Richard Dreyfuss famously turned down the part of Matt Hooper in Jaws. He didn’t think the film would be a good career choice. But after seeing, and being disappointed, by his performance in the film The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, he immediately called Spielberg on the phone and begged for the part fearing no one in Hollywood would hire him ever again. The rest, as they say, is history. Dreyfuss would appear in one of the most iconic horror movies of the 1970s. Jaws would go on to change the face of the industry, it ushered in the era of the blockbuster, and Dreyfuss’ memorable turn as shark specialist Matt Hooper would set him on a road to Hollywood stardom.
Richard Dreyfuss grew up in Brooklyn, New York in the early 1950s before moving to California at the age of nine in 1956. He acted in theatre from an early, and appeared in the television production In Mama’s House at the age of fifteen.
His first major film was The Graduate where he appeared in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role, uttering the single line: “Shall I get the cops? I’ll get the cops.” Alongside Harrison Ford and Ron Howard he made his proper debut in George Lucas’ American Graffiti. This led to the most successful part of his career, appearing in box office smash hits Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind before winning the Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Goodbye Girl.
However, by 1978 Dreyfuss was severely addicted to cocaine, and was arrested in 1982 for possession. After rehab he made a film comeback in 1986 with Down and Out In Beverly Hills and Stakeout the following year.
Dreyfuss would go on to star in many audience favourites including the critically acclaimed Mr. Holland’s Opus, What About Bob, and Always.
10. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Stoppard, 1990)
Richard Dreyfuss is where he seems happiest – playing an actor. Dreyfuss is the main star here but he’s brilliant as the Leading Player in a self-referential comedy-drama about two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet musing over their existence. It’s an original and highly amusing tale that also features brilliant performances from Tim Roth and Gary Oldman.
9. American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973)
The film that first brought George Lucas to the attentions of audiences, American Graffiti sees a young Richard Dreyfuss in the role of Curt Henderson, the idealistic young man preparing to leave his home town for a life beyond the comfortable confines of the place he grew up in. It’s a terrific ensemble story of friendship and growing up.
8. Moon Over Parador (Mazurksy, 1988)
Richard Dreyfuss is in a familiar role – like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Goodbye Girl, he’s playing an actor. And he does it so well. He’s rarely been better in a role that demands him to impersonate the dead dictator of fictional South American country Parador.
7. Stakeout (Badham, 1987)
A fun, fast-paced buddy cop film from director John Badham, Stakeout sees Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez pitted together as undercover cops who like to make their stakeout’s rather more lively. It’s a funny film and thanks to Badham’s ability to construct well-executed action sequences, also features some great set-pieces. Dreyfuss and Estevez make for a perfect double act and would return again for Stakeout 2.
6. Tin Men (Levinson, 1987)
This terrific character study from writer-director Barry Levinson pits Richard Dreyfuss against Danny DeVito. The film benefits from a great script, some wonderful on-location filming, and perfect casting of the two leads.
Two rival aluminium-siding salesman are involved in a minor car crash which begins a battle of wits as each man tries to get his own back on the other. Levinson provides his usual balance of light and dark as he looks at what lengths these two men will go to beat the other.
5. Down and Out in Beverly Hills (Mazurksy, 1986)
There’s a lot more layers to Paul Mazursky’s terrific comedy-drama Down and Out In Beverly Hills than its often given credit for. Dreyfuss plays disgruntled businessman Dave Whiteman who spends his days making lots of money and sleeping with the house maid while his wife does yoga. His kids are troubled and he’s distanced from his family. One day, Nick Nolte, a street bum, tries to drown himself in the Whiteman’s Beverly Hills pool and Dave saves him. Welcoming him into their home, the bum begins to influence each of their lives for better and for worse.
It’s not a perfect film and there’s probably more mileage to gain out of Dreyfuss’ performance. But he’s still as watchable as ever in a role that would have been particularly difficult to pull off for many other actors. Dreyfuss’ Dave is in many ways quite unlikable but the actor gives him enough fragility and a certain amount of charm to endear him to audiences.
Based on the French play Boudu sauvé des eaux, the story was previously adapted by Jean Renoir in 1932. The film also features Little Richard and off the back of the film’s success led to a mini career revival for the classic pop-rocker.
4. Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
Easily one of Dreyfuss’ most recognisable and well-known roles, Matt Hooper, the shark expert from Jaws was the comedy aside to serious fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) and sea-phobic Chief of police Brody (Roy Scheider). Dreyfuss has since said in various interviews since that he lived a hedonistic lifestyle during the filming of Jaws, frequently partying only to come on set to the jibes from fellow actor Robert Shaw. Dreyfuss delivers a terrific performance in a film he originally turned down.
3. Let It Ride (Pytka, 1989)
Let It Ride is a pure delight – a film about a luckless gambler having the best day of his life at the track. It’s whimsical fun that steers clear of seriousness in favour of lively, larger-than-life characters and a generous helping of farce. Dreyfuss is energetic and likeable as Jay Trotter, a gambler who is about to have the luckiest day of his life.
2. The Goodbye Girl (Ross, 1977)
The poster proclaims: “Thank you Neil Simon for making us laugh about falling in love…again”. It would be a little presumptuous, even pretentious, were it not so true. I’m not a huge fan of the romantic comedy genre (particularly of the films that have appeared over the last decade) but The Goodbye Girl is one of those films, like much of the work of Woody Allen, that makes romance appealing beyond the stereotypes and cliches that formed the bastard child of the genre – the Chick Flick. The Goodbye Girl is a funny, fun-loving, warm-hearted and happy little film about two drifting souls who find friendship and eventually love.
Richard Dreyfuss is brilliant as struggling actor Elliot Garfield who lets Marsha Mason and her young daughter stay in the apartment he has sub-let even though they claim to live there. As much as Dreyfuss and Mason’s relationship is central to the film, young actress Quinn Cummings is superb in the role of Mason’s daughter. This unlikely trio make for an original and likeable group of characters. And thanks to Neil Simon’s sparkling script with dialogue as rich and colourful as his characters, The Goodbye Girl is not only Dreyfuss best film, it’s the best film of a Neil Simon screenplay.
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977)
It isn’t surprising that Dreyfuss’ greatest film was made by director Steven Spielberg. After all, Spielberg offered Dreyfuss a role that set him on a road to super-stardom back in the 1970s with Jaws – a film that Dreyfuss originally turned down.
Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary is a dreamer. An Everyman who has everything the American Dream said you should – the kids, the wife, the steady job, the four-bed detached, the cul-de-sac and quiet neighbourhood, the company car. But there’s something missing and Neary doesn’t know what it is. That is until Little Green Men begin flying above the skies of his home town. As the authorities try to cover-up their existence, Neary sets out to prove that what he witnessed was a spaceship from another planet. The film is as much about imagination and the belief in something that isn’t necessarily tangible as it is about first contact with otherworldly life forms. The film is a masterpiece and Dreyfuss has never been better.