Where were you in '73 when you first saw him? You may not remember, but you remember him. He seemed so unlike any actor of his generation, he beamed with intelligence, passion, compassion. He seemed vividly real -- a high school intellectual who'd actually read some books, who was self-aware and insanely likable, boasted an ironic laugh and was spending himself in the pursuit of a blond sex goddess who, even he understood, he would never get.
That was Richard Dreyfuss in George Lucas' "American Graffiti," on the verge of stardom.
The stardom came -- "Jaws," "The Goodbye Girl" (and an Oscar) and so forth -- then it went, and now it seems to have come again. That's the cycle of the business and he's made some peace with it.
And the man who opens the hotel door seems peaceful. Once a wild and theatrical interview, Dreyfuss has retreated to a kind of distanced sedateness. Nothing much gets a rise out of him any more, and he's not apt to go off on a toot as he once did, turning interviews into one-man shows -- doing voices, jumping VTC acrobatically around, blowing salvos of saliva into the far seats.
Possibly snow on the roof dampens the fire in the belly. He's capped in nearly albino-white wiring of hair, is smallish and a little stumpy (the middle-age body has been much lived in). And like a man who agrees with Thoreau that it's wise to beware any enterprise that requires new clothes, he's wearing a pair of very old jeans, very old sneakers and a blue button-down shirt. His eyes are somewhat hooded and he's less than ebullient; something in his personality suggests he'd rather be undergoing a root canal.
What's got him answering inane questions in a hotel room is "Silent Fall," the Bruce Beresford psychiatric murder mystery shot in Easton last year. Dreyfuss plays Dr. Jake Rainer, who is tasked with getting the name of a murderer out of the mind of an 8-year-old autistic child, played by Towson schoolboy Ben Faulkner.
Not an easy role: Most of his on-screen time is shared with the silent Faulkner.
"He was such an empathetic little creature. He was so easy to react to," says Dreyfuss, 47. "I assumed I used some of the same techniques I used with my own children, but all I had to do was react honestly to Ben."
This gets, quickly enough, to theories of acting. Asked how he put together a performance as a psychiatrist, Dreyfuss is indifferently truthful. He has no theory of acting, and no tales of suffering for his art, of visiting mental hospitals up and down the East Coast. No sir, not for him.
"I do it the way I've always done it. It's not an upstairs [by that he means intellectual] process. It's not a mysterious process. In fact, I have never known my process. I just do it."
It's as if, he seems to be saying, he already has all those people inside him; his job is a way to find how to get them out. "You find it in a burst of knowledge."
That's the approach he's pretty much taken on his career. Asked if he chooses movies because of their social meaning and intellectual importance, he says, "I'd love to say yes but it would be a lie. The answer is no. I like to entertain myself with a good story. You can't save the world with every single word.
"Sometimes you say yes to a part for the simplest of reasons: You want to work with the people. In this case, I wanted to work with Bruce Beresford, who'd made a great movie, 'Driving Miss Daisy.' So I went ahead and did it."
He is asked if he remembers how it all began with him back in "Graffiti."
"It wasn't clear," he says, recalling the epochal film that made him a household name. "In fact, I was probably the only person who was completely wrong about it. Everyone said it was a classic. I said, 'It's a little '50s movie.' There had been a disastrous sneak preview. So I was up in Canada working on 'The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,' and Cindy Williams called me. 'Do you want to be a star?' she said. 'Yes,' I said. 'Well,' she said, 'get down here, because you are.' "
Dreyfuss has worked with some great directors: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg (twice) and now Beresford.
"George was very sweet. His idea of directing actors is to cast properly. It took forever. But he just had to know that the person he was casting was the character, then he'd leave you alone. Most directors these days don't get terribly involved in the actual directing of your performance. These days, only Steven Spielberg gets into actual physical details with you. He has an uncanny gift for coming up with good business.
"Bruce, on the other hand, is very relaxed, doesn't push, doesn't press. His theory seems to be 'first things first.' He doesn't seem to spend a lot of time philosophizing."
As an actor, Dreyfuss tries to slide back and forth between comic roles -- he was just in a version of Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" -- and dramas, like "Silent Fall."
"When I'm doing drama, I've got to do drama and vice versa. If I only did comedy, I'd feel strangled. If I only did drama, I'd blow my brains out."