At age 29 Richard Dreyfuss became the then youngest ever winner of the best actor Oscar for The Goodbye Girl in 1977. Starring in American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Mr. Holland’s Opus, he became one of the most popular actors of his generation before abruptly quitting his career in 2004 to campaign for civics to be taught in schools.
Now 75, Dreyfuss tells SENIOR PLANET why he was tempted back to the big screen in Sweetwater, a biopic about how Hall of Famer and former Harlem Globetrotter Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton made history as the first Black athlete to sign an NBA contract, forever changing basketball:
Q: What drew you to portray former NBA president Maurice Podoloff in Sweetwater?
RICHARD: After announcing I was retiring, people unfortunately took me seriously. So when I came back, I found that most people had forgotten who the hell I was and I only got work that really meant nothing to anybody. And I decided I didn’t want to do that. I want to be part of good projects that people think about and have consequence and Sweetwater was one of the first offers I got that was reflective of that.
Here’s a peek at the trailer for Sweetwater:
Q: Do you play any sports yourself?
RICHARD: I had no sport growing up. In my late 40s I began playing golf and thought I had found my sport but, in reality, I had simply found a reason to have a hernia. I kept having operations on my back so I couldn’t play anymore.
Q: So how do you keep fit?
RICHARD: I work out with a physical therapist. Before I hurt my back I used to bowl and I liked to bowl alone – just like the name of a very famous book, Bowling Alone. I also liked to play golf alone. I would go out when it was getting dark so I could play by myself.
Q: Tell me about your diet?
RICHARD: A couple of years ago I was very heavy, inappropriately heavy. I must have weighed about 210 pounds. So I started to eat vegetarian sandwiches for lunch and I was lucky enough to lose my appetite for specific foods. I would be hungry – but not for anything specific. And I found a great freedom because I’d always been trapped by my hunger and finally, in my 60s, I began to lose that. So right now, for instance, I don’t even care what I’m going to eat for a certain meal. And I feel better. I also think that eating vegetables helped me lose weight but I’m not vegetarian.
Q: Why did you quit acting?
RICHARD: First of all, I consider that the fact that I was able to successfully pursue an occupation that I truly loved – and being paid and praised for that – is about as nice a way of living as you can find. And so I did that without anything stopping me until I was in my early 60s and then I gave up film acting because I was interested in pursuing something that I had no background in and I didn’t want to be stupid about it.
Q: This was when you began studying civics at Oxford University in the UK?
RICHARD: Politics and things like that usually require only that you’re famous or beautiful. And you say: Don’t kill all the whales or something – so I began to cringe at the notion of celebrities with a cause. I remember once getting into an argument with a rabbi about Israel, and finding myself debating Israeli foreign policy in front of his entire synagogue congregation. I thought that was the height of stupidity so I didn’t do that anymore.
So instead of that, I retired as an actor and I went to Oxford and I was a senior research advisor for four years and I learned as much as I could about the damage that was being done to my country by not teaching civics, so that was a kind of holiday for me and it gave me a chance to experience being Mr. Chips.
Learn about The Dreyfuss Civics Initiative here.
Q: After you’d done being Mr. Chips, what persuaded you back into acting?
RICHARD: After four years, I learned a great deal. And when I came home I started a nonprofit and stayed involved in the issues of education and I wrote a book called One Thought Scares Me in 2022. I thought that I would go to Oxford, come out, write a book and drop dead. And instead of that, I wrote the book and found myself quite alive, thank you. And so I found myself able to work and interested only in that as an occupation. I didn’t want to become a different person. I want to inform my work with what I have done.
Q: What is your most memorable role?
RICHARD: Probably Mr. Holland’s Opus. I think that it satisfied the ambition I had to be a teacher and to be a kind of good guy. Mr Holland was a good guy but it wasn’t easy for him. He wasn’t a great father and he had to learn how to be a great father. But I felt that was very realistic and good hearted. Also there were 1000 extras on that film, playing parents or students, and there was reason to often perform in front of them and I found that I would repeat performances of my music 10 or 12 times just because I wanted to. It was so much fun.
Q: You made Russian-born Svetlana Erokhin your third wife in 2006. Do you have any tips for finding love later in life?
RICHARD: Of course I do. I’m built to be pompous! As a matter of fact, when I met Svetlana, I said to her that the trick to being capable of falling in love as late as your 60s is that your previous marriages are all just practice. And I found that with Svetlana, the trick was to share. It wasn’t to love. It was to share – problems and victories. And when I was willing to do that, we worked. We’ve been married for almost 20 years and that’s twice as long as I’ve ever been married.
Q: You famously made Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Always with Steven Spielberg. Will you work together again?
RICHARD: I would doubt it. It’s been a long time and I suppose it’s a sense of growing apart or growing in different directions or something so no, I don’t think it’s going to happen.
“I don’t really think about a second retirement, but I have thought about a renewed interest in my work.”
Q: What are your greatest professional – and personal – accomplishments?
RICHARD: I think they’re intertwined and I believe that my greatest accomplishment is my temperament. And I hold myself up as a nice guy, a good guy, and I don’t look for confrontation. At the same time, I am the first person to realize that the only reason I can say that is because I’m filled with self delusion! I’m just kidding myself. So oftentimes, I have found that my great temperament is due to the fact that I’m deaf, dumb and blind!
Q: So now that you have returned to acting, will you ever retire again?
RICHARD: I don’t know. It’s funny, I don’t really think about a second retirement, but I have thought about a renewed interest in my work. And hopefully that means not just being a background player. I want to be an important actor. I want to contribute what I’ve always felt I did contribute. And I don’t want to just get work – I want to enlarge the body of my work of which I am enormously proud. I think that my work stands very well in reflecting who I am. And in that way, it’s very personally prideful, and I’d rather pursue that than anything else.
Q: What is your secret to aging with attitude?
RICHARD: I think first of all, it’s an acknowledgement. It’s a self confession. You have to say: I don’t have to win every argument. And if you can say that to yourself and know that you mean it, you’re ahead of the game.
And I think that once I knew that I was allowed to make a mistake and not be sent to hell for it, that changed everything. Or once I knew that I could be proud of my work or proud of my life, I went ahead and felt and did those things that made me feel better. And I hope that when I say things like: I tell the truth, that I mean it. So I basically believe that I do tell the truth and have no secrets although I probably do have a secret or two that are very hard for me to admit.
Gill Pringle began her career as a rock columnist for popular British newspapers, traveling the world with Madonna, U2 and Michael Jackson. Moving to Los Angeles 27 years ago, she interviews film and TV personalities for prestigious UK outlets, The Independent, The i-paper and The Sunday Times – and, of course, Senior Planet. A member of Critics Choice Association, BAFTA and AWFJ, she wrote the screenplay for 2016 Netflix family film, The 3 Tails Movie: A Mermaid Adventure. An award-winning writer, in 2021 she was honored by the Los Angeles Press Club with 1st prize at the NAEJ Awards.
Photos: Tony Rivetti Jr. SMPSP/Briarcliff Entertainment