Actor Richard Dreyfuss

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Oscar-winning actor explains the impact of his profession on his activism and discusses his new film, The Lightkeepers, as a metaphor for the U.S.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Richard Dreyfuss to this program. The Oscar-winning actor and long-time social activist is the driving force behind The Dreyfuss Initiative. More on that in a moment.
He also stars in a new film called The Lightkeepers which opens today here in Los Angeles with more cities on the way coming May 7. Here now a scene from The Lightkeepers.
Tavis: I’m gonna come back to The Lightkeepers in just a second. But every time I see you on screen, Richard Dreyfuss, I think that it almost didn’t happen, given you’re being kicked out of acting class (laughter) way back when. You want to tell the story of why you kicked out of acting class?
Richard Dreyfuss: I was in my freshman year at California State College at Northridge which, years later, Tony Randall said, “Oh, that’s an agricultural school”. He thought I was going to be a farmer. I was in the back row and the teacher was talking and she said, “Marlon Brando [mumbled] in Julius Caesar.
I raised my hand and I said, “Excuse me. Julius Caesar is playing at the Los Feliz Theater right now. I’ll bet you $100 you apologize to this class for having…” and she went, “Out of the room!” and kicked me out of the school (laughter).
Rather than mumble, Marlon Brando gave what Robert Shaw later told me was the platonic ideal of performing Shakespeare. He said he saw it in the same room at the same time with Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey and they were all young actors in the regionals in Britain.
They looked up and then looked at one another and realized that this American had achieved perfection because he not only played it with emotion, he played it with rhythm, poetry. It was the perfect synthesis of everything anyone had ever wanted.
Tavis: So that’s Brando. Why was Dreyfuss in that class? Asked another way, how did you know that was your gift? What convinced you that you belonged in that class?
Dreyfuss: You know, I have opinions about everything on earth. When I have that rare occasion when I don’t have an opinion, it’s like a blessing. I don’t have any idea, but I know that when I was eight, I said to my mom, “I want to be an actor.” She said, “Don’t just talk about it”. I went down to the Jewish Center and I started to do plays and I never stopped.
I couldn’t tell you why. I just knew that it was a fact. It was like a nuclear pellet in my heart and I had no doubt of my success at all. Friends used to take me out and say, “You know, you’re gonna get black-listed. You can’t do what you’re doing. You can’t do this.” I used to turn down two-line parts.
I said, “I’m in this for the long run. I’m in this for the life and they’re gonna make me a star.” They said, “How?” I said, “Because if I turn a two-line part down, they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s see what the little son of a bitch will do when we offer him this” and that’s just what happened. They would offer me better and better parts.
Tavis: To your friends teasing you about getting blackballed, let me just take that phrase and tweak it a bit. Because so many of us know you as an activist, we’ll come to that later in this conversation, I hope – I promise we will – how has the acting aided and abetted or, for that matter, gotten in the way, hampered, your activism?
Dreyfuss: Good question. First of all, acting as an art form exists for a reason. Art exists for a reason and that reason basically is that life itself is so chaotic that the only way to really see it is by connecting dots and that’s called art. You do it through music or writing or acting. Acting is the basic observation of human behavior and it’s the only art form that is completely based on deception.
It’s all a lie. You pretend the clothes you’re wearing are yours, you pretend the words are yours, you pretend there’s no cameraman over here, you pretend there’s no audience out there and the audience pretends that they’re not watching actors, but they’re watching real life. What they’re really doing is holding hands and watching the human race and that’s what actors do.
When a person walks up to an actor on the street and says, “Thank you”, they don’t say that to their neurosurgeons, their divorce lawyers or their ministers. They say it to actors because actors give people relief from sorrow.
When I do a comedy, I always ask that the lights be raised a little bit so I can see the audience because, when you make people laugh, you’re doing a mitzvah. You’re giving them a gift and they know it.
Tavis: That reality has helped you or hampered you in your activism in what way?
Dreyfuss: No way.
Tavis: No way at all. They’re two totally separate things since you’re just acting.
Dreyfuss: Yeah. There’s a celebrity problem, but not an acting problem like there was under McCarthyism.
Tavis: Okay.
Dreyfuss: No, that’s a myth. Celebrity is good because you can never have to wait in line for a table at a restaurant. Other than that, it sucks and you have no private life and people think you belong to them and you can’t walk down a street crying if you’ve had a fight with your wife.
It’s an invasion and most actors who achieve the top level spend most of their lives never leaving their homes. It’s a prison. Acting will open any door in the world. I can get a meeting with Putin. Staying in the room and having a good meeting depends on my own brains.
Tavis: To your formulation, to your understanding, frankly, to the experience that you have lived, given the celebrity you have from your acting, has it been worth it? That is to say, has it been worth giving up the freedom, giving up being able to walk down the street?
Dreyfuss: The simple answer is yes. I lived a blessed life. I was able to do for 50 years something I adored doing and I was rewarded and praised for it. Then when it ceased to being as intense a love affair and, as the Bible says, for everything there’s a season, when I got older and I stopped being given the highest salaries and the best parts, I also was not allowed to have my opinions heard and that made me quit.
I said to myself what I had promised myself when I was 12. When I was 12, I said, “You’re gonna be an actor and a star. You’re gonna go into politics and then you’re gonna teach history.” So when I was 56, I quit being an actor, meaning I quit developing. I quit trying to raise projects up and all that.
I went to Oxford for four years and I knew Cassandra’s Curse. You know, she had the ability to see the future and no one would believe her. Well, I wrote a piece for the San Diego Tribune and I said, “I have not been able to find the words that you would make you feel the dread I feel about the future of this country.”
I would ask you, when you think about the future of America, do you have a sense of ease and comfort and relaxation or do you sense some unease and something wrong even if you can’t name it?
Tavis: I feel the same thing you feel. The question I would respond with, having given you the answer, my question in response is name for me a time in history when a significant portion of the population didn’t feel that same unease that you and I feel today.
Dreyfuss: I can.
Tavis: Okay, tell me when.
Dreyfuss: Up until 1960.
Tavis: Okay. Black folk didn’t feel that way prior to 1960.
Dreyfuss: Women didn’t either and there was no Golden Age and it was never perfect. But our Mythos is built on uniquely that we, the Americans, owned the future and even the Depression and World War II and every other. We were just practicing on how to run the world. Then the future was taken away from us somehow.
I made my first speech about this in 1991. I said, “Didn’t we just win a political victory of some kind? Didn’t a wall come down somewhere? Where are the parades? Where’s the sense of ownership? Where’s the American social momentum that was the most famous and ferocious in the world and now there are articles on the front page of The New York Times that say we can’t fix the bridges over Manhattan Island? What happened to us?”
Something had happened to us and what it was was that we had stopped teaching who we were and who we are and why we are who we are is not taught so that kids not only don’t know Civics, they don’t know the basics. They don’t know how to hammer a nail, balance a checkbook, cook. So, it’s like we’re practicing for the 21st century being a Fred Astaire movie and we know it’s not and we’ve failed them.
Tavis: I’m glad we’re moving in this direction because I appreciate your sensitivity about that and, more than your sensitivity, I appreciate your work in this area of teaching Civics. One of the questions, at least for me, in this era is how do you teach that and keep it in the realm of patriotism and not let it bleed into nationalism? There’s too much of the latter for my taste at least.
Dreyfuss: There are two things that’ll make me lose my sense of humor. When someone says, “You have no right to that flag” or when they say, “If you’re against the troops, you’re against the policy” or “If you’re against the policy, you’re against the troops.” Those things get me really angry because I’m an American and I love America more than I can possibly tell you.
I think that America is the finest answer to a question that has been asked for 13,000 years and that is how can people life together with some sense of decency and mobility and freedom and a chance at opportunity? So far, we are the best answer. We have forgotten that there’s a substance to patriotism and we shouldn’t love our country just because we’re south of Canada.
That’s what I want to teach because I want it to bleed back into the culture so the parents know what to say to their kids and ministers know what to say and journalists know what to say. Journalists have rolled over. They don’t ask impolite questions because they lose their privileges.
Nobody says to the president or anyone else, “I don’t work for you; you work for me. Answer the Goddamned question.” Until they do, they’ve lost what is fun about being American. That’s what’s the fun part.
Tavis: Can you, though, instill that notion of patriotism in people again, not let it bleed into nationalism or, for that matter, into fanaticism in a world where there are so many fanatics, where people are gripped by fear, there are rogue nations popping up all over the place.
Americans tend to become nativist at moments like these and that nativism at times leads to nationalism and fanaticism, yes?
Dreyfuss: I spoke to 160,000 people so far in person. The first group was 1,000 Republican right wing women who gave me a standing ovation which surprised me and it turns out that they have been waiting –
Tavis: – they thought you were Dick Cheney (laughter) and not Richard Dreyfuss.
Dreyfuss: They personally had endured a month of being called idiots when they announced that I was their guest speaker and, when I spoke, women came up to me and said, “I came here to walk out on you and I agree with every single thing you said” because patriotism means that people can understand that this country uniquely has an inherent meaning and most countries are just accidents of history.
This country was intended for something and, if we had tried it in Europe, they would have killed us to the last man. It was only the Atlantic Ocean that protected us. But we have a meaning and what is it? It’s that we put the Bill of Rights up on a wall so that everyone could see every time we failed and every time we succeeded and we had the guts and the naivety and arrogance and cockiness to say this is our picture of our moral future.
That is an act unequaled in history, so that we said that’s our goal. We announce it now and every time we failed it, it’s headlines and every time we succeed at it, it’s commonplace. And it’s what makes America completely unique in the story of nations.
Tavis: So the mission statement then of The Dreyfuss Initiative is what specifically?
Dreyfuss: It’s this. We are the only nation bound by ideas only. We have no common ancestry, no common religion, no common military victory or defeat, no common crime that binds us. We are bound only by the ideas of the enlightenment, reason, logic, clarity of thought, critical analysis.
If we don’t teach every new generation of Americans those ideas because there’s no genetic advantage, if we don’t teach our kids those ideas with wit and rigor every generation, we’re not bound and we are coming apart, as we are.
You can’t deny that we are a picture of a country that is like after the Big Bang. Everything is going this way and, when you don’t hold people accountable and when you allow illegal wars and when you can’t define the party principles because the win is more important than the principles, then you know you’re in trouble.
We have got to take a patient stop and look around and say what do we owe our country’s future? Are we connected only to America at this moment or do we have any obligation to America after we’re dead?
I’ve said this. If in your secret heart you really don’t give a damn about America after you’re dead, then leave now. I have nothing to say to you. But if you are feeling an obligation to the American dream, stick around. You’re gonna hear some good things.
Tavis: I assume that you’re hopeful because, if you weren’t hopeful, you wouldn’t be here talking about it or, more importantly, investing the time in the project. So why are you hopeful?
Dreyfuss: Because I believe, first of all, that individuals make history. I don’t believe that it happens by itself. I believe that America is hard and it takes maintenance and you can’t forget that you’ve got to take your car into the shop every six months and lube it up.
You cannot take for granted the complexity and complement of Republican democracy. Republican democracy actually says that the citizenry is as important as any other sector in the government. So why do we not teach those kids how to run the country? We teach our kids what we want them to know and we don’t teach them what we don’t want them to know, so someone is saying that.
By the way, if all of the news information industry is owned, let’s say, 35 to 55 percent by one guy, that’s a subject for discussion and if his name happens to be Rupert Murdoch, he’s got five passports and one of them is Chinese. So when he was [unintelligible] to the president’s ear, who’s he talking for, and you have a right to ask that. You have an obligation.
Tavis: If this is done right, this makes you a lightkeeper. How’s that for a segue?
Dreyfuss: Yeah.
Tavis: Tell me about Lightkeepers.
Dreyfuss: Well, that was the segue that made me do the movie.
Tavis: Yeah.
Dreyfuss: This is a movie about a guy who has made an oath to keep the light on and that means no matter what, the light never goes off because, if the light goes off, people will die and that’s the oath that all lightkeepers took. That is as clear a metaphor about this country as you can get because the darkness which is the overwhelming history of mankind has come back.
We live in a senseless, Alice in Wonderland world where nothing is logical, where no one is punished, where people who are rewarded are only rewarded because they were born to it and now the Supreme Court has actually, in a way, by saying the corporations are unfettered, giving political contributions, you know what that really is? That’s closing the circle.
We came here to get away from that and now our own Supreme Court has brought it back. A caste and class system that says money is the only counter and, if you don’t have it, you’re out. That is actually bringing history back to where it began at the birth of this country.
Tavis: You didn’t do bad for casting this. I thought it was interesting, though, and a little funny. Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom, Meryl Streep’s daughter in the cast with you.
Dreyfuss: Yeah.
Tavis: Yeah.
Dreyfuss: And both of them are not only gorgeous, but as talented as their mothers and daughters. I’ve known Blythe for 45 years and I can remember the day I heard she was married and I went, “Um.” She acts like me. She’s very spontaneous and she never repeats herself.
So there are two moments that I won’t tell you about where she pulls something off on me in the scene that, had I been called upon to say anything, I would not have been able to (laughter) because I had fallen in love with her. You know, she touches my cheek at one point and I just [makes sound].
Tavis: I got about a minute and a half here to go. Given that you mentioned earlier in this conversation that you went from having a love affair with being a thespian for 45 years to just having a friendship with acting, how do you decide what it is that you want to do these days?
Dreyfuss: I knew when I was 12 that I was in love with America. I was a Frank Capra child. I was a man who – I read every book Howard Fast ever wrote and he was a guy who loved America so much that he would make you weep when he wrote about it. I knew that I was going to go into that when I stopped acting.
I then found that there was a common denominator that was being ignored like the 100 years after the Civil War when people lynched at the rate of 90 a month and we forget that and think those were the golden years.
Well, we’re hypnotized in the same way. We don’t teach the basics and we think everything is just fine. The basics have to be taught or this country will disappear.
Tavis: Richard Dreyfuss is a lightkeeper and his new film bears the same name, The Lightkeepers. Richard Dreyfuss, good to have you on the program.

Dreyfuss: (Laughter)

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm