Will society ever be able to reach its full potential? Passionate actor turned passionate civics activist Richard Dreyfuss joins us today to share excerpts from his upcoming book, The Return to Senselessness. His book is centered on the significance of history and honoring our roots in preserving our nationalism. He seeks to revive civics education and teach future generations about the power of citizenship and the principles that hold America together. In this episode, he sits with Steve Farber to talk about his mission to encourage and elevate the teaching of civics in American schools. Listen in as Richard looks back on his acting career and discusses how he realized that civics education could revitalize patriotism.
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The Return To Senselessness With Richard Dreyfuss
Welcome to season two of the show. I have a great series of interviews coming up for you and we are starting with a special one. I had the chance to sit down and talk with Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss. If you have been on this planet for any period of time, you already know who Richard Dreyfuss is. Let me read you a little list of some of the movies that Richard Dreyfuss has been a part of.
Let’s start with American Graffiti, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goodbye Girl, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor. Also, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, “Call 911,” Stand by Me, Tin Men, Nuts, for which he won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, Postcards from the Edge, What about Bob? “Baby Steps,” The American President and Mr. Holland’s Opus. In that movie, he was nominated for best actor for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe and the movie W., the Oscar Stone movie in which he played Dick Cheney.
In the five years between 1973 and 1978, the films that Dreyfuss appeared in grossed upwards of $900 million. Those are some of the movies that he was in and there has a bunch more. He has done a bunch of things on television, TV shows and miniseries. He played Bernie Madoff in the ABC miniseries, Madoff. That is Richard Dreyfuss, the actor.
What you are going to learn is a little bit more about Richard Dreyfuss, the passionate activist for civics in our schools. He has an organization called the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative and this is their stated admission. They seek to revive civics education to teach future generations about the power of their citizenship and the principles that hold America together.
In 2006, he created the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, whose mission is to revitalize and enhance the teaching of civics and American public education to empower future generations with the critical thinking skills needed to fulfill the vast potential of American citizenship. This is a lively conversation that spans from his movie career, his acting career to his passion for civics. You are going to read a snippet of a fantastic book that he is working on. He is going to read us a little piece of that. Prepare yourself for a lively, entertaining and thought-provoking discussion with Richard Dreyfuss. Enjoy.
My guest now is the one and only Richard Dreyfuss. It is a bit of a cliche to say that a person, whoever that person is, is a person who needs no introduction. We have all heard that more than once. In this case, it is true. Richard Dreyfuss needs no introduction because he is that Richard Dreyfuss that you already know about, the iconic, famous, accomplished and amazing actor, in my opinion. I’m not saying this because he is staring at me through the screen now. I’m saying it because it is true. He is one of the great American actors.
The movies and the television shows that he has appeared in are interwoven into our pop culture. This is the Richard Dreyfuss that you know and I want to start with the story of his acting career. There is a part of Richard Dreyfuss, even though you know of him that you may not yet know about and that is a deep passion and cause that he stands for, which we are also going to get into in this episode. Richard, thanks so much for being here.
It is my pleasure.
We are practically neighbors. We are both in the San Diego area. Here we are sitting down together over Zoom.
We share an area code.
Almost. I’m downtown but close enough to get together for a cup of coffee. I want to start with your amazing career and I will start with a little personal context here. The Goodbye Girl was the movie that garnered you an Academy Award. As I understand it, at the time, you were the youngest actor to receive that best actor.
At the time, we did not make a fuss over it. It was not until the other guy won that they said, “You are no longer the youngest.” I went, “I did not know I had it.” Mickey Rooney was the most talented person who ever existed. He won an Academy Award for Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was eight. He wins, but I’m the second. I have tied and gagged Mickey Rooney. I’m the only one you can go to talk about.
My personal connection with that is I saw that movie when I was in college. Your character is an actor who falls in love with a single woman with a little girl. You called the little girl kiddo and you said it, your Richard Dreyfuss voice. It struck me on such a level that it turned out to be a bit of a premonition because, in my last year of college, I met a single mother who had a little girl and her name was Angelica.
This was in 1980. We got married in 1981 and my daughter, Angelica, was four at the time. She is now 40 something in 2022, but I called her kiddo. For her entire life, I have called her kiddo. When she texts me, it’s kiddo. Thank you for that. The Goodbye Girl was my first encounter with you, as it was for many people. That was your breakout film.
Before that was Jaws, before that was The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and before that was American Graffiti.Not thinking will kill you. Click To Tweet
American Graffiti was the breakout for you.
I remember I was making a film in Canada called The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Cindy Williams called me and said, “Ricky, do you want to be a star?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Go into Joe Allens. They are going to go crazy because of American Graffiti.” I was up in the Laurentian Mountains for so long that when I finally got to Joe Allens, I was yesterday’s news.
American Graffiti was an iconic film. The timing of it, the story and the acting were incredible. Most of the actors in that movie at the time were unknown or not very well known.
All of the actors in Graffiti were unknown and most of them became stars. I was the only one on the set who said, “It is only a little movie. What is the big deal?” Everyone said I was an idiot and I was.
It is good when things you say turn out to be true. That is wonderful, although I would take some issues with that myself. There are many iconic films and moments within those films. Jaws was an iconic film and as you go further into your career with Mr. Holland’s Opus, there are many great ones and you played many different characters. I have always noticed about you. I do not know what it is. It is something about the way you speak that it feels to me you are savoring the words that you are speaking.
George Lucas offered me two roles in Graffiti, the Charlie Martin Smith role and my role, Curt. I chose Curt. He said, “Why?” I said, “Curt is self-aware and I love to play self-awareness.” The scene in the movie where I walked down the hallway and tried to open up my locker, that was invented in order for me to play self-awareness.
That is what you are seeing because I love to play with people who are aware of their own place in the world or in the universe and that is something that I seek out. It’s true in Mr. Holland and in just about every role I have ever picked. If you are a smart and intelligent actor, you have one up on the whole world because you do know the why and wherefore of why people behave the way they do. I like to say to young actors that we have both Hitler and Jesus inside us. We have to find the appropriate Hitler and the appropriate Jesus in order to bring it out and show people the world.
When you make people laugh, it is a true blessing. It is not a blessing for the audience because they are relieved of some pain that they no longer even know they have. They live with it. When you see people laughing, it is a mitzvah. It is something that you give to people that you get in return. There is true nobility in that particular art form. It is why I have always loved it.
Are there any characters that you had played that forced you to reveal something of yourself to yourself that you hadn’t seen before through the character that you were playing?
I think more than once. I have been surprised at how much I understood Dick Cheney as I played him. In Mr. Holland, I understood his problem of not feeling overwhelmed by all of the conflicting feelings you have as a parent and as someone who says, “My life will only be valid if I can do such and such.” He spends his whole life not doing it. It is only towards the end that he realizes that what he has been doing has made his life valid.
I have always thought that acting gave me a way into humanity. I have never picked a character that did not allow that. I have always picked characters that did and I’m much aware of it. I’m proud of the films I made, not the films that were successful, but lots of the films that were not had that in common. The characters in Tin Men, about gambling and whatever the film was, I have a reason for having done it. There is a movie called the Parador. All I have to do is say the word Parador and my wife starts laughing. That is a good way of having a marriage.
She is laughing for the right reasons. Is that an example of a movie you wished more people would have seen?
I do not have such a list, but yes. I do not keep a list like that. I have a list of films that I would turn down that I should not have and I will never tell you which ones they were. I also have a list of Dick Cheney’s. The moment I became a large enough presence in the film business, I went to every studio in town trying to get to play Adolf Hitler.
We only show Hitler in moments of utter lunacy because we do not want to take responsibility for his humanity. There is a portion of his life when that I thought and still do would make a fabulous movie because he went from the hospital after World War I. he became a spy for the Army against the Nazis. He would go to the Nazi meetings and take notes. One day, he was struck by lightning. He got it. He took over and that story shows him as human.
I had a friend who died, unfortunately, who was a brilliant man. He was Viennese originally, but he became a successful writer. I accompanied him to Vienna, where the mayor was giving him an award. The mayor said, “We kicked you out and you are the only one who came back.” He came back and wrote half of his life stories and things as a Viennese. He also wrote as an American. He did an imitation of the greatest orator in European history, Adolf Hitler.
He was not a screamer. He would lean on the lectern and clasp his hands. He would look into people’s eyes and say, “I went hungry as you went hungry. I slept under bridges as you slept under bridges. I was betrayed as you were betrayed.” You could see these faces. He had in his home a maid who hated Hitler. She had a Nazi boyfriend.People don't realize that a steady, invisible loss of intellectual creativity creates a loss of self-esteem that hardens into inarguable positions. Click To Tweet
He dragged her to the only speech that Adolf Hitler planned to make in Vienna after the two countries merged. She came back from that speech and went to my friend’s father and said, “He will never hurt you.” The man said, “Why do you say that?” She said, “He may have some crazy people around him, but he will never hurt you.” “Why?” “Because he is god.”
That makes me uncomfortable on many levels. I can see why, as an actor, that would be a fascinating thing to explore, but it is uncomfortable because he was a monster, and we all know he was a monster. It is uncomfortable because to say that even a monster had a time in his life where he had humanity and then the time in his life where he figured out exactly how to manipulate people as an orator, that is challenging to even think about.
One thing that was not to himself was a monster. We do not see our own monstrosity either. You can see it all in traffic. If you pay attention to traffic, you first see that some guy comes right up to your tail. You’re going 80 miles an hour, you got a kid in the car and he comes right up to the tail. You honk and say, “Get out of there. My son is in the car. You asshole.” At that moment, you realize you are passing your exit. You cross four lanes and get on the exit. Everyone is honking at you and you are going, “What do you want from me? Come on. Give me a break.” In one minute, you are both virtuous and virtueless.
Is it not true that the degree matters? What separates a moment of monstrous thinking and traffic is not the same thing as the monstrosity that kills millions of people.
As long as you are saying that you do not have to commit monstrous acts in order to play a monster, I can take that little tiny monstrosity or a monstrositiness and make that work for my Hitler.
Even in character like that, you are finding a commonality on some level in yourself. That is a place where most of us do not want to go.
Actors do not want to go and when you watch actors closely, you can see an actor saying to the audience, “This is not me.” They wink at you, step out of character invisibly and say, “Do not think that it is me.” When the actor does not do that, that is when you give him an Academy Award. That is what Val Kilmer did when he played Doc Holliday. That is what great actors who have courage and are willing to take on the anger and the hatred of the audience in order to make that point. That is someone special.
When you are giving advice to young actors, as I’m sure you have done more than once, you are able to draw the parallel from what you learned as an actor and you can impart some of that wisdom to them in their acting careers. Is there anything you have learned as an actor that any of us in any walk of life should consider or apply in the way that we live our lives?
If the answer to that is no, acting would not have remained in the kit bag of the culture for so long. It is the oldest of art forms. When you think about it, before music and before that and this, someone had to tell the story of the hunt. That is the first actor and probably he wanted a raise. That was before language. That is how long acting has been around that music will eventually make you burst into tears, as will writing and dance. Acting is the only art form that can act on you fast that it is like someone who can reach into your chest, take your heart, throw it down on the ground, pick it up and throw it back into your heart again, in 1 millisecond. That is what acting can do. No other art form can do that.
The way I see it and correct me if I’m wrong. All of us have different facets in our lives and different areas of passion. You have a couple of parallel passions in your life. One is that passion that is run through your entire acting career. Are you making movies? Do you have any others coming up or is it something that you’ve put on the sidelines?
I put it on the sidelines, but I discovered that there is a law in California that says you are not allowed to quit show business. They send you to prison. I announced my retirement from filmmaking in 2004 and I’m still acting in film. The reason I can do that is because I need the money. I was having dinner one night with Lori Singer. She said to me, “What are you doing now?” I said, “I retired. I’m in education.”
She said, “Seriously, what are you doing?” I said, “I went to Oxford for four years in 2004.” She said, “Richard, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m going for the Nobel.” She said, “As if that was legitimate.” I have to tell you that I did go for four years. I was a senior research advisor. I was neither faculty nor student, but I was both in a sense.
You said, “I’m no longer an actor. I’m off to Oxford.”
I’m no longer a film actor. I love acting on stage. I love it more. I did not say that. I said filming. My daughter, who is a formidable human, wrote a book about the family, and in the book, the father was a desperate actor trying to regain his stardom. I did not say anything for about a year. I said, “Emily, the book you wrote.” She nodded. I said, “That hurt.” She said, “Why?” I said, “It’s because it was not true.” She looked at me the way she had when she was two. They only discovered that in the womb, you could have the opposing thumb and the eye roll.
My daughter eye-rolled me and said, “Dad.” I said, “Think it through him.” I was in Oxford for four years. You can’t do both. You never saw me pick up a phone in four years and ask my agent if there was anything for me. I had left. I met, fell in love and married. I did not invite my wife into a life that was in desperate need of anything. I thought I was loaded, but there was a crisis in the family and I was no longer loaded. I had to start again. It was the only way I knew how to make a living. It was to do that.
I started again the same way I did when I was ten, with one line in one show. I did that for several years and then I did Madoff, which so pissed off ABC that they simply neglected to put it in the envelope for the Emmy voters. When my agent pointed that out to them, they said, “Oops.” We said, “Are you going to do anything?” “No.” “You are not going to say, ‘I’m sorry.’” “No.” It is because I had pissed them off.Make sure to take an interest in things that honor where you were and what you have been. Click To Tweet
Madoff was your reentry into the limelight, as it were.
It was my attempt, but it did not work.
A lot of people saw it for sure. You have, for quite some time, had a real passion for civics, particularly because we no longer teach civics to our children. Therefore, most of us grow up without having any idea what it truly means to be a citizen, in particular, in the US.
Whenever I speak in front of the audience, I always start with one thing. I ask the audience as they are coming in to stand up, put their hand over their heart and do the Pledge of Allegiance, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
As they are sitting down, I say, “Stand up, put your hand over your heart and let’s do it again.” “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We have argued bitterly over the phrase under God that we have forgotten that we are pledging allegiance to the Republic.
That is what has happened formally in the United States between the years 1971 or 1972 to the middle of the Reagan era several years later. Civics was removed from American history and put in social studies, which was up one floor and around to the back. It ceased being the actual history of what we did and caused the most important political revolution in the history of human civilization.
I know that you are working on a book. What I would love for you to do is give us your dramatic reading of what right now is the last part of your book. Would you be willing to do that?
Should I virtually twist your arm?
Throw pennies. That is all you got to do, “Left to ourselves. We slice through one another and our kids. We learned what Spartacus learned that gladiator school was a slow kill, wounding their brains effectively enough that they begin to drip potential. We read only headlines. We do not read the whole article. We read the reviews, and by the book, we do not read the book. At dinner parties, we scream headlines at one another in a growing frenzy of rage. We do not realize that the steady invisible loss of intellectual creativity creates a loss of self-esteem that hardens into inarguable positions that makes an anxious, that tricky thought my head is beginning to hurt.”
“Doctors call conditions like bad blood pressure invisible killers. Not thinking will kill you, just like bad blood pressure. Doctors and others call that condition stupid. We say stupid things. We vote stupid, love stupid, hate stupid and we have no idea how to love one another. We aim our rifles at the wrong guy on the wrong battlefield. We vote to enrich those who are already billionaires, somehow thinking that we are not punishing ourselves and then I say, ‘Anyone who disparages the need for our coming students to be turned into active citizens before the end of high school is a bad politician, a bad parent, a bad teacher, a bad principal and a bad citizen.’”
“You all must act for the good of this nation for your souls, for our nation, that we will not live to see, but right now, we are abandoning our children with an eviscerated education. We act as if we hate them, and perhaps we do. If you do not actively change, if you will be branded by them, your children as selfish, lazy cowards who denied them, the city on the hill that will be seen as an unreachable distraction and not the very real pearl we had in our hands and indifferently kicked away. That is not a maybe. That’s how you will be known. No ifs, no ends, no buts, forever despised.” That is the book.
I have two grandchildren and I have nightmares. No kidding. In my nightmares, my two grandchildren look at me and their parents, my daughter and then they say, “How could you have abandoned us like this?” That is what we have done. I say in the book, “We do not hate our children. Do we? Why are we treating them as if we do? We teach them nothing.” We say, “You will get it in university.”
The irony is that because we do not hate our children, none of those decisions are made with malicious intent. We think if we teach them STEM, Science, Tech, Engineering, Math and all that, we are giving them the tools that they need to survive and thrive in this world, which may all be true. There are a few things coming together for me that I have not thought about as being in the same neighborhood before. The knowledge, the context of being a citizen and the arts, creativity, the ability to think, and the ability to create are all tied in together in that same ball that was cut away.
Instead of taking this indescribably valuable pearl and tossing it away as if it was no consequence, what we did was deny the fact that art, for instance, could inform science and vice versa. When we did that, it was open season. Everything stopped being connectable and all of it was connectable. We should never have gone down that road. When we did, we made ourselves. We limited the possibility, the potential of our human brain. Buckminster Fuller says, “The human brain is the most powerful tool in the universe, but it comes without an operating manual.”
The constitution was an operating manual for the human brain. It was possible by learning communication skills, which we call civics. That was civility, civic discourse and the public sphere. We have to make sure we take an interest in these things. We have to be what we were and we have to honor what we have been. You have to do that by history and by taking the logical position that common sense should not be uncommon.
The name of my book is The Return To Senselessness. Senselessness is the malicious cruel behavior of the 10% over the 90% for the entire history of humanity. My researchers, when I wrote this book, they were both Republican and they were both saying to me, “You are exaggerating this problem.” To make a long story short, they could not prove it. They realized that I was not exaggerating even a little bit.
I can’t wait to read the book and in its final yet unfinal form. It is going to be a great contribution to our national and international dialogue. Richard, what a treat, what a joy and what a pleasure. Thank you so much for taking this time with me and with us. To all of you, thanks for reading and we will catch you next time. Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do. Until next time.
About Richard Dreyfuss
Richard Dreyfuss was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1947. He has been acting in American theater and films for over 50 years. He appeared on television in shows such as Bewitched and The Big Valley and others for over a decade and worked in theater in Los Angeles from 1963. He started doing features in roles of size in the early 70s such as American Graffiti, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Jaws. He won the Oscar in 1978 for his performance in The Goodbye Girl and was nominated again in 1995 for his performance in Mr. Holland’s Opus.
In his personal life, Dreyfuss has spent a lifetime championing the democratic process and the foundational blocks of our Republican Democracy. In 2008, he founded The Dreyfuss Civics Initiative to encourage, revive, elevate and enhance the teaching of civics in American schools. The nonprofit organization’s programs are meant to promote the advancement of civic education, civic virtue and the role citizens can play in the success of our country. Richard has made numerous public appearances and written a forthcoming book on this urgent need for civic education in our school system. For more information, please visit: thedreyfussinitiative.org
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