“Don’t shoot, I win Oscar.” These words, says Richard Dreyfuss, are printed on the shirt he’s wearing under his grey jacket. He is at home in San Diego, reclining in a voluminous brown leather armchair. Behind him is a picture of his wife, Svetlana, resting on a shelf beside his Bafta and David di Donatello awards. His Oscar he keeps inside his fridge (“I didn’t want to brag, but I wanted everyone to know”).
The strange story behind “Don’t shoot, I win Oscar” will be told, but only after Dreyfuss asks Svetlana to do some Googling. “I think the best way to do it is Marlene Dietrich,” he tells her. “Her first film. And then it’ll show the name of the guy.”
Svetlana, who after straightening her husband’s scarf lurks off camera throughout our Skype chat, replies in a strong Russian accent: “Oh, you mean when she seduce a teacher?”
Dreyfuss: “Yeah, it’s a very famous name. I just – I’m losing it. It’s like, something Angel.”
Svetlana: “Oh, yeah, Blue Angel.”
Dreyfuss: “OK, so the name of the actor.”
But then the trail goes cold. The 72-year-old star of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Great Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up to Cancer talks about face mask etiquette instead. It is the start of a rollercoaster ride which soars and dips through Steven Spielberg, manic depression, the British press, the car crash that changed Dreyfuss’s life and, most jaw-dropping of all, a critique of the #MeToo movement that alludes to the Holocaust and women’s “enormously more powerful sexual drive”.
But to begin at the beginning. Dreyfuss was born in New York, the middle child of Norman, a corporate lawyer and war veteran, and Gerry, a civil rights and peace activist, and raised in Beverly Hills, California. At the age of 11, he says, he realised he was manic depressive, a phrase he still prefers to bipolar, “too neutral and stodgy”.
Dreyfuss never felt the condition carried shame or stigma. “I have surfed my manic depression since I was 11-years-old. I enjoyed it and made it work for me and have not known the world without it, so it’s my only known existence,” he says.
He landed his first role aged nine and was acting professionally in his teens. He gained a place at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, but could not take it up because, as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, he was obliged to do alternative service at a Los Angeles hospital for two years.
History vindicated his decision, many would argue, but could not restore Dreyfuss’s formal training as an actor, something he still rues. But he soon crossed paths with Spielberg, a director less than a year his senior, whose eruption of precocious virtuosity was perhaps the most dazzling Hollywood had seen since Orson Welles.
Jaws: Richard Dreyfuss with Robert Shaw in Steven Spielberg's 1975 film. Photograph: Universal
“When I first met Steven, he was the uncrowned king of Hollywood,” Dreyfuss recalls. “He had not made a feature film yet, but everyone knew. I was the uncrowned prince of Hollywood because I hadn’t made a feature film either, but I was already turning down work, which you don’t do as a young actor.”
Dreyfuss made an indelible impression in Spielberg’s Jaws as a marine biologist vibrating with nerdy intensity. Spielberg was already planning Close Encounters and Dreyfuss lobbied hard for the part of a suburban everyman who becomes obsessed with UFOs. “I swore an oath to myself that I would badmouth every actor in Hollywood. I would walk by his office and say, ‘Pacino’s crazy. De Niro has no sense of humour.’”
Aged just 29, Dreyfuss became the then youngest ever winner of the best actor Oscar for The Goodbye Girl, in which he played an abrasive young actor opposite Marsha Mason. He says he bet on himself to win – and won a tidy sum.
“Afterwards, I made an unusual amount of money betting this: ‘Quick, tell me, best actor last year: who was it?’ The answer was me and no one got it. But that really personifies the whole thing because it’s a great night, but that’s all it is. It was a wonderful experience until it was in my hands and then I realised now people would assume that I could do X, Y and Z, as opposed to me trying to prove it. I was much more comfortable trying to prove it.”
“Someone once asked me if I was going to do an autobiography and I said: ‘I don’t know but, if I do, it will be called The Hunt because I’m much more comfortable on the hunt,‘ and that has proved to be true. I should have won now, not back then.”
Why does he think he is more comfortable on the hunt?
“I guess because I’ve always known that there was a kind of unlikelihood about my stardom and yet, when you thought it through, you realise ‘that was not unlikely at all’. I know my constituency. Every actor has a constituency and, in my case, it was college-educated, Upper West Side Jews who were urban and 20th-century as opposed to, let’s say, John Wayne, who is more 19th century than 20th, as opposed to Charlton Heston, who is eternal and can actually play God. I couldn’t, so I knew who my people were.”
Women have lost a great deal by men who have chosen thousands of years ago to corral women and try to make them as little as possible because they have magic
This did not stop Dreyfuss going off the rails and into a hedonistic haze of cocaine, hard-drinking and hell-raising. “I check off all the boxes of that cliche,” he reflects, with disarming candour. By 1982, he was down and out. Dreyfuss was arrested for cocaine possession after he crashed his Mercedes into a palm tree in Benedict Canyon above Beverly Hills. “I found myself with Benedict Canyon on my cheek and the car above me, held in by a seatbelt that I did not put on. There was a long moment of silence. I knew my life had reached a very distinct change in the road.”
Dreyfuss successfully sobered up and, six months later, married the writer-producer Jeramie Rain. Emily was born in 1983, Benjamin in 1986 and Harry in 1990. The couple divorced in 1995 (“It’s the one thing that makes me shriek in self-loathing,” Dreyfuss once said in a BBC interview.)
Harry went public three years ago with accusations that the actor Kevin Spacey groped his crotch when he was 18. (Spacey has denied this happened.) Dreyfuss tweeted support for his son, which then prompted a writer, Jessica Teich, to accuse Dreyfuss of having exposed himself to her in 1987. He denied the allegation. Considering it now, he insists: “I had enormous respect for her and then she did this and it was one thing to find out that what I thought was a two-way street was, at least in memory to her, a one-way street of sexual oppression on my part. She said that I was using my power as a movie star.”
Then, with a cackle and humorous but charmless deep voice, he leans towards the Skype camera and intones: “I don’t have any power as a movie star. Not me, pal.”
Reverting to his normal speech, he veers off as wildly as if it’s 1982 on Benedict Canyon. “But I can understand, women have lost a great deal by men who have chosen thousands of years ago to corral women and try to make them as little as possible because they have magic. They have real magic. They give birth and they can outlast any men in sexual activity.”
“They have an enormously more powerful sexual drive and so men, at a time in history when men of a certain society didn’t even know there were other societies, they all came to the same agreement and that was: we have to corral these people. Women have been legislated against and particularised as people to be feared or at least disrespected.”
Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Richard Dreyfuss in the Steven Spielberg film. Photograph: Sony Pictures
Sexual exploitation in the Hollywood of the 70s and 80s was rife, Dreyfuss acknowledges. “I know a guy, a very powerful producer and very wealthy. But he’s so personally kind of icky, I said to him once: ‘Can I ask you, do you date women? Do you have a girlfriend?’ He said no. I said: ‘Well, what do you do?’ He said: ‘I have a very, very easy way of handling this. Every actress that comes into my office, I say, “Show me your tits.’‘ I said: ‘That works for you?’ He said: ‘Ten out of 50.’
“So it does go on and it has gone on from the beginning, but that’s not something anyone is very proud of. And it’s not restricted to Hollywood.” Does he think there are things, especially before the car crash, that could be seen as stepping over the line with women? “Of course. That’s why I stopped. I was a bad guy for a number of years. I allowed that to – you know, there are things one can say that are – that sound obscene so I’m not going to say them. But I did it and it wasn’t meant to be nonconsensual. Everything I ever did I thought was consensual. There was a time after Jessica’s statement came out when I was so paranoid, every woman I knew I would ask, have I ever done this? Have I ever made your life unhappy? I would ask close friends and women I worked with.”
Does he welcome the #MeToo movement? “Not at the cost of the loss of due process. Unfortunately, it became immediately equating an accusation being heard as a verdict. Women have been abused by men for millennia, but it’s not something that’s going to be solved by committing an equal or worse crime, which is kicking process into the ocean.
“That’s true of everyone and has very much to do with civics. The fact is that you don’t know civility when you’re born, as you don’t know the Ten Commandments when you’re born. You have to learn them. And so if you’re not taught civility, you won’t choose it. You won’t know that it exists.
“I think that when some women say that so-and-so is guilty of something, it has to be remembered that’s an accusation, and it’s an accusation fed by the press. The press says to a woman, if you want to heal that crime, you should go down that corridor, open that door, step out into the public and speak your piece. And they do. They go down that corridor, they open the door, they step out and commit character assassination.
“When I was accused, I had to say that I must have been guilty as a male at some points in my life of being a nuisance, but also my motto was, if you don’t flirt, you die. I think that men and women are meant to and are supposed to. When I said that, women came from all corners to yell at me.
“The thing is, it’s hard to make someone understand that there has never been a crime so heinous, even the Holocaust and the serial killer, that is so terrible, it’s worth kicking due process into the ocean, and the fact is that it can’t be left at an accusation. Due process must be allowed and, if you don’t, you’re going to lose something far more valuable.”
And he goes on to quote First They Came, one of the most famous poems about the Holocaust, by Pastor Martin Niemöller, who was imprisoned in a concentration camp.
Dreyfuss once said the thing he craves most is inner serenity
Dreyfuss’s life continues to take unpredictable turns. In 1996 he was nominated for an Oscar for Mr Holland’s Opus. In 2004, spectacularly miscast for a run of The Producers in London, he was fired a week before the first preview. He spent the next four years as a senior research adviser at St Antony’s College, Oxford, exploring the decline of civics education (he now runs an organisation to promote it).
Then, in 2009, he was directed by Spacey at the Old Vic theatre in London and ended up in earpiece-gate. Complicit, by Joe Sutton “was a very dense play and there were changes every night. It was impossible. So I wore an earpiece like John Gielgud, like Paul Muni, like all the actors like that. But it was a very slow news week so it made headlines all over England. I’m glad that’s then and not now.”
Dreyfuss once said the thing he craves most is inner serenity. Has he found it? “I’ve achieved some and not enough. If I had it, I’d know, although I have to say I have a pretty good imitation of it.”
Somewhere along the way of this interview, Svetlana has located the name of Marlene Dietrich’s co-star in The Blue Angel. “So the reason I did that,” Dreyfuss says, “was that Emil Jannings was the actor opposite Marlene Dietrich in the silent version of The Blue Angel. Emil Jannings won best actor [for The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command].
“He, however, returned to Germany and became part of Hitler’s film industry and disappeared from people’s consciousness until 1945, when Patton’s army was coming through the suburbs of Berlin and this filthy, dirty scarecrow figure of a man was coming up out of his basement with his hands above his head, and he kept saying [Dreyfuss adopts a German accent], ‘Don’t shoot, I vin Oscar! Don’t shoot, I vin Oscar!’”
Dreyfuss pulls back his jacket and scarf to reveal the simple plea printed on his shirt. He adds with a chuckle: “A friend of mine gave it to me when I was about 50 and I sympathise. I know the feeling.”
Richard Dreyfuss. Don’t shoot. He won an Oscar. - Guardian