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Richard Dreyfuss: The Man Who Wasn’t There

The latest installment of Misleading Men, the series where we look back at actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment

Last summer, Richard Dreyfuss was speaking with The Guardian, and the question of his legacy came up. “I think I have the finest body of work of any American actor,” he said. “It truly reflects my principles. But I am perceived as someone who has fallen. That I was a big hoo-ha in the 1970s and fell away. I see it as I didn’t want to be top of the top, because none of them leave their homes or have a normal life. I was given the chance to get up there, and I turned it down.”

It’s tempting to focus on the brash first sentence of his comments, but the third and fourth are actually more interesting. For a good stretch of time, the 69-year-old actor was something of a juggernaut, moving from American Graffiti to starring in two of the 1970s’ biggest hits, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, before winning a Best Actor Oscar for The Goodbye Girl. But there’s something about the films he made and the public persona he cultivated that’s kept him from being properly appreciated. He didn’t fall away after the 1970s, per se, but because he made his name playing guys who were exceedingly ordinary, it was too easy to conflate the actor with them.

But with Close Encounters returning to the big screen on Friday, why not salute the man who wasn’t there?

Born in New York but raised in Los Angeles Dreyfuss decided he wanted to act by the time he was 9, working in theater and television before landing a bit role in 1967’s The Graduate. Not long after, a young filmmaker named George Lucas cast him to play Curt Henderson, a sensitive teen looking down the barrel of college, in American Graffiti. The movie was a smash, making stars of its cast, which also included Ron Howard and Harrison Ford, and Dreyfuss became, for many people, the quintessential lovestruck adolescent. “If Curt wasn’t me, then he was the fantasy I had of myself,” he told Rolling Stone in 1975. “It was like rolling off a log.”

The sweet anonymity of the performance led to more film work, including the following year’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, his first starring role, which got good reviews — except from the actor himself “My performance is not relaxed,” he said in 1978. “We didn’t have time, didn’t have rehearsal. When I put down that performance it’s not like me being crazy. It’s not like me saying I could never do it, either. I can fucking A do that role and be very happy with it. I didn’t have the time, I was nervous, I was insecure. I can spot it when I watch the movie. The energy level is a lie.”

Dreyfuss would have greater success with his next film, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, in which he played Hooper, an oceanographer who teams up with a local police chief (Roy Scheider) and a gruff shark hunter (Robert Shaw) to track down a great white wreaking havoc off the New England shore. Hooper was the nerdy, wisecracking expert, and like in American Graffiti, Dreyfuss played the definitive version of a typical film character. (It’s impossible to watch Jeff Goldblum in a later Spielberg movie, Jurassic Park, without thinking of it as an homage to Dreyfuss’s sassy, geeky ebullience.) The comic relief in that tense film, Dreyfuss was praised by Time, the magazine declaring, “Dreyfuss … is perfect. With a cheeky charm he manages to humanize the picture while stealing it.”

In somewhat typical fashion, Dreyfuss sought to undercut journalists who asked him about appearing in what would become one of the most iconic summer movies of all time. In that 1975 Rolling Stone interview, he talked about the fact that he took the role, in part, because he was scared Duddy Kravitz would bomb, effectively killing his career before it even got going. Still, he feared that Hooper wasn’t an interesting-enough character. “But then I had no money,” he recalled, “everybody said there was going to be an actors’ strike, everyone I trust as an adviser said ‘do it,’ So we constructed a character over three days and finally I said okay. I gave in, I surrendered, I was a prostitute.” With a shrug, he added, “Let’s hope it’s not a habit.”

He concluded the 1970s with the strongest work of his career. In 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he was one of cinema’s most famous everymen, playing a regular guy who ends up with a date with destiny, being selected by extra-terrestrials to be one of Earth’s ambassadors to travel to their far-away planet. Two years later, he starred in The Goodbye Girl, which was written by Neil Simon, about an out-of-work actor (Dreyfuss) and a single-mom dancer (Marsha Mason) who fall for one another while living in the same apartment. “I was a movie star,” he said in 2016 of that heady era of smash after smash. “And that all happened in a jumble. … But I’m very fair. I never call Jaws my film. You know, there are people who used that kind of language, and I say, ‘No, no, no. Duddy Kravitz was my film. American Graffiti was George Lucas’s film, and Jaws was Steven Spielberg’s film.’ After that, I did The Goodbye Girl and things like that, and those were my films.”

When Dreyfuss won the Academy Award for The Goodbye Girl, he was 30, the youngest actor to ever win the prize. (Almost 25 years later, Adrien Brody would supplant him after winning for The Pianist.) Soon after his Oscar triumph, the actor acknowledged his meteoric rise, confessing, “I have never paid what you might call dues.” And all along, he knew he was going to win: When he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2016, he explained to the talk show host, “I said, ‘Who else was nominated?’ And when [my agent] told me who else, I said, ‘I’m gonna win.’” (For the record, the other nominees that year were Woody Allen, Richard Burton, Marcello Mastroianni and John Travolta.)

But Dreyfuss also admitted to Kimmel that winning so early in his career was a burden. “It took me about 15 years to figure out … that I didn’t know or care about anyone in that audience, and I felt like a complete outsider, and I felt that I had won it, easily, 25 years too soon,” Dreyfuss said with his trademark dramatic flair. “I felt this kind of stab of anxiety at that moment. … I had nothing to shoot for — I had nothing ahead of me.”

Whether it was the inevitable descent that naturally occurs after so many years of dizzying heights or calculated self-sabotage, Dreyfuss quickly went into decline. Drugs didn’t help. A cocaine addict, he once claimed to be “a board member and probably chairman of admissions for the Assholes Center.” It wasn’t until a 1982 automobile accident, in which he flipped his car over and the cops arrested him for possession, that he sought treatment and got sober.

Dreyfuss had other struggles, too. In the mid-1990s, he began seeing a therapist for bipolar disorder, a condition he’d been battling since he was a self-loathing teenager. There were still hit movies during this period — e.g., Down and Out in Beverly Hills, What About Bob? and Mr. Holland’s Opus — but there was something a little coarser — a little less animated and alive — in these later performances that, funny as they often were, felt deflated.

During this time, Dreyfuss also became more and more invested in political causes. He’d always been outspoken, criticizing the Vietnam War at the height of his fame, but in 2006, he created the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative. “It is an obvious and blatant stupidity beyond my ability to articulate how dumb it is for us not to teach our children how to run the government,” he explained in 2009. “It’s really stupid and easy; the flaw is as big as this building, and it will kill the country.” His desire to emphasize the importance of civics education caused him to step away from acting for a few years. In 2016, he recalled a conversation with an old friend, who asked him what he’d been up to. “I said, ‘I’m running this nonprofit organization.’ And she said, ‘No, no, no. Seriously, what are you doing?’”

Lately, though, Dreyfuss has done more acting, recently playing Bernie Madoff in a 2016 ABC miniseries. In part, it’s because he’s had to: Earlier this year, he revealed he has no money, noting, “No one told me that you were supposed to put some of it aside each time for the future.”

For as many laughs as Dreyfuss has given audiences, a fundamental sadness hovers over him. In the public’s mind, the sweetness of those unassuming characters was overwhelmed by the outspoken, sometimes bitter proclamations made by the man who brought them to the world. For instance, ask Dreyfuss about What About Bob? and he’ll allow that it’s a funny movie, although he “loathes” his costar Bill Murray. “Terribly unpleasant experience,” he said in 2009. “We didn’t get along, me and Bill Murray. But I’ve got to give it to him: I don’t like him, but he makes me laugh even now.” In 2015, he sued Disney for money he said was owed him for that film. And Dreyfuss also has sued his father and uncle twice over a loan he claimed they never repaid. “When I die I hope I’ll have a chance to hit God in the face,” he told The Guardian last year, adding, “he deserves it because of everything that happens to you in the third act of life: it’s humiliating and debasing.”

The return of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to theaters is a reminder of just how bright a talent Dreyfuss was as a young man. “This was the one time when I knew, ‘I have to be in this movie,’” he said a few years ago. At the same public Q&A, which took place during the TCM Classic Movie Festival, Dreyfuss noted that Close Encounters opened six months after Star Wars: “Just imagine a slightly different world,” he said. “If Close Encounters had opened six months before Star Wars, we’d have a totally different culture. It would have been the one.”

That’s not the world we live in, of course — just as it isn’t the one where Dreyfuss has the finest body of work of any American actor. Luckily, though, we’ll always have Dreyfuss’s movies — and that eternal look of his Close Encounters character, Roy, saying a silent goodbye to his fellow Earthlings before he heads off into the sky. It’s a perfect distillation of the kind spirit Dreyfuss once brought to the movies — one that nothing can erase.