Film Studies: How Hollywood (and <i>The Producers</i>) crushed Richard Dreyfuss

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The Independent Culture

The news that a back injury would keep Richard Dreyfuss from opening in Mel Brooks's The Producers in London cannot have pleased anyone - not even Nathan Lane, who stepped into the lead role at short notice. Nowadays Lane is Max Bialystock, the producer who reckons to make Springtime for Hitler, just as once that monstrous paradox belonged to Zero Mostel. And Dreyfuss? One has to wonder, will he ever get on as Max, or will the wounded back come to stand for the frustration of one of America's most crushed actors?

For today's young audience, it may be that Nathan Lane is the hotter ticket. But once upon a time, Richard Dreyfuss was so hot he was burning up - or so hot no one wanted to touch. Born in Brooklyn in October 1947, he has never lost the panache, the nerve and the arrogance that comes from being the smart son of a successful New York lawyer. Even if self-taught (perhaps because he was self-taught), the young Dreyfuss was a pint-sized know-all, very brash, very self-confident... insufferable. When the trouble began in his life, he was enough of a know-all to know that he deserved his come-uppance many times over. But has he suffered too much?

When he was nine, the family moved to Los Angeles, and that's how Dreyfuss became one of the most self-impressed would-be actors at the Beverly Hills high school. He played the Telegraph Boy in a school production of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, and the next day a studio was on the phone, talking about auditions. "I thought that what that phone call meant was that I was going to be a movie star ... I jumped all over the house, screaming and yelling, and my parents were trying to calm me down."

That euphoria (and the arrogance that Dreyfuss could not suppress) lasted over a decade. He had done a good deal of theatre and television by 1966 when he went before his Los Angeles draft board to give his best performance yet, in"I Am a Conscientious Objector". He got the part and was ordered to do service at the LA County General Hospital. The work was meant to be humbling, if not punitive, but Dreyfuss found fuel for his own unstoppable high - he became addicted to amphetamines.

In 1972, he was touring the play The Time of Your Life, with Henry Fonda in the lead, and Dreyfuss was in such a pill-dependent state that he lost it during a performance. He didn't know whether he was speaking his lines in the play or talking gibberish. He was convinced that, as the curtain fell, there would be attendants lined up to take him away. Nothing happened. So he went back to his hotel. This is in Washington DC, where he was staying at a hotel called the Watergate. As he retires for the night, he says, he is in the room next to a strange group of guys who have some mission - they turn out to be the Watergate burglars. The collision of hallucinations is so great that Dreyfuss throws away his stock of amphetamines. He is going to be clean.

He had done one or two movies - a tiny part in The Graduate and a very striking Baby Face Nelson in Dillinger. But a year after Watergate, he is the lead in American Graffiti, playing Curt Henderson, the brains in the gang of kids - the protagonist, you'd have to say, if it was a novel; and Curt is the one who might make it as a novelist.

All of a sudden there was no way anyone could tell him to calm down, for this superlative young actor was getting so many of the plum parts. He went to Canada to play the lead in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; he would be one of the three guys against the shark in Jaws; he delivered what may still be his best performance in Inserts as the fallen hot-shot director who is now making porno movies; he was Steven Spielberg's ordinary guy seeing shapes in the mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; and he played the young actor in The Goodbye Girl. Except for Inserts, all of these pictures got very good reviews, and an enormous amount of attention.

And then at the Oscars for 1977, Richard Burton (for Equus) was halfway out of his seat when Sylvester Stallone (who is tested by more than one word in a line) said, "Richard... Dreyfuss". Other nominees were Woody Allen in Annie Hall, Marcello Mastroianni in A Special Day and John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Of course, in hindsight, I think we'd all give the statuette to Travolta: it's the one of those five performances that is still fun to watch, and the shy Travolta was actually putting a raw slice of Americana on film, whereas Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl was... showing off?

Not many Oscar-winners have been so unpopular, or done so much with personal affront to earn it. You couldn't tell Dreyfuss a thing. You certainly couldn't urge him do the Bob Fosse role in All That Jazz instead of the next few films that he did judge worthy of him - The Big Fix, The Competition, The Buddy System and Whose Life Is It Anyway?. By that time, the early Eighties, Dreyfuss had renewed his ties to addiction, concentrating on cocaine and Percodan. He was losing his youthful look fast, and he was out of control. In October 1982, close to 35, he crashed his car into a palm tree on Benedict Canyon Drive. In hospital he was arrested for cocaine possession.

He did not work for three years, and when he came back he was older, sadder and a great deal more sensitive to others. But those traits that surely made him a more decent person and likely prolonged his life, may also have taken away his unique, assertive edge as an actor.

It's not that Richard Dreyfuss was altered beyond recognition. He would get back to doing pretty successful movies - like Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Tin Men, Stakeout, Moon Over Parador. In time, he got another Oscar nomination, in 1996, for Mr Holland's Opus, a very sentimental story about a star musician who gives up his own ambitions to teach young people. That underlined niceness has been very evident in Dreyfuss's choices, and it extended to the TV series The Education of Max Bickford.

He does not get lead roles in movies now, and his fans must search him out on television. There, in the last several years, he did a great Fagin in Oliver Twist, an inspired Meyer Lansky in Lansky, and an unnervingly accurate Alexander Haig in The Day Reagan Was Shot. A come-uppance? By professional standards, yes. On the other hand, Dreyfuss now does a great deal of excellent work that goes unnoticed. He has become a professional actor instead of a guy living in a wild dream. I hope his back gets better.

'The Producers': Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London WC2 (0870 890 1109), now previewing, opens 9 November, booking to 23 April 2005