George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made him a star, Neil Simon got him an Oscar and, after a devastating career slump of a decade or so, his career was given a serious shot in the arm by the Disney studio.
But don't kid yourself. Richard Dreyfuss is a self-made man.His battles with cocaine addiction and his self-described "reprehensible" behavior in the mid-'70s are well-documented now - and well behind him. He even laughs off his escapades as chronicled in a scathing book about the making of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," saying he did things so much worse that he feels he was let off lightly.
And he jokes about the many hit films he has turned down so that a room full of cynical entertainment reporters is reeling with laughter.
Richard Dreyfuss is a showman but he's also quite candid and personable, which, after two days of back-to-back interviews in a Los Angeles hotel, is no small feat.
The occasion is his latest film, "Once Around," in which Dreyfuss plays a rich condo salesman who is witty and bright and head-over-heels in love with a younger woman, played by his "Always" co-star Holly Hunter. The character is also quite abrasive and tends to set the teeth on edge of everyone around him, except Hunter.
"It was not an easy character because he had moments of such extraordinary blindness thatwere hard and painful sometimes," Dreyfuss said. "I didn't worry about how it would come out. I just wanted to make sure it was right."
Not that Dreyfuss hasn't tackled potentially obnoxious characters before. Seventeen years ago he did a similar balancing act in "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz." That was right after he hit it big with George Lucas' "American Graffiti" and just before Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Then, in 1978, Dreyfuss won an Oscar for making lovable another character that had the potential to become overbearing - in Neil Simon's "The Goodbye Girl."
Asked how he made the "Once Around" character likable, Dreyfuss said, "I didn't make him likable. You made him likable. I just did him.
"I don't mean to be glib. I don't make conscious decisions like this. One of the things my job resume says is `Can take the edge off a dislikable character.' But I didn't do anything other than what I normally do."
Dreyfuss repeatedly stressed the quality of the original "Once Around" script, by first-time screenwriter Malia Scotch Marmo, who polished it at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute. "This was a script that had poetry in it. And here came this character out of this story who was so wonderful a character."
Dreyfuss is also very happy with the finished product. "It's a funny thing - I don't care how you feel about it. I usually go to (interview sessions) very nervous about, `Do they like the movie?' And I rarely, if ever, say how I feel about a movie. There are films I have done where I've sat in front of you people and not told you how I felt. This time I'm telling you before you tell me - I love this movie."
Though listed as executive producer in the "Once Around" credits, Dreyfuss says in retrospect it was a mistake. "I want to make crystal clear that I didn't produce this film. I have that credit because I helped secure the financing. This film is the baby, deservedly so, of (producers) Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne, who found it and nurtured it and carried it and did all the work - and it's their movie. I shouldn't have taken that credit."
In addition to "Once Around," Dreyfuss spoke to a number of other subjects brought up by the 10 journalists grilling him.
- The book about "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" by producer Julia Phillips, which paints a harsh picture of Dreyfuss and others on the set of that movie: "What did happen was in fact so much worse than what she chose to write - what am I going to object to? My behavior in those days was as reprehensible as one could get. What I remember doing in my life in those days was about as obnoxious and awful as one could get, so what am I going to object to?"
- Missed opportunities, such as turning down Rob Reiner's adaptation of Stephen King's "Misery," a big Christmas hit: "I didn't want to play those characteristics. I didn't want to lay there in that bed and do that. It's a great movie for Rob to make, but it wasn't the great character for me to play at this point."
- More missed opportunities: "Don't trust my instincts in this area - I've turned down more big money-making hits than any actor in Hollywood." Then, in a goofy man-on-the-street voice, "Oh, yeah, that's the guy that could have done `Harry Met Sally' and `Field of Dreams' and `Sea of Love.' Oh, yeah, yeah, Richard Dreyfuss - he's homeless and he's got a little tin cup and drool is hanging down. The idiot!" Dreyfuss added that one day he'll write an article about what it would have been like to play all the hit films he has rejected. "You would not believe the films I've been offered." Asked for more titles, Dreyfuss shoots back, "Get away!" Then, in that silly voice again, "Oh, tell us some more about how stupid you are. Oh, wasn't that funny, the part where he was dumb?" (By this time all 10 journalists were laughing uncontrollably.)
- Audience reactions: "Many, many years ago I did a movie - `The Young Runaways' - it was a little part, a little movie, and I had the role of the young villain. It was a pretty awful movie and I remember a guy came up to me after a screening of this B or C movie and he said, `Hey, I loved your work - you were funny as hell.' And I said, `I didn't mean to be funny.' "
- "The Big Fix," a 1978 flop that has since become a cult favorite, about a private eye who was a radical dissident during the '60s: "The only thing I didn't like about him was I didn't like the hairstyle I gave him. I gave him a Jewish Afro and I should never have done that. And every time I look at the movie I go, `Ahhh - wrong!' There were a lot of good moments in that movie. The problem is we were making a detective story and we fell in love with everything but the detective story. All the other stuff in the movie was the most interesting stuff, but we didn't make the detective story very interesting. That's why it failed, it had no motor to it."
- His 1989 flop "Let It Ride": "They wrote a script about a guy who smokes, drinks, gambles, curses and ends up winning a zillion-trillion dollars and you applaud him for that. We wanted to make a movie about a guy who got it all - who committed every sin and got it all. And you love him. We hired the wrong director and maybe I was the wrong actor and I don't know what. Then, during the (editing), they said, `OK, we've given you this money to make this movie about this guy who smokes and drinks and curses and gambles but you don't want him to really do any of those things so let's change this. And they did. They tried to make nice with the character and the story and they threw away attitudes, moments, this and that. The only reason we made the movie (is what) they threw out onto the floor and stepped on the celluloid. And so, what was left was what you saw."
- Two more of his past films, 1984's "The Buddy System" and last year's "Always": "It will be awhile before I figure out how to look at `Always' and judge it." (Though he admitted disappointment that it wasn't one of Spielberg's biggest hits, especially since he had a percentage of the profits.) "Each film is different - `The Buddy System" I looked at once and then looked at about 15 minutes of it and never saw it again. I would not know how to judge it. I expect I would hate it as much as I did in the beginning."
- The as-yet unreleased film adaptation of the play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," scheduled to play art houses in the spring, and in which he affects a British accent: "I wanted to go for it - jump off the diving board." Asked to assess its chances for success, he says, in a mock-pompous tone: "Well, I think at least seven out of a thousand people will see it. I really made it because it was such a commercial bet." Then more seriously, he adds,"I don't ever really make a decision to take a film because it's a commercial bet. When you work with Steven (Spielberg) you think you've got a better chance, but it would be very rare in my career that I've ever done that. Maybe one or two times."
- His next film, "What About Bob?" with Bill Murray: "I don't like to talk about a project until it's finished. It's a comedy - that's all you get."