Richard Dreyfuss on America's Self-Inflicted Wound

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ENCINITAS, Calif. -- As the earnest marine biologist Hooper, Richard Dreyfuss helped save Amity Island from the great white killer shark in the 1975 blockbuster "Jaws."

He later starred in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" before picking up an Oscar for best actor at age 30 in "The Goodbye Girl." More recently he has played the crooked financier Bernie Madoff, former vice president Dick Cheney and a fictional Republican senator running for the White House.

But Dreyfuss believes his most important role is yet to come. “I want to save my country,” he says. “I take it personally, the loss of America.”

He views Donald Trump as manifestly unsuited to be president. “This is not because of his politics or his policies,” he says. “It’s because he lacks simple human decency. We should all be asking ourselves, ‘Would you let a man like that seek the hand of your daughter in marriage?’ ”

The 69-year-old actor’s only encounter with the property mogul was at a Malibu party in the early 1990s. Trump was there with his second wife, Marla Maples. “I was just talking to her and he came over, took her by the arm and said, ‘What the hell are you talking to him for?’

“There was no doubt in my mind that he physically hurt her as he dragged her away and she looked at me.”

Trump, he believes, is a symptom rather than a cause of what ails America. The central problem, he argues, is a decades-long failure to educate citizens about the nation’s founding principles. These concepts are “so enormous and naive and brilliant and courageous that they told the world that there was a beacon of light finally in the darkness of history.”

“We became unbound. We slipped our moorings. This is the result of 50 years of irresponsibility on the part of parents, politicians, school superintendents and the media. This is the worst self-inflicted wound.”

Dreyfuss cast his ballot for Hillary Clinton last November but now regrets voting for her, describing her as a “bought and paid for” politician and “cold warrior.” The whole election “was like a circus -- they were all wearing big red noses and funny shoes and it was absurd.”

The answer, he proposes, is the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, which aims “to teach our kids how to run our country” by adhering to the values of the founding fathers, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Dreyfuss is sitting in a leather chair behind a cluttered desk in the comfortable but unpretentious home outside San Diego that he shares with his third wife, Svetlana, who was born in Russia.

The couple met in 2005 when he was staying at the Courtyard Tremont hotel in Boston. She was the head of housekeeping and knocked on his door to return his passport, which he’d left in his trousers when he put them in the laundry.

They’ve been married 11 years now but there is an endearing playfulness in their interactions.

Dreyfuss is wearing a maroon robe over a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Don’t shoot! I win Oscar!” and leans forward gingerly as he emphasises a point — for years he has suffered from problems with his back, which is now reinforced with six titanium rods.

Conversation is free flowing and Dreyfuss laces his theories with an impressive array of historical references and literary allusions and quotations. This is a man who had read deeply and widely and is the antithesis of the stereotypical glib or vacuous celebrity.

Dreyfuss defies political categorisation. His mother was a socialist activist and he was a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War. One relative, Hesia Helfman, was part of the revolutionary group that assassinated Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881.

He is a passionate advocate of a state health-care system and loose immigration controls but has described the gun rights group the National Rifle Association as “heroes” and condemned efforts to prevent conservative figures being allowed to speak on university campuses.

“I think I’m turning into a libertarian. I’m not part of the gaggle of Hollywood liberals. I gaggle for no one and I’m not a liberal. I’m libo-conservo-rado-middle-of-the-roado.”

He once had ambitions to become a United State senator for New York or California but no longer wants to run for office. "Politics has become beyond acceptable when it comes to humanity," he says. "People are just frozen in falsehood."

The idea of his civics initiative was born during a four-year spell at St Antony’s College, Oxford, where he was given a billet in 2004 having been fired from the musical "The Producers" (after urging the public while appearing on a television chat show not to buy early tickets as he thought the show wasn’t ready).

“I would go to the Bodleian [library] or I would sit in a tavern or I’d be in the back of someone else’s class. I had the college experience that I had never had.”

By this stage, Dreyfuss had accepted that he was not going to be one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, partly out of choice. “I was a medium celebrity and could maintain a private life.

“You [a bigger star] couldn’t walk down New York’s Broadway and cry because you’d had a fight with your wife without it becoming a scandal, and I thought that that invasion was not something I wanted.”

Diagnosed as being bipolar and a manic depressive, Dreyfuss has been open about his struggles with drug addiction. He was a “low-down dirty dog” in the early 1980s, he says, coming to his senses only after a pair of near-mystical experiences in November 1982.

The first was on November 9, when he crashed his Mercedes convertible in Los Angeles. His life was saved when the car rolled over because he was wearing a seatbelt — even though, he maintains, he would never have put one on. He was charged with possession of cocaine and painkillers.

“I had been arrested, there were front-page stories about me and I deliberately tried to deny everything by going to these crazy orgies. Ten days later, a girl at this orgy just let me see behind her eyes how she hated herself, and that was it. I walked out.”

The second experience came when he woke up in hospital after the crash and had an image of an 8-year-old girl in his head: “Every day it got clearer and clearer. She was wearing crinoline and a dress and black ballet shoes with white socks and she had glasses.

“I kept thinking, ‘Who is that? It’s either the girl I didn’t kill that night or it’s the daughter I don’t have.’

A  year to the day afterwards, on November 19, 1983, his daughter Emily was born.

Dreyfuss has been deeply affected by the deaths of actors Robin Williams, who killed himself in 2014, and Carrie Fisher, who had a heart attack last year.

He likens Williams’s suicide to a headdress with so many feathers in it that it became too heavy to wear. “With Robin, there was one feather too many.

"I’m not against what he did. I don’t make a judgment. I believe totally that I have the right to take my own life if I choose and to me that’s as basic as breathing.

Has Dreyfuss contemplated suicide? “Yeah, sure. I would be in therapy and I would say to my doctor in my early 50s, ‘I’ve done everything I want to do. If a guy ran out of traffic and hit me it’d be fine. He’d say, ‘Do you know how crazy you sound?’

"One day I heard this little voice say to me, ‘They’re going to be studying your work in 150 years' and I just stopped thinking of suicide. I was always very proud of my body of work and I love doing it but there was a time when there was just too much pain.

“My first marriage ended and I didn’t want it to end. That was it. It took me out for years. And then I won my children back emotionally and I was OK.”

Dreyfuss is critical of the commercialisation and risk-averseness of 21st century Hollywood and the paucity of character-actor roles. “The whole relationship between writers and directors and special effects has totally blown apart the art of writing and we’d rather make sequels

“Hollywood should have stayed in the '70s . Then the guys who financed the studios and let he young artists make the films they wanted, within limits of course, they made a shitload of money.”

He grins and adds: “Now I sound like every generation of has-beens. If I was still making the money I made starring in movies, I’d love Hollywood.”

Dreyfuss remains intensely proud of "Jaws" – though he still resents being stiffed on the money -- describing it as a “masterpiece” that stands the test of time. “Steven [Spielberg] made that a great movie because the shark wouldn’t work and he had to reconceive that movie as he went.”

He is moved to tears as he talks about Robert Shaw, who played Quint in "Jaws" and died in 1978. “Robert was the largest personality I had ever met. He did  pick on me and I would pick on him. But he was better at it. He had my number.”

On one occasion, Dreyfuss threw Shaw’s drink into the water. Shaw retaliated by turning a fire hose onto Dreyfuss during the next scene.

The most famous sequence in "Jaws" and the lynchpin of the movie — when Quint describes his experience of awaiting rescue with fellow crew members of the stricken USS Indianapolis in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific — took more than a day to shoot.

 “Robert decided he was going to be really drunk,” recalls Dreyfuss. “It was awful and horrifying.  Steven was just trying to get Robert to the end of a sentence. It took forever. That night at 3 a.m., Robert called Steven and said, ‘How badly did I humiliate myself,’ and Stephen said, ‘Not fatally.’ The next day he did it in one take.”

Dreyfuss had a “rocky relationship” with his father, a “tough Jew from Brooklyn” who he twice sued during a long-running dispute over a $4 million property loan. He suggests that his civics initiative is in part motivated by a desire to live up to him.

“My father was at the Battle of the Bulge,” he says. “Behind German lines for 69 days. He was blown to pieces. He tortured prisoners. There’s always a competition, you want to do something like your dad, but I wasn’t going to fight in the f------ Vietnam war.

“So what do I do that’s comparable? Being involved in this [the civics initiative], I had to rethink everything about my dad because his entire generation could see the future and that’s why they went to Europe and beat Hitler to death. Do we know that now?”

Dreyfuss credits Trump with understanding what was happening in America when so many professional politicians missed it. “He was the only guy to smell the anger and fear that was everywhere. He understood Brexit faster than anybody.

“It’s like the Luddite movement. They got so pissed off and angry and hungry and needed a job that they attacked the machine. That’s the impulse behind Brexit and behind Trump.”

At the same time, he sees Trump as the personification of how money, television and social media have twisted American politics. “Television is hypnotic and it hides among the furniture of your living room. It doesn’t reveal itself, but it distorts everything.”

He predicts a reckoning. “There’s no moat deep enough, there’s no castle wall high enough to them from coming over and eating you if they find out how much you’ve f----- them. If they find out, they’re going to come over and they’re going to eat Donald Trump and every Republican, every Democrat.”

Svetlana comes in to walk Baxter and insist playfully that we each have a glass of Coca-Cola – we’ve been talking for over three hours, right through lunch.

Before we go into the kitchen for the sandwich his wife had been trying to press on us, Dreyfuss ponders life and the tricks that are played on us.

“God has the strangest sense of humour and he's obviously depraved," he says. "He forces the entire human race into a third act of indignity and humiliation and nobody escapes. It’s all Jewish jokes about comparing pains and prescriptions.”

Dreyfuss has a keen sense of his own mortality. He is an agnostic – “the only intellectual way to move in the world” – but believes in at least the possibility of reincarnation.

“Isn’t it funny that God takes you and puts you through the unendurable and then at the moment you have just begun to understand it and have some wisdom, it ends?

“I have this inner life which is vast and as large as the universe. I really like me. I hope I have another life. I hope I get another shot.”

Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.

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