Richard Dreyfuss: Life After Spielberg

By  · Published on August 29th, 2017

Charting the career path of one of the most interesting actors of his generation.

Every actor has at least one movie that defines his or her career. For many, it would be the one movie that movie historians will look back at and recognize the peak of stardom. Some are even luckier to have many movies that garner that kind of attention. Richard Dreyfuss is one of those actors. With his work in the 70s that included roles in American Graffiti, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dreyfuss etched his name into a very specific period. Although he was active for many years after those features none of those films have the same cultural significance as his earlier work. What happened to an extremely promising actor and what was his career like after working with Steven Spielberg?

Without a doubt, Richard Dreyfuss got his big break with George Lucas’s American Graffiti. He would play one of the main characters, Curt, a high school student unsure of his future after graduation. The film included great parts for many actors including Harrison Ford and Ron Howard, but Dreyfuss earned the attention of Steven Spielberg with his performance.

Spielberg was working on a new film featuring a giant mechanical shark. That film, Jaws, would go on to define modern blockbusters and signal the breakthrough of an exciting cinematic talent. Dreyfuss originally turned down the opportunity to appear in the film because he wasn’t sure horror was the right choice. When talking with Hollywood Reporter, Dreyfuss reflected “All I knew was that the shark came up and goes ‘[Blahhh]’ and I thought, you know, ‘Obviously, this film is gonna tank.'” Eventually, he acquiesced to the role since it was early in his career and being too picky would make things difficult for him.

Jaws opened up more doors for Dreyfuss but none so vital as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When he read Spielberg’s script for the film, he knew he had to be a part of it. It took significant lobbying but eventually, he got the part. Dreyfuss would end up playing the main character of the story, Roy Neary, whose close encounters with aliens compel him to leave his family and make an amazing adventure. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is receiving a 40th-anniversary restoration and remains the most memorable performance of Dreyfuss’s career. Who can forget the many sequences where Neary is trying to create a location using his mashed potatoes? Speilberg has said in recent years that Close Encounters couldn’t have been made later in his career. He said during his filming of War of the Worlds, “Today, I would never have the guy leaving his family to go on the mother ship. I would have the guy doing everything he could to protect his children.” Well, Spielberg did make the film and Dreyfuss was the perfect match for Roy Neary. While he didn’t get an Oscar for his performance in the film, he would with his next.

The Goodbye Girl was one of the highlights of Dreyfuss’s career after working with Spielberg. It brought him great critical success and made him an Oscar-winning actor. It came at the perfect time – at the peak of his stardom – and he loved the script and people he was working with. In a 2014 interview, he joked about the script for The Goodbye Girl: “It asks you to empathize with the problems of a movie star. Which no one can really do. You may watch your children get hit by a train and the audience says, ‘That’s terrible, but you’re a movie star.'” The Goodbye Girl wasn’t his only great success after Spielberg. He appeared in another Spielberg movie, Always, and was the title star of the 1995 film, Mr. Holland’s Opus. 

Dreyfuss’s career didn’t quite have the continued success he deserved. Here was an Oscar winner who also appeared in one of the biggest films of all-time. The thing that stood in Dreyfuss’s way for many years is his bipolar disorder. He first spoke publicly about it in the 2006 documentary, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. According to an article in People magazine, it was like battling a rollercoaster of emotions since his teenage years. He said, “I enjoyed turning down work as much as I enjoyed getting the job. I was living from thrill to thrill and nothing bad happened to me.” Bipolar disorder would make Dreyfuss constantly fight against himself. It has the ability to bring him great fortune, while simultaneously making himself his own worst enemy.

Thankfully, Dreyfuss sought the care he needed. In recent years he has appeared in various television shows, including on by Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood, Shots Fired. He also has his own non-profit known as The Dreyfuss Civics Institute whose goal it is to revive civics education and empower future generations with critical-thinking skills. He hasn’t given up film acting either. Dreyfuss has five new film projects in various stages of production.

It is impossible to know the extent that Dreyfuss’s bipolar disorder affected his career path. The 70s were undoubtedly his peak with his work for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. It is hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Roy Neary, a man determined to find the answers just out of reach. Close Encounters of the Third Kind might be Richard Dreyfuss’s crowning achievement, but even at 70, he shows no signs of slowing down. Perhaps we can be privy to more great performances from him.

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.