Richard Dreyfuss loves Washington. There's always something going on.
In the spring of '72 he was here on tour with Henry Fonda and Jane Alexander in "The Time of Your Life," and he was staying at the Howard Johnson across from the Watergate . . . .
He springs from his chair, and suddenly you see him walking down a hotel corridor, tired after the performance, heading for bed.
"On my floor is a roomful of Sony salesmen. The door is always open, and there's this room with the transmitters and recorders and receivers, and the guy sitting there with things around his ears, and the clipboards and boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I saw them every night for six weeks."
Now he is back in his chair, reading an invisible newspaper.
"That June I opened my paper . . . Watergate! . . . Howard Johnson Motel! . . . THAT WAS MY FLOOR! THOSE GUYS! I KNOW THOSE GUYS!"
And the wonderful maniacal laughter . . . .
Suddenly, there he is: the peppery shark expert in "Jaws," the obsessively determined hero of "Close Encounters," who pursued his fate like a salmon swimming upstream, the lovable wise guy of "The Goodbye Girl" who won an Oscar for his brashness. All very different people. All Richard Dreyfuss.
When he was playing a totally paralyzed man in the current film "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" he found himself going limp all the time, slipping into that sinister relaxation, starting to be the quadriplegic.
"You gotta get outta bed quick! Jump up! Do some push-ups, QUICK!"
Perhaps the strongest single thing in the film is the energy and vitality that he projects, showing how the character must yearn to move, even a hand, even a toe. "As an actor," he says, "it was strangely easy to just tell my body to die, to go dead. But in the scenes with the girlfriend and the woman doctor I really felt that imprisonment. You just wanted to do that." His hand strokes the air as though it were a shoulder.
Acting is more than just feeling, though. The 34-year-old Dreyfuss spent weeks talking to quadriplegics and doctors, visiting hospitals. He knows about hospitals. He worked for two years on the midnight shift at Los Angeles County General, doing conscientious objector duty.
"I'd wander through the wards listening to people moan. I found this door on the 17th floor behind some packing cases, and it came out on the top row of the surgery amphitheater. And I looked down . . . ."
Suddenly he is standing there in his orderly's whites, staring far below into the circle of hard green light.
"There were a bunch of doctors and nurses, and the radio was on, a baseball game, and the doctor had a cigarette in his mouth, and he was holding a machine like a massager on this guy's skin, taking a layer of skin off his back. It was for burns. And there was blood a-l-l o-v-e-r the room. What they don't show on television. Here's this guy holding this machine and they're making dirty jokes. I snuck in every night. I learned I really hated hospitals."
He had gone for CO mainly to test his manhood, he says, whether it led to Canada or jail, this being 1967, before the draft lottery gave many people an out. Somewhat to his disappointment he got his CO status right away, finished his service and went back to marching for civil rights and lobbying for amnesty.
It was a time for rebellion anyway, a time to stand up to his father and the liberal-to-socialistic traditions of the family: Zionist and so desperately pro-Roosevelt that his grandfather still mourns on his birthday because it is April 12, the day that FDR died.
"I discovered Huey Long. I think he was a great man, but you can't say that to a Roosevelt man. And I'm pro-Israel, but not Zionist. It took all my courage to lock horns with my father on all this."
There's a precedent. "We go way back," he mutters. His great-grandfather's sister was with the Russian populist Narodniki movement that assassinated Czar Alexander II. When the family came over in 1888 her brother became a New York sanitation worker, and for 12 years she refused to speak to him because he wore the uniform of the state. Dreyfuss' grandfather was a butter-and-egg man, a teamster for 40 years, a New York tough guy known as the mayor of Chinatown.
"My great-uncle Dick, whom I was named for, worked as a broken-arm broken-leg man for Waxey Gordon. My grandfather says to this day, 'Mister G was the finest man I ever knew: He waited for his butter and eggs in line like everyone else.' "
Waxey Gordon, of course, was an enforcer for the Mob.
Then there is Dreyfuss' father, Norman, a lawyer in Queens ("My first memories were being told to be quiet because my father was studying his law books"), who decided in 1956 that he hated New York City, hated his office on the 67th floor of the Empire State Building, took his family to Europe and spent all his savings, arrived in Beverly Hills with $15 and started all over again.
Is it coming through: the bustling, bristling, feisty energy of Duddy Kravitz? The lovable wise guy of "The Big Fix?" The 5-foot-8 actor who brought to the American consciousness a whole new kind of hero: intelligent, quick, high-strung, hot-tempered, sexy?
No wonder people thought he could never play a quadriplegic.
Now he pops up to get a cigarette, sits down, lights it, darts forward for an ashtray, leans back. The photographer is going nuts. "I'm gonna destroy your focus!" he cackles wildly in a heavy Transylvanian accent, his eyebrows jumping up to his hairline. Then the maniacal laugh.
Richard Dreyfuss and the press have had their bad days. His sheer intensity, his quickness, his explosive reactions seem to have upset some interviewers. And critics have squatted on some of his favorite pictures. "Inserts," an offbeat story about a Hollywood director reduced to shooting porn films, never recovered from the X rating it got when United Artists absentmindedly let it be prescreened.
"A wonderful movie. So intelligent. Almost the only movie that really said something about the business. The greatest set I've ever been on -- it was shot on a London soundstage, but when I walked in I thought I was back in Beverly Hills. I knew mansions like that. This is my home; I've been here." They only had two weeks to rehearse and two to shoot. Dreyfuss gave half his salary to provide another two weeks, but the picture sank like a stone. He is still irritated.
The Beverly Hills he lived in wasn't exactly the jet-set neighborhood you read about. At BH High he knew Carl Reiner's son and Joey Bishop's son and a few others, but mostly he was working. Started in community theater at 9, went professional at 14, commuting to New York and appearing on TV.
"By '67 I was doing what they call guest shots . . . ."
Suddenly he is an announcer staring out of an imaginary TV set. "Barbara Stanwyck in 'The Big Valley'! . . . and RICHARD DREYFUSS as LUD! 'Mod Squad'! . . . with special guest star RICHARD DREYFUSS!"
His classic Big Break came with "American Graffiti" in 1972, and he has been working more or less steadily since. "His characters are always thinking," one writer said, "always wide awake."
A lot of the pressure on him comes from inside. Everyone loved his work as Duddy Kravitz, a Canadian "what-makes-Sammy-run" type, but he felt he could have done better. And then when he signed with director Steven Spielberg for "some picture about a fish" he made a lot of film establishment people mad by saying it was a waste of his time. He thought his career was damaged for sure. Then he got a load of what the editor had done with all that watery footage. The picture was "Jaws."
Fame and money seem to have taken the edge off his self-destructive anxieties, and the drinking and drugging have stopped, though he has a never-ending battle with the scales, and last year there was that $2.5-million breach of promise suit by a Hollywood beauty. He is full of projects. His constant drive for the new, the challenging, the harder, the greater roles has taken him back to the stage. He did a Cassius in Brooklyn and an Iago to Paul Winfield's Othello. He wants to do a Hamlet, "and maybe Malvolio," he adds, noting that villains and supporting parts have more fun than the heroes.
"Henry Fonda once said that the great thing about being a villain is that you don't have to work every day, and you always have the best death scene. The leading man doesn't die, it's always the best friend. He said he never wanted to be a star."
Well yes. You can say that if you're Henry Fonda. Still, there definitely is an appeal in Donald Duck that Mickey Mouse never had.
Dreyfuss has been invited to teach a history seminar at Yale. He is excited about it and hopes to confirm it after his present tour promoting his new film. But he does seem to be, when all is said and done, a child of the movies. He produced "The Big Fix," a detective satire whose charmingly unworldly hero, Moses Wine, is brought up to date with reality in one of film's most shocking moments when he finds his girl murdered. It didn't go over, but the actor is talking about producing his next picture, "Life Upside Down," and after that maybe a love story.
There was talk of a sequel to "Goodbye Girl" (based on "Bogart Slept Here," the script that Neil Simon had written before he got a load of Dreyfuss and what he could do with a one-liner), but the author realized that nobody really cares about the problems of a successful movie star, which is what the hero becomes.
"I would whine and complain to my friends about the terrible problems I was having, and after awhile they'd say, 'Oh shut up, you're rich and you're famous and da-da da-da, and I don't want to hear about your drinking, stupid . . . .' "
Suddenly he is sitting at a press conference. He is the entire conference all by himself there, with the reporters leaning in and the yellow pads and the tape recorders and water carafes. "I'm with this table of journalists, and somebody asks why is it I'm the only actor who has this public weight problem. And this woman on my left cuts in and says, 'Because that's all you talk about, Richard.' "
He turns off his mouth like a spigot. And then opens it to laugh.