Dreyfuss riffs on Netanyahu, anti-Semitism and the 40th anniversary of ‘Jaws’

Legendary Jewish film actor Richard Dreyfuss shares his this thoughts on an illustrious career and a new beginning for Israel.

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March 22, 2015 22:21
Dreyfuss riffs on Netanyahu, anti-Semitism and the 40th anniversary of ‘Jaws’

Dreyfuss riffs on Netanyahu, anti-Semitism and the 40th anniversary of ‘Jaws’. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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Richard Dreyfuss was high over the Atlantic when Israelis woke up Wednesday morning to the news of the Likud’s solid victory over the Zionist Union. But by Thursday morning in the foyer of The Jerusalem Theater with a copy of The Jerusalem Post in his hands, he was well aware of the results.

In Israel to fill the narrator’s role in Monday’s Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, “Kaddish,” conducted by Steven Mercurio and featuring soprano Sharon Azrieli Perez, the 67-year-old Oscar winner was not jumping for joy at the prospect of a new government again led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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“I would have preferred a Labor victory,” said the veteran American Jewish actor, who has long been active in liberal causes both in the US and Israel.

“I think Netanyahu understood the insult he made to the president when he accepted that invitation to speak to Congress and he should never have done it. Regardless of his position on certain issues, it was not a good thing to happen between allies.

“This is a new beginning though, and maybe something good will happen, I don’t know. However, if he feels beholden to his coalition first and his allies second, it will make a difference.”

Dreyfuss, who spoke frequently on behalf of Peace Now in the 1990s, rejected the notion that American Jews were not allowed to be critical of Israel.

“I’ve always been befuddled by people who thought that way,” he said. “If there are any people in the world who are an example of the ‘other,’ it’s the Jews. We are a witness to mankind and it virtues and its flaws, and we know better... or supposedly know better. Jews are the ones who in any real terms, invented the open mind, negotiation, compromise, and learning how to live among those who dislike you, and still prevail.”



When asked how it was possible to move ahead with negotiations when it didn’t appear there was a partner to currently talk to, Dreyfuss agreed that it presented a conundrum, but didn’t let Israel off the hook.

“You do need a partner, but I always find that card is played too early. One of the things that you’d like to do is get the entire world to see that you don’t have a partner. Let the world see that.”

Dreyfuss backed away from working with Peace Now a couple decades ago, as he focused on helping to raise his three children and, in a surprise move, balanced his acting career with pursuing an academic degree.

“I went to Oxford for four years, and as a result, I’m now running a non-profit educational initiative to bring back the study of civic authority to high school and below,” he said.

“America as a political miracle is not being taught to anyone. And we are going to be shredded in the near future because we’re not being taught mobility of mind, we’re not being taught excellence in clarity of thought or in the substance of republican democracy, and we’re gonna get creamed,” he added, with a passion that one would usually reserve for when the cameras are rolling.

“Then our children will turn to us and say something that has never before been said: ‘Why have you abandoned us like this?’ That’s what we’re doing to our children in the States. And if we go, as Israel says about itself, then the rest of the world goes.

“You can see it in two things – nobody understands the stories on the front pages of the newspapers in America, and that’s not an exaggeration.The other thing is, now we’re beginning to see the future, because stories are coming rapidly about Western kids joining Islamic extremist organizations. And that’s the future – ideological thuggery – and that can only happen because we forgot to teach the values of who we are. And we have to do that out of a sense of civic musculature.”

Despite his academic focus, Dreyfuss hasn’t turned away from his acting career, which spans six decades and dozens of prominent roles. Ironically, since his emergence in iconic films like The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goodbye Girl (for which he won the Best Actor Oscar in 1977) and later in 1995’s Mr. Holland’s Opus (for which he was nominated for Best Actor), Dreyfuss has settled into a varied career in which he often plays characters diametrically the opposite of his own persona.

Some of his most memorable roles have been playing notorious conservatives, whether Dick Cheney, Alexander Haig or the fictional villain Senator Bob Rumson opposite Michael Douglas in 1995’s An American President.

And he recently signed on to portray Bernie Madoff, the Ponzi scheme king, in an ABC mini-series later this year. Taking on complex characters with skeletons both inside and outside of their closets is a welcome challenge for Dreyfuss.

“You always play a character from their own best perspective. I played Dick Cheney, and I would hardly call myself sympathetic to Dick Cheney,” said Dreyfuss. “But I would bet that you couldn’t spot any indication. Sometimes actors kind of wink at the audience and say, 'he's not me.' And you can't find that in Dick Cheney. So I'm going to play Bernie Madoff as well as I can... and he deserves me," he added with a laugh.

Dreyfuss’s 1974 portrayal of Duddy Kravitz in the film based on the acclaimed Mordechai Richler book, set the stage for his multi-textured performances that often didn’t present his character in the most positive light. As the brash Montreal Jew, Kravitz made some Jewish viewers uncomfortable, but Dreyfuss denied that in making Duddy somewhat pushy and conniving, he was falling into an anti-Semitic stereotype.

“Sure, there were Jews who said things like ‘we don’t wash our dirty linen in public,’ but in reality, there were Jews like Duddy,” he said.

“Anti-Semitism is baseless, completely baseless. So we can always take a stand against it. God help us when we give them evidence. So Duddy, in my mind, was just an act of great writing, and he told the truth. I went around America afterwards trying to stir up controversy in interviews, because I hoped that more people would go and see it. But to call the film anti-Semitic is to call the game over before it starts.”

Not all of Dreyfuss’s roles have been controversial, and despite him worrying that Duddy might have torpedoed future plum roles, the next year the young actor landed the role of oceanographer Matt Hooper in a film called Jaws by the equally young director Steven Spielberg.

Now celebrating his 40th anniversary of appearing in one of the most well-known films of all time, Dreyfuss confirmed the fickle fate of Hollywood by admitting that he had no idea that he was in the middle of filming a movie for the ages.

“No, in fact I was the one who said it was going to tank. So don’t trust me and my opinions.”

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