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Richard Dreyfuss.

|I think we are only beginning to discern how neurotic we have become as a body politic.'

Richard Dreyfuss, gray-haired and still grinning at forty-five, is in many ways the cinematic face of his generation. His film career began toward the end of the 1960s with small parts, and burst into stardom in 1974 in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the tale of a graspy, amoral, young free-wheeler who recognizes no limits as he tries to make his voice heard in an uncaring world. From Duddy to Jaws to The Goodbye Girl, Dreyfuss personified a popular take on generational rebellion; he was spunky, brash, angry, funny, unruly - all qualities that Baby Boomers believed were theirs exclusively. It wasn't so much the content of Dreyfuss's films that defined his image - it was his manner. In the way that movie stars often express the Zeitgeist, he was it for the 1960s. And beside that, The Big Fix, a murder mystery set in post-political Berkeley which he produced himself, really was - along with The Return of the Secaucus Seven - among the best movies ever made about the 1960s generation.

In recent years, Dreyfuss has made popular films with an occasional political slant to them. His HBO movie on the case of namesake Alfred Dreyfus, Prisoner of Honor, was a special labor of love, for example. And a Paul Mazursky film that was nominally about homelessness, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, showed the shallow pains of a material life. He spent much of 1992 appearing on Broadway in Death and the Maiden, the Ariel Dorfman play about torture in Chile, precisely because he wanted to do a political piece.

It was as he was preparing for his role in Death and the Maiden that we first met in New York City This interview took place in fits and starts over a few months in Manhattan.

Dreyfuss will be seen in May in the film version of Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers.

Q: You are one actor who has maintained a consistent sense of public citizenship throughout your career. When you're not campaigning for candidates, you're out front on reproductive-rights issues. Do you ever get flak for your activism?

Richard Dreyfuss: Yes, and I hate that. There are these Uriah Heep-type people who are always knocking actors for being political. Why don't they criticize people who aren't political? I've always been political. I was political before I was famous. I'll probably be political after I'm famous. "Political" only means that you are interested in being a good citizen.

Q: I've read that when you were younger, you dreamed of holding elective office. What happened to that dream?

Dreyfuss: It disappeared. When I was a kid, the thing I wanted most in the world was to be a Senator, the Senator from New York. That dream disappeared partly because of the corruption of politics. Elective politics is so much held hostage by the requirement of money for television ads that it's an impossible profession for anyone with any ideals. All a Senator does all day, and I've been around some, is ask for money. What do they want the money for? So they can buy ads for television and stay elected. They don't exercise any governance, they raise money. Surely you've noticed that there aren't a lot of Wayne Morses in the Senate anymore. I think this is part of the reason why.

Q: Is it true that, for a while in the 1960s, you considered taking a hiatus from acting and becoming a legislative aide to Wayne Morse?

Dreyfuss: We talked about it. I admired him tremendously. But he died before any of that could happen.

Q: Since we're talking about the 1960s, you're aware that, in many ways, you are the cinematic face of that generation.

Dreyfuss: And we're all - the entire generation - going bald!

Q: Do you miss the 1960s?

Dreyfuss: I miss the vitality of the 1960s. I miss the innocent beliefs of the 1960s.

Q: Was it just because you were young then?

Dreyfuss: To a certain extent, it probably is. I can remember the 1960s. I can hardly remember the 1970s. I can remember the 1980s because I had my children.

Q: What do you remember about the 1960s?

Dreyfuss: I remember that we all felt connected to the world around us - even if we weren't activists. You knew that your world was a large world. You felt you were the center of the universe, but that your parameters stretched out and encompassed all kinds of things and people. That's what I remember of the 1960s. And that shrank and shrank over time - so that by 1980, we basically perceived our world as a circle surrounding only ourselves.

I think the people who have been most frustrated and unhappy these last few years are those 1960s remnants who've been thumping around hoping that other people's circles could become wider. The fact is that real 1960s people's circles still are wider. They're connected. They just don't see others stretching out beyond themselves enough.

But you know, I can look out at the world and see that it might happen again. Something that might be out there over the horizon. One of the things going to happen in the next few years, as the cycle swings back, is this: People are getting fed up with the America as given now, and they are going to start behaving better. And from what I feel and hope, the cycle is beginning to turn. When people say they are sick of seeing the homeless on the streets, they're not saying they want to take machine guns and shoot them; they want something done about it. People are not becoming David Dukes; they're becoming impatient more with the lack of common sense - whether it's with the Republicans or the Democrats or whatever party.

Q: In The Big Fix in the 1970s, Moses Wine, your character. looks at movie footage of times past and weeps. He feels that the generation didn't succeed. Do you agree with that?

Dreyfuss: No! I feel that we succeeded. Because we ended a war.

We slowed and stopped an execrable and bitter war. Without us, the Vietnam war would have gone on. And it would have gotten worse. You know, I was a conscientious objector during the war, and I'm proud of that. I'm very proud of having been against the Vietnam war. I'm very proud of who we all were then.

Q: Perhaps there should be a monument in Washington to those who stopped the war?

Dreyfuss: I like the Wall that's there already. I'm very impressed with it. It says everything. The American soldiers who were killed in Vietnam are a part of the 1960s generation, too, and what happened to them should be remembered.

Q: Let's move on from a shooting war to the Government's "war on drugs." It's no secret that you were addicted to cocaine for the better part of the 1970s and went through a difficult personal struggle to free yourself of it. How do you perceive the Government's "war"?

Dreyfuss: I feel it is an insincere, unfocused. misdirected waste of time and money We have not gotten anywhere with the real problems and the real solution, which is jobs. Give people training and employment. Give people something to live for. People who are connected to their work, with jobs and ambitions and hopes for their children, do not displace that with ii drug obsession. Drugs become central to people who have nothing else.

Q: Is is hard for you to go without drugs?

Dreyfuss: Well, if I didn't have three kids, I think it would be tough. The knowledge that I am a parent makes it a lot easier - because the demands of that are so no-kidding-around that it's easy.

Q: Few of those Just Say No ads talk about the reality that drugs are so attractive to people when they're in pain, when they're suffering.

Dreyfuss: I do. I say that a lot. I was lucky, though. For the first few years of sobriety, all I could remember was the bad times, the painful times. I used to say that people misinterpret our television when they see an addict going through withdrawal. It's not physical pain that they're going through: It's desire. It's intense desire, because it's so great.

Q: There are some who say that the drug plague could be slowed by legalization. Agree?

Dreyfuss: I used to be against legalization. Now I don't know how I feel about that. Still, I believe it's a psychological gesture of enormous import to legalize drugs, and if you do, it could be the death knell of our national character. The idea sounds good: "We'll make it available and you'll get it if you need it. We'll put everything in balance. It will be licensed like alcohol." But are we strong enough to handle that? I'm a history buff and I know there are cultures that have gone down because of alcohol. I think you have to think about this: Should we have billboards for cocaine?

Q: So you're against legalization?

Dreyfuss: I fear it.

Q: Speaking of addictions, last year you gave a speech to the Magazine Publishers of America in which you complained that "TV is the crack cocaine of our lives." You later advised reporters to "throw all the TVs into the sea." What's the root of all this anti-television zealotry?

Dreyfuss: I don't mean to sound hysterical about it, but people do respond to any criticism of television as if one is attacking religion or Mom or the old Pontiac in the garage. What I was saying in that speech is that the country should organize a blue-ribbon commission, something like the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders, to give some serious thought to the role television plays in all our lives. No, really, it isn't my intention to talk about television the same way a vampire does about a silver cross. What I want to do is to ask people to think about television in a serious way, to study television because it does have an impact on national life that we're not paying attention to. Truly, you could name almost any aspect of American culture and sooner or later it comes back to TV in some harmful way: politics, education, entertainment, culture, news. It's there and it needs to be examined.

Q: You'd better prove that.

Dreyfuss: Okay. Take politics. About the only pressure on politicians nowadays is money for television advertising. That one fact has completely changed American political life. What a politician looks like on television, what he or she sounds like in sound bites, how much money the politician can raise for advertisements, the ferocity and viciousness of those negative political ads have completely overwhelmed political debate and obscured our ability to know and understand public issues.

Another example? Education. The decline in our educational system is a fact. I am the father of young children, and I'd like to raise the question: Is there any correlation between how television broadcasts images and people perceive them and the decline in our educational system? Is there a relationship? I don't know. Should there be a discussion? I think so.

Q: Wait a second. There are many social critics who say that television has brought greater citizenship into millions of homes by making public hearings, trials, and events instantly accessible to the public in a way that was never true before.

Dreyfuss: Well, I'm not sure about any of that. Even the "instantaneousness" of news can be a problem. I think American politics has been corrupted beyond recognition by the influence of television. What television is harming is the ability to reflect. The public's reaction is so immediate-we react not just overnight but within the hour to a CNN poll on a specific issue - that a civic leader has no mobility. This paralyzes politicians.

Q: What do you watch? Dreyfuss: I don't watch anything in particular. I just watch. It's like the new thing, the grazing that people do - that's what I do. It's an aspect of our culture that there are intelligent people who sit in front of a TV set with a remote control and just don't watch anything.

Now I'm not saying that everything on television is bad. My kids watch The Simpsons, and I approve of that. The show's writers are very good cultural commentators. Very rarely have we seen anyone, except maybe a few daily newspaper cartoonists, who are as current with where people are as them.

So my point is not that there's no good stuff on TV. My point isn't against the substance of television; it's against the medium of television. Television has an unexamined psychological impact on the brain. It has tendrils snaking out into the culture that are poisonous, and we should discuss it.

I'm not saying we should boycott television. You can't. Boycotting television is like boycotting the air we breathe. So my intention is not to shut my mouth and close my eyes until television goes away.

Q: That sounds as if you'd like to regulate television more, perhaps censor it?

Dreyfuss: No, no, no. I'm absolutely and unequivocally opposed to any kind of censorship. What I've been saying is that there are as many TV stations as there are atoms in the air, and there are as many hours, and there's no one regulating it or the advertising. We regulate driving far more than we regulate television. We monitor our schools more.

Until we start to be responsible for television, it will career out of control, against the walls of our culture - bumpity, bump, bump - and it will inflict damage.

Q: What have been the more interesting moments in your own television-watching life?

Dreyfuss: When I saw Oswald killed, November 24, 1963. It was extraordinary. To this day, it seems unbelievable. Peter Arnett's coverage of the bombing of Baghdad. President Bush didn't want the CNN reporters to stay in Baghdad, but even he watched what they put out. Perhaps that is what television does with singularity: show you history in the very moment that it is happening.

On the other hand, since television has become the prime source of news for most of us, it scares the hell out of me when television news submits to Government restrictions and censorship - which they've admitted doing during Grenada, Panama, and especially during the Gulf war. Ed Murrow would never have stood for this. I don't understand why the press accepts these kinds of limitations now. It's not that the institutions have changed; governments will always try to limit news from getting out. But it seems like the people in the press have changed.

Q: What news do you watch?

Dreyfuss: I don't really get my news from television. I watch CNN and I click through the various network shows. But the truth is I get most of my news from newspapers and magazines. I'm a print person.

Q: How do you like movies when they get quasi-newsy? Did you like the Oliver Stone dissertation on the Warren Commission, JFK?

Dreyfuss: Yeah. I found the reaction against it amusing. Me, I've always doubted the Warren Commission. The killing of the President of the United States and its aftermath created a wound that has festered for thirty years; it never had closure.

It is not a small thing to distrust the Warren Commission. It is a big deal. It is a big deal because, for 150 years, we believed, at levels of certainty and trust, that the Government was on our side and was going to tell us the truth. This was the final blow. And then the Vietnam war put the nail in the coffin, whatever side you were on. It created a permanent suspicion from both the Left and the Right towards the Government. Permanent suspicion!

I think we are only beginning to discern how neurotic we have become as a body politic. We have cut off ideals. I would argue that there are no more churches that teach morality. Our schools are destroyed; nothing is taught there. Our Government is suspected at every moment. The nuclear family is in complete disarray. And everyone is watching television.

Television is the only remaining institution. And guess what it is teaching us. It teaches us that in politics you no longer have debates and discussions, but sound bites.

Q: You are one of the few members of Political Hollywood who's a dove on Middle East issues. That's never been a popular corner to be in.

Dreyfuss: Well, I would like Israel to be secure; that's a bottom line. But I would like Israel to live in peace with its neighbors, and I would like Israel to remain a Jewish state, which means that it remains in character a state that reflects the morality of the Jewish people. The settlements on the West Bank and Jerusalem have been, I think, an absolutely grievous political error and will only bring more bloodshed.

I say this as someone who is very proud of being Jewish. It's because I'm proud of being Jewish that I became aware of this thing I'm not so proud of. For me, the history of the Jewish people, for at least the last 2,000 years, is something I've always been proud of. I started reading the history of the Jews when I was about ten, and it never ceased to inspire me. Here was this people misunderstood and reviled - who sought to persuade no one, who did not want to proselytize, who adhered to a strong and right ethic. It was that ethical posture that made them a very great people.

Q: You are a part of a circle of male actors - Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro - who revolutionized the world of entertainment during the early 1970s. Before, film stars were tall, blond, Anglo-Saxon, and Ken Doll handsome. Then you guys arrived on the scene and the idea of a movie star was transformed into someone who might be short, dark, brooding, and ethnic.

Dreyfuss: I know what you're talking about. Around 1976 or thereabouts, around the time of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and before The Goodbye Girl, I remember saying to my brother, "What I'd like to do is reserve a banquet room and invite Al Pacino, Bobby DeNiro, and Dustin Hoffman" - none of whom I knew then - "to a party. I would raise a glass and say, I don't know exactly what it is that we've done, but we've done it. Here's a toast to us.'"

Q: Do you think that one of the things your career has added up to is advancing the image of Jewish men in the American story? You were always such a consciously ethnic star, and your films had the most open, unambiguous themes, from Duddy Kravitz on.

Dreyfuss: I became aware at a certain point ... I looked around one day in the industry and noticed, "Gee, no one else is admitting to being Jewish. I will." I always liked to be different. When I first started acting, the first jobs I had were Irish, and I could have gotten away with being Irish had I wanted to. But I said I was Jewish, which is what Barbra [Streisand] did. And Jeff Chandler didn't. And everyone else - Cary Grant or whoever.

Q: When you're talking about that circle, you're talking about changing the definition of movie star. After you guys were done, movie stars weren't just tall waspy cowboys but short, soulful, ethnic types.

Dreyfuss: Not so. It's true that I'm not Gary Cooper, but there have always been two traditions in the American cinema. One of which is John Wayne and Gary Cooper. And the other is Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Spencer Tracy. And that's who I am. And so is Dustin. There will always be Robert Redford and Kevin Costner, which is a classic American thing, and there will always be guys like me and Dustin.

American movies are a broad spectrum of mythology. You can get everybody. You can get Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, and you figure it out. They're both movie stars. Categorize them. I can't. Nor should you have to.

Q: Your big breakthrough role was that of Duddy Kravitz, a hungry Canadian kid growing up in Montreal seeking big-time money and fame. I'm wondering: What would Duddy Kravitz be doing in the 1990s? Might he be sharing a cell with Michael Milken?

Dreyfuss: I don't know. It would be interesting to see. Mordecai Richler is supposedly doing another book about Duddy, and if he does write it, we'll do it as a movie.

Q: That would be a very political movie if you got to make it. Have you been able to combine your art and your politics much over your career?

Dreyfuss: In a sense, that's what Prisoner of Honor was all about. And also this play that I did about torture in Chile, Death and the Maiden. I took Down and Out in Beverly Hills not because I wanted to do a piece about homelessness but because it was the only job offered to me at at time.

For the most part, I feel the need to separate those two parts of me. My goal is not to create movies that are political. On one hand, I'm an actor. On the other, I'm a citizen.

I used to say the best life is to do a comedy, then do a drama, then do a vacation. But don't do anything twice. One of the things I've tried to do in my life is not play the same character twice. I've done it, but mostly I've tried not to. Actually, when I think about it, though, what's wrong with repeating yourself? That's how Gary Cooper and John Wayne became icons.

Q: Do you think you're an icon?

Dreyfuss: Hardly.

Q: An anti-icon?

Dreyfuss: I hope not. Talk about.the sound of one hand clapping. I don't know what I am. I have never been able to get out of me. I have no idea what my style is, what my celebrity is. I have never, for twenty years, been able to feel it from the outside.

Q: Earlier, you spoke of the pleasures of idealism experienced by the 1960s generation. Do you feel sad that your children don't have such an optimistic world to come into?

Dreyfuss: I am most concerned that my children will have a life of freedom and health. Who they are within the world is more up to them than anyone else. I can help my children be people of fine character who know the difference between good and evil. Politically, what I'm responsible for is to make sure they can breathe in and out and do that without secret police listening in.

Q: Do you feel we are a successful or a failed generation?

Dreyfuss: I don't perceive my world through the filter of a generation. I'm an American, not just a member of the postwar Baby Boom. As an American, I think that we have been changed and harmed by this series of events that has altered our optimism and our certainty of the future and made that which was possible impossible - the Vietnam war, the Kennedy assassination.

On the other hand, when I said before that I finally feel the possibility of change, I'm not being glib about it. I'm saying that this change that we've all hoped for for twenty years might be possible.

We've all walked around and said, "When will they have enough? When are they going to feel it? When are they going to get connected? When? When. When."

Well, I'm beginning to feel that we're beginning to wake up from this torpor, this belief that we can't do it anymore, this belief that we can't prevail.

It has nothing to do with Democrats. It has nothing to do with Republicans. It's that people look out at homeless people and say, "Ii don't want to shoot them." Ten years ago, that's what I was told I would think: that I would want to shoot them. People are beginning to say, "I want to do something, finally."

Claudia Dreifus, a free-lance writer in New York City, is a frequent contributor to The Progressive.
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Author:Dreifus, Claudia
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 1993
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