Richard Dreyfuss: Out of the wreckage

Hollywood stars on the West End stage are not new. But none is haunted by a past of quite such drug-ravaged turmoil as this one

For many of us the name Richard Dreyfuss in the credits of a film or on the marquee of a theatre is an instant bonus. "Good cast," we mutter knowingly. He is one of a generation of American actors who seem to imbue their art with an almost demented intensity while never shying from occasional crowd-pleaser roles, in his case in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

So how is it, then, that Dreyfuss, now 61, who for years reigned as the youngest man to get a best actor Oscar for his lead part in The Goodbye Girl, has begun to irritate more than please us – especially in Britain where he has been spending a lot of time lately, both acting and playing academe at St Anthony's College, Oxford?

The "difficult" Richard Dreyfuss, sniped one newspaper writer. The "once-bankable" Dreyfuss was a cruel slap lurking in one review last week of his latest theatre endeavour, Complicit, which has just opened at the Old Vic.

Maybe it is old-fashioned snobbery. Aside from being a Hollywood lefty, Dreyfuss has for some time been on a personal quest to encourage the teaching of civics and the mechanics of democracy and evangelises on the subject on American campuses. That's fine, but it seems mildly preposterous that he was until recently a senior associate member at an Oxford college.

And what is it that Yankee actors expect to find by hanging out in the West End rather than on Broadway? You might ask that also of Kevin Spacey, who as director of Complicit is sharing in the pain of the reviews. (They have been mostly lukewarm.)

Dreyfuss has said that he took the Oxford job "because I was in England looking for something to do, and because they asked me". It is worth noting, though, that he was at a loose end because of that odd saga in October 2004 when he dropped out of his role as Max Bialystock in the West End version of The Producers at the last minute.

The ostensible reason was back pain, though Dreyfuss was later to admit that he had been fired because he could not meet the physical demands of the show; his replacement was the none too agile Nathan Lane.

So let's add unreliable to the strikes against him. That seems to make sense in the light of the awful publicity he has been receiving thanks to Complicit, in which he plays a US newspaperman under legal pressure to expose his sources for a story on the torturing of terrorist suspects.

The press night was delayed for one week to allow for "more development time" with director Spacey. Dreyfuss reportedly was flubbing his words. Moreover, when the curtain did go up on opening night, the actor had an earpiece to allow for discreet prompting lest his lines escaped him once more. "Performers who cannot remember their lines should not be on stage," bleated the Daily Mail.

The Mail would not be much impressed with the excuses that Dreyfuss might offer for occasionally blanking – that he damaged his memory cells during years of reckless drug abuse. The truth is his career and his soul – he was diagnosed in early middle age with bipolar disorder – have been through times of extreme turbulence.

He has married three times, achieved rare heights of obnoxiousness as an addict and recently retired from movie-acting only suddenly to take it up again. (For which you might have been grateful if you enjoyed him playing Dick Cheney last year in Oliver Stone's W.) And we haven't even mentioned the headlines late last year about the lawsuit he filed against his own father and uncle claiming they owe him $4m on a property loan of $870,000 made 25 years ago. That seemed kind of crummy.

"There have been things in my life I have no regrets about," he noted recently, adding that in some ways his addictive personality has added up to his having a "screw loose". He told the interviewer, "Other things I've done, I wince at. The drugs, the arrogance. That stuff. But does anyone live a life of constant triumph?" Considerable triumph has nonetheless been his.

He was born in Brooklyn as Richard Dreyfus. Note the altered spelling. Dreyfuss, who is Jewish, claims to be a distant relative of Alfred Dreyfus, the captain wrongfully dispatched as a spy to Devil's Island in French Guiana. His father Norman, a lawyer and restaurateur, and Geraldine, a political activist, raised him in Los Angeles.

As a teen – and smoking pot – he had an epiphany about the absolute importance of ending all wars, triggering a need to participate in politics that has never left him. Dreyfuss became a conscientious objector, escaping the Vietnam draft and instead doing service as a clerk in the basement of a Los Angeles hospital. And it was there where he had his first experience of a new variety of drugs – uppers to keep him awake. Drugs and booze inhabited Dreyfuss through most of the 1970s, years that were among his most successful.

Dreyfuss landed a bit part in The Graduate in 1967, but it was his appearance in American Graffiti in 1973 that put him in the big league. Thereafter came his collaboration with Steven Spielberg, who gave him starring roles first in Jaws (1975) and then Close Encounters (1977). The Goodbye Girl came out the same year. (Dreyfuss held the record as the youngest man to win the Oscar for best actor until 2003 when the 29-year-old Adrien Brody won for The Pianist.)

The early 1980s were largely lost to rehab, but Dreyfuss made a celluloid comeback in 1986 with Down and Out in Beverly Hills. In 1991 he landed a comedy role opposite Bill Murray in the widely acclaimed What About Bob? and four years later he was nominated for best actor again for Mr Holland's Opus, though he didn't win.

The usual shorthand for how Dreyfuss got clean begins and ends with a car crash in 1982. He smashed his Mercedes into a palm tree and woke up hanging upside down beneath it. The shame of the police finding cocaine and Percodan tablets in the wreckage drove him to rehab. Of course, it was more complicated than that, as Dreyfuss himself explains in the pages of Moments of Clarity, a new book about prominent people escaping addiction by Christopher Kennedy Lawford.

Like others in the book, Dreyfuss writes in first person about his experiences. By the time of the crash, he says, he had become "a board member and probably chairman of admissions for the Assholes Center". The humiliation was crushing, but within days he was back to his old tricks, drinking and attending cocaine-fuelled sex orgies.

Yet everywhere he went, he was accompanied by a vision of a little girl in a pink dress and horn-rimmed glasses. She was even there at one of the orgies and it was on that day that the actor was overcome with revulsion with himself. "I knew that little girl was either the little girl that I didn't kill that night I completely lost control of my car, or she was the girl, the daughter I hadn't had yet. I knew that as a certain fact." He then reveals: "I sobered up on November 19, 1982. My daughter was born November 19, 1983. My daughter wears horn-rimmed glasses."

In those pages, Dreyfuss speaks also of being 16 different personalities in one man and the search for the chemical formula he takes today, legally prescribed for his condition.

He seems to have arrived at a point of reasonable peace now. He is still acting, he is pursuing his passions about civics and he is approaching the third anniversary of his third marriage – to a Russian, Svetlana Erokhin.

On his return to the London stage, he told reporters that he was "very excited to have a chance of not being fired before the opening". And though they carped about the earpiece, most critics had little bad to say about his acting.

A life in brief

Born: Richard Stephen Dreyfus, 29 October 1947, Brooklyn, New York. He later added the second S to his surname.

Family: Married to Svetlana Erokhin, his third wife. Has one daughter and two sons from his first marriage.

Early life: At the age of nine his family moved to Los Angeles, where he starred in plays at the Beverly Hills Jewish Center. Dreyfuss was later kicked out of San Fernando Valley State College for demanding that a professor apologise for criticising Marlon Brando's performance in a production of Julius Caesar.

Career: Although his first screen role was in The Graduate, the breakthrough came playing Baby Face Nelson in Dillinger. Dreyfuss went on to win the best actor Oscar in 1978 for The Goodbye Girl. After his arrest for cocaine possession in 1982, he received an Oscar nomination in 1996 for Mr Holland's Opus. Dreyfuss has kept busy with his political activism, as well as a stint lecturing at Oxford University. He appeared as Dick Cheney in W last year.

He says: "I've been rich and famous. And I've been broke. I've had love and success. I've had all the money in the world. I've questioned everything I've had so far. I have no regrets about being a movie star."

They say: "I was really looking for actors who were still closer to their own memories of their own childhoods. Richard Dreyfuss was a bigger kid than the children he was raising." Steven Spielberg, director of Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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