, that’s true! On the day that we landed on the moon, Pan Am announced that they would honor any reservations in the same way that they had honored the reservations for the Trans Pacific flights in the thirties. And so I have reservation number 86 and my friend Albert Brooks, he has reservation 11. I think Steven Spielberg was actually scheduled to be the next civilian to go up after the Challenger catastrophe, but that was cancelled. But I think that was his intention.

And space has always been a fascination for you?

Part of it is simply built into our species, and for the entire history of humankind, we have always pushed a very long fragile envelope. And then we did something during my lifetime that I don’t think has ever been done before and that was after Apollo 11 that had all the trouble, after that somehow we started to chicken out. I’m serious, that’s the first time that humankind has ever done that. I don’t think I know of any other time in human history where what is so naturally a part of us just turned away!

It seems like it’s coming back a bit. I read that Tom Cruise and Elon Musk are planning on shooting a film in actual space. That is an ambitious dream.

(Laughs) Well, when you’ve got L. Ron Hubbard ahead of you…

What seemingly crazy and ambitious dreams have you had for yourself?

I protected myself by having pretty achievable dreams. (Laughs) I made sure that I could generally handle chunks of them: that I would have a successful film career as an actor, that I would live by my own rules — and I have. I have made a number of whoppers, of errors, of mistakes, but I can’t blame them off on anyone else, they are mine! So I think I, in a general way, fulfilled my dreams. And if I go tomorrow or 20 years from now, I can say that I did not ever change or make smaller ambitions, I went from things that were passionately important to me to other things that were passionately important. Except for the fact that I think I would like to be taller… Other than that, I have achieved all my dreams.

You’ve had such a legendary career as an actor, and surely people always want to speak to you about films like Jaws or American Graffiti. Do you like looking back on the past?

Actually, my hobby is history, and my individual history to me is as interesting as is my country’s. There’s one journalist who wrote a great article about me, great. It was all based on why she wanted to do this interview, it wasn’t me answering the questions, it was her curiosity and her feeling of satisfaction. I think it really stood up on its own. I once spoke in front of Jimmy Stewart’s family and a thousand other people about Jimmy Stewart, and everything I said that night was from the heart. It was me.

“If I go tomorrow or 20 years from now, I can say that I did not ever change or make smaller ambitions.”

When was that?

That was 15, 20 years ago. It was my feeling and my observation of him pre-war and post-war and those are two very different Jimmy Stewarts. And when it was over and I really did talk about him as a metaphor for film noir, that his life was film noir, because when he came back from World War II, he could no longer lay off the reality of what he had been through during the war, he could not do that. And so he experienced film noir within himself.

That sounds like a very moving speech.

You know, later I was standing next to an actor named Robert Loggia, and he said, “I wish someone would do that to me one day.” And I said okay, “Let’s have breakfast.” And I did it to him! I had observed him and his whole career. And in the middle of breakfast, he was crying and I was crying… It was great.

Have you always had that kind of natural confidence or bravado?

Actually, I was not in any way one of those strange boys who had this unearthly confidence in himself. I knew that all the years of my teenage years, into my twenties and perhaps for a good long time after, were going to be my years of apprenticeship. I had absolutely no doubt that I would absolutely make it. Maybe not by Tuesday and maybe not by Thursday, but did I ever really doubt that I would make it? No. And no one else felt that way. I was taken by my friends more than once to lunch and they would say, “You have got to stop this Richard! You can’t do this.”

How come?

Well, around that time I realized that Steven was reshaping the hero in Close Encounters, and that is when I started to badmouth everybody! (Laughs) My friends would say, “You are being blacklisted and they are going to hate you!” And I said, “Actually, it’s going make me a star.” And that’s exactly what happened. I got offers that were way above my paygrade at the time because they were just mewlish about it, they just couldn’t believe that actors who were at that stage in their career would do anything but sound like a David Copperfield character and say, “Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.” I had no such interest, especially when what was on the line was a one line or two line role that really had no merit to begin with. And I was deadly serious, if one can use the term artist, I am an artist. And I knew it then.

Did that ever get you into trouble?

The first time I was ever in a situation where I lost my temper and they threw me out and I lost the job, I was 17 years old. And as I was being shown the door, I realized that I felt better at that moment than I ever would have had I taken that part. And so I launched a new method, a new campaign, and I started turning down everything!

It seems to have worked — at only 29, you were the youngest winner of a Best Actor Oscar for The Goodbye Girl. Apparently you felt like it came too early, that in hindsight, you wished it would have come later on in your career.

I think you know the reason! I think it’s because people would assume that I was ready for this or ready for that, and I hated that. I hated the idea that people would actually have no surprise or expectation that could I handle it or could I not. I had a lot of doubts when it came to certain roles and for instance, no one realizes it, but what I was most afraid of was playing an adult — because I wasn’t an adult yet. And that’s one of those gray areas that I didn’t know enough about behavior and humanity to pull off playing such an extraordinarily subtle difference between me and the character. And so I chickened out a couple of times! I just wasn’t grown up enough, I just wasn’t mature enough to say yes. I was too afraid.