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Oscar-Winner Richard Dreyfuss Always Knew He Was an Artist — Here, His Story

From 'Jaws' to overcoming drug addiction, an Academy Award, courting controversy and more, the actor has done it all

First came blockbusters American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goodbye Girl, the latter for which actor Richard Dreyfuss, at age 30, brought home an Oscar for Best Actor.

He was on top of the world and for good reason – in just five years, between 1973 and 1978, films he had appeared in grossed over $900 million and were critically acclaimed. But at the peak of his success, Dreyfuss succumbed to drug addiction.

In 1982, he was arrested for possession of cocaine after he blacked out while driving and his car struck a tree. It was during recovery from the crash that he had an epiphany: the image of a beautiful little girl in a white dress reminding him of the kind of more innocent life he could have destroyed, resulting in his entering rehab.

He enjoyed a comeback with Down and Out in Beverly Hills opposite Bette Midler in 1986 and Stakeout the following year. As it turned out, Dreyfuss was still a leading man in film, bringing his irritating, brash and wisecracking attitude to many more films in the years to come.

The early life of Richard Dreyfuss

Born Richard Stephen Dreyfus (one “s” at this time) in Brooklyn, New York, he was raised in Queens and, at nine years of age, moved with his family to Beverly Hills, California.

His first foray into showbiz was at age 15 when he got a part in the TV adaptation of the Norman Weiner play In Mama’s House. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Dreyfuss worked in alternate service for two years as a clerk in an L.A. hospital while still pursuing his dream of becoming an actor, getting small roles on TV shows such as Peyton Place, Room 222, Gidget, That Girl, Gunsmoke, Bewitched and The Big Valley. But Dreyfuss (now with 2 “ss”) loved being on stage and appeared on Broadway, Off-Broadway, improv theater and repertory.

Richard Dreyfuss in 'Jaws' (1975)
Richard Dreyfuss in ‘Jaws’ (1975) Pictures

If you went for popcorn during 1967’s The Graduate, you might have missed Dreyfuss’ film debut with his one line, “Shall I get the cops? I’ll get the cops.” But in 1973, Dreyfuss landed a big role in George Lucas’ American Graffiti alongside other future stars Harrison Ford and Ron Howard.

In 1974 he scored his first lead role in Canadian film The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, receiving critical praise if not much in terms of an audience. The next few years saw the diminutive 5’4 ½” actor’s star continue to rise in the aforementioned blockbusters Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and The Goodbye Girl (1977), where he played a struggling actor, a role he only knew too well. Then came his drug addiction and the 1981 film Whose Life Is It Anyway?, a movie he claims to not remember anything about making.

Overcoming addiction

While overcoming his addiction, Dreyfuss had an important supporting role in the coming of age 1986 movie, Stand By Me where he played the elder Gordie Lechance, who actually narrates the film. Considering Steven Spielberg his good luck charm — having appeared in two of his previous blockbusters — Dreyfuss reunited with him on 1989’s Always, in which he co-starred with Holly Hunter. Next came the 1991 comedy What About Bob? opposite Bill Murray, in which Dreyfuss played a psychiatrist driven to insanity by his obsessive new patient. The two stars didn’t get along off the set.

The actor in 'What About Bob?' (1991)
Richard Dreyfuss in ‘What About Bob?’ (1991) Pictures

His performance as Glenn Holland in 1995’s Mr. Holland’s Opus garnered an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe. Two years later he narrated Canadian film The Call of the Wild: Dog of the Yukon and recorded the voiceover for the Apple Computer ad campaign. In 2004 he returned to his first love, Broadway, in the revival of Sly Fox. He also spent four years as a research advisor at St. Antony’s College in Oxford England from 2004 til 2008.

Another unpleasant collaboration was in 2008’s George W. Bush biopic W., in which he portrayed U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and clashed frequently with director Oliver Stone.

Richard Dreyfuss in 'Piranha 3D' (2010)
Richard Dreyfuss in Piranha 3D (2010) Films

He participated in the wild and crazy Piranha 3D (2010) along with other productions, including the biopic TV mini-series Madoff (2016), about multi-billion dollar scammer Bernie Madoff. Always on the lookout for new projects, Dreyfuss played George, the funny online date of Candice Bergen in Book Club (2018).

Dreyfuss’ long and lauded career continues — controversy and all.

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