Happy Birth-Drey: Richard Dreyfuss at 70

Many Hooper-y return of the day to Jaws star, Richard Dreyfuss, who celebrates his 70th birthday on Sunday 29 October.


Dreyfuss – after a blink and you miss it scene in The Graduate, which also starred Amity’s Mayor Murray Hamilton - first came to prominence two years earlier than Jaws as the main character in George Lucas' American Graffiti, sharing screen time with the likes of Harrison Ford, Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith.


Matt Hooper is Jaws’ Mr Exposition, but he is never dull. His delivery and boyish enthusiasm zings around the screen. We share in his excitement, discovery and deadpan putdowns that still make audiences chuckle today.


The battle against the shark was one thing, but that was nothing compared to the frisson between Hooper and Quint, and if it seemed realistic it was because it allegedly was. Read my piece about Robert Shaw for more on this: The Shaw Thing: Remembering Robert Shaw 



And if his role as Matt Hooper put Dreyfuss at the top of the cinema tree, then it was Spielberg's follow up that cemented it. Spielberg, Dreyfuss, Production Designer Joe Alves and Composer John Williams were all back; this time however they weren't after a bigger boat but more of a bigger spaceship.


That film was of course Close Encounters of the Third Kind with Dreyfuss starring as Roy Neary, whose life is changed once he witnesses a UFO.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)


Richard Dreyfuss had become quite interested in the idea behind Close Encounters when he had heard Spielberg talking about it on the Jaws set, crusading for the leading role.


He may have finished off the Brody leftovers in Jaws but here he was sculpting Devil's Tower from mashed potato. (No wonder the Smash alien robots were always laughing).


Actor Bob Balaban kept a diary of behind-the-scenes events during production, which was published post release and is as great an insight into filmmaking as The Jaws Log is.


With beard and his scientific background, his character had more than a passing resemblance to a certain Matt Hooper, so much so that he was often mistaken for Dreyfuss throughout shooting, especially as Dreyfuss was sans beard and glasses.


The Jaws theme also made a cameo appearance in the film when the mothership is first communicating with the scientists, it isn’t long before a certain two-note theme can be heard emanating from the spaceship. That’s what you call an international success.





Dreyfuss built up a reputation as Spielberg's everyman, featuring in Jaws, Close Encounters and his loose remake of A Guy Named Joe, Always. 


The 1989 film may have been eclipsed by Ghost at the cinema but it is a beautiful looking film, has some wonderful moments and features the last screen appearance of Audrey Hepburn. You believe it and feel for it because of Dreyfuss' performance, effortlessly mixing drama and comedy.


Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise may have become Spielberg’s regular muses of late but I’d love to see Dreyfuss dance with Spielberg and his camera one more time. Perhaps he can get a role in the forthcoming Indiana Jones film.


Stand By Me (1986)


Dreyfuss may only bookended the film and performs mainly narrator duties but he leaves a massive impact and delivers one of cinemas greatest ever lines.


Stephen King isn’t just all about horror. Stand By Me is an adaptation from one of his novellas, The Body, and it’s a life-changing film that is right up there with It’s A Wonderful Life in the timeless classic stakes.

Semi-autobiographical, it recounts the tale of four young friends as they spend a summer holiday searching for a dead body. They set out eager to get a peek at the corpse but each of them grows and changes along the way.

The ending is now all the more poignant since the death of River Phoenix and those dulcet tones of Richard Dreyfuss scattered throughout add gravitas. 


He's always had a distinctive voice, he could make reading the phone book sound interesting but here he really lends the film a real sense of loss and gravitas. You can't imagine anyone else delivering the line:


“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”


I’m sorry, I appear to have some dust in my eye. 

TRIVIA: After being screened the film, King claimed it the greatest adaptation of his work. King also still sports scars from the infamous leaches scene.


What About Bob? (1991)


Two years before Bill Murray relived the same day again and again (and again) in Groundhog Day, Director and voice of Fozzie Bear and Missy Piggy, Frank Oz, directed Murray in another comedy classic, What About Bob?


It’s essentially Cape Fear, but played for laughs. Bob Wiley has a multi-phobic personality and gets reeeeeeally attached to people within minutes of meeting them. His next them is successful therapist and author Dr. Leo Marvin, played by Dreyfuss. His family love and embrace Murray’s character. Dreyfuss does not.


Apparently, it was reported that Murray and Dreyfuss didn’t exactly get along, but as we know from the Jaws experience that didn’t mean that it did the film any harm. Especially as Dreyfuss was meant to despise Bob anyway.


So, Dreyfuss is essentially the straight man, the reactor, and his faces and reactions are genuinely hilarious as you see him boil over.


TRIVIA: The film is ranked as the 43rd funniest film on Bravos ‘100 Funniest Movies’ list.



Another Stakeout (1993)


Dreyfuss went through a period where he was largely known for his comedic roles, mostly for Disney offshoot Touchstone pictures. These included Down And Out in Beverly Hills, Tin Men and Stakeout. The latter includes a notable Jaws in-joke.

This apparently originated from an ad lib of dialogue by co-star Emilio Estevez. Dreyfuss genuinely didn’t know what film it was from, so they kept it in the film


I always much preferred the sequel though, especially the dinner scene where he has to keep disappearing next door and keep returning, sweatier and more out of breath each time – still forgetting the drinks. A perfect showcase for his comic timing.


TRIVIA: John Badham directed both Stakeout and Another Stakeout, he also directed Roy Scheider in Blue Thunder.




Mr Holland’s Opus (1995)


Dreyfuss may have won an Oscar for the Neil Simon comedy, The Goodbye Girl in 1977 but he was also nominated in 1995 for an amazing tour de force in Mr. Holland's Opus.


Dreyfuss is Glenn Holland and the film charts 30-40 years of his life starting in the 1950s, going from a young touring composer to music teacher in a school and the way he inspires his students. You can’t help but wonder what John Williams makes of this film. 


It’s a truly beautiful film and a wonderful engaging performance from Dreyfuss that is a joy to watch from beginning to end. If you have never seen you’ll wonder how you have ever lived without it, it’s a life-affirming must see.


TRIVIA: Composer of the film was the late Michael Kamen, perhaps best known for his work on the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series of films. He was so inspired by the story that he started a non-profit project that provided musical instruments to underprivileged students. It’s a project that is still running to this day. Fittingly it is called Mr Holland's Opus Foundation.



Although Dreyfuss didn't return to the Jaws cinematic universe, he has narrated several shark documentaries and been involved in several Jaws making of documentaries. 


And just when he thought it was safe to go back into the water he didn't exactly fare much better, notably in animated James and the Giant Peach, as the voice of the centipede. James and has gang almost succumb to sharks when the peach is crossing the Atlantic. He also featured in the Piranha remake - the original a Jaws homage - and in another remake, Poseidon.


The latter showing that although he may have been on a bigger boat, it certainly didn't stop him getting his feet wet. 

By Dean Newman

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