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MOVIES : ‘Central Casting? Get Me Dreyfuss’ : If you’ve got an obnoxious character you want the audience to like, he’s your man. Latest case in point: Sam the condo salesman in ‘Once Around’

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Neil Simon wrote a sequel to “The Goodbye Girl,” the 1977 movie for which Richard Dreyfuss won the Academy Award at the age of 29 for playing a struggling young actor just arrived in New York who is asked to portray Richard III as gay. The sequel has never been made, and Dreyfuss explained why one day recently, during a discussion with a reporter about the public’s fickle interest in people like himself.

“ ‘The Goodbye Girl,’ ” said Dreyfuss, now 43, “was this actor who ends the movie not only getting the girl but going on to a successful career. The sequel was the story of that career and the problems attached thereto. And when we would read the script every couple of years, Neil Simon, myself and Marsha (Mason), we would wonder why it didn’t work. The reason it didn’t work is that no one gives a damn about the problems of a movie star. A movie star is someone to admire and maybe live my life for me.”

For the sake of argument, he put himself in the role of Joe Six-Pack sizing up today’s stars and asked, “You know, ‘You’ve got how much money? You’re doing that? You’re sleeping with who? And you’re upset about your life?’ ”

True, it might be hard for Joe Six-Pack to feel sorry for Richard Dreyfuss if he could see him just now, in stone-washed jeans and fine-weave cotton shirt, sitting on a beautiful couch in his beautiful office--actually more like an insurance company suite of offices, with wall-to-wall vistas, secretaries, assistants, scripts piled up on the shelf, coffee being delivered--28 floors above Burbank, not far from the home fires of Disney. While we don’t know what happened to Elliott Garfield, his character in “The Goodbye Girl,” after he got that movie in Seattle and a permanent live-in arrangement with Marsha Mason, we know that Richard Dreyfuss went on to make more movies, more money, take more drugs and one night crash his sports car into a tree somewhere up in the Hollywood Hills.

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But that was eight years ago, and Dreyfuss is as tired as anyone of hearing about his subsequent “resurrection,” which brought him back to the big screen in the films “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Tin Men,” followed by some less distinguished titles.

Dreyfuss has never liked interviews or, one suspects, interviewers, though he is capable of putting on a facade of politeness. “I’ve been doing this for a long time--20 years I’ve been doing this,” he said, referring to talking about himself come movie opening time, “and I’ve never gotten used to it.”

The problem, he observed, is the awkwardness of the situation, the contrived pas de deux between interviewer and interviewee. “I am best captured in reality,” he announced, “and this isn’t real. Real is, have a discussion with me about the Middle East.”

Ah, well, but that’s been done. Dreyfuss has been a brave and outspoken critic of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, an opinion amplified by that fact that he is a Jew. The war with Iraq hadn’t begun as we spoke, and while the imminence of war shadowed the mere matter of popular entertainment that had brought us together, he did have two movies coming out.

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In “Once Around,” directed by Swede Lasse Hallstrom (“My Life as a Dog”), he is re-teamed with “Always” co-star Holly Hunter in a comedy drama about an obnoxious real estate salesman who comes between a pure-hearted Italian-American princess and her family. Beginning in late February, he will be seen as the Player King in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the cerebral riff on “Hamlet” directed by British playwright Tom Stoppard from his 1965 play.

For some, Dreyfuss will always be the bright-faced All-American high school senior from 1973’s “American Graffiti,” whom we learned in the film’s postscript was “a writer living in Canada,” presumably in objection to the Vietnam War.

But his real fame came from the two Everyman roles he played in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” carrying by proxy our fear of sharks and wonder at the mysteries of outer space. A knowledgeable friend who admires those two movies more than I do and believes that Dreyfuss is maybe the best actor in Hollywood saw in those two performances “an ability to be incredibly human and honest. He can make you feel such an urgency. When he takes a couple of deep breaths and his character takes that risk, he conveys human weakness in all its beauty.”

It may be only a variation of this that he can be so effectively feverish as well, his compact body giving off signals it might lurch into an handspring at any moment or swing from a rafter, his voice rising up in high-pitched gurgles, somehow managing to laugh and shout simultaneously.

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He gave eloquent testimony to this side of his actor’s self in “The Goodbye Girl” and in the earlier “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” based on Mordecai Richler’s novel about a nervy Jewish kid in the Montreal slums determined to succeed in business no matter what the cost.

Duddy Kravitz was a triumphant role and, in a way, an early version of Sam Sharp, the super-salesman who steals Holly Hunter’s heart in “Once Around” despite an abundance of evidence that he is an unbearable egotist with an romantic veneer about as deep as a Valentine’s Day card.

“To a certain extent there are people who have always known when they have a dislikable character, they hire Richard,” Dreyfuss said, mentioning Duddy Kravitz as a prime example and adding that he was considered for the main role as the tyrannical Bob Fosse character in “All That Jazz,” a part eventually played by Roy Scheider. “The reason they came to me was they didn’t want people to hate the guy.”

If he is indeed seen by producers and studio executives as a beautifier of brash souls, it’s not surprising he was tapped to play Sam Sharp, the creation of first-time screenwriter Malia Scotch Marmo. Only it’s possible this time out that he finally met his match. Sam is a man who believes in the beauty of the big lie in business, who has never had a reflective moment in his life, who storms into his new love’s family home like an occupying army, who intrudes on the most private family ceremony and blithely insults mama (Gena Rowlands) and papa (Danny Aiello)--all for the immediate gratification of Sam. Is it possible that Sam may even be beyond the help of Richard Dreyfuss?

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“I’ll tell you now,” Dreyfuss said, pausing for dramatic effect, his eyes narrowing in on the thought, “something in my career I have never told a journalist or anybody else before a movie opens, which is exactly how I feel about it. I’ll tell you I don’t care how you feel about it, I love this movie.” When he saw it, he said, “I was moved, I laughed, I forgot I was in it. I was very proud of it.”

There is one scene, but only one, that he admits reluctantly that he had some question about. It is a scene in which Sam, contemplating a new brochure for some condo development, asks his long-suffering father-in-law’s opinion, then cruelly dismisses his suggestion as if it had been offered by a child.

“The behavior of Sam in that scene is out of character,” Dreyfuss said. “It’s too big. It served a purpose, but no one knew how to solve this problem of not making him so overtly cruel that he would say that. I didn’t buy it, and it still bothers me that we couldn’t solve that problem.”

Had he worried at all about Lasse Hallstrom’s ability to capture American culture, in this case the Italian Americans of Boston?

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“I think we all wondered that, but we all loved ‘My Life as a Dog.’ We thought, you know, how much mystery is there to American culture?”

Dreyfuss said he took the role, which required him to look slightly older and not nearly so endearing as he managed to appear in “Tin Men” (even as an aluminum siding salesman), precisely because he didn’t know if he could do it.

“When I was resurrected, I was resurrected into ‘Down and Out’ and ‘Tin Men’ and at that time I was learning because I was so vulnerable because of what had happened to me. And I felt that I was in virgin territory as a person and as an actor. Then it got to be normal again. I was sober and had a family, and I’m doing this, and it got to be less than it should be.”

He won good notices as the underdog attorney in the drama “Nuts,” defending genteel hooker Barbra Steisand, and in “Stakeout,” a middling thriller in which he played a cop with sex appeal. Then there were a series of films that fizzled, including “Let It Ride,” directed by advertising wiz Joe Pytka, in which he was a compulsive gambler; Paul Mazursky’s “Moon Over Parador,” cast as an actor forced farcically into the real-life role of a Latin American dictator, and “Always,” Spielberg’s disappointing remake of “A Guy Named Joe,” about a daredevil pilot who continues to guide his true love from the grave.

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“I haven’t felt for a while like I was growing as an actor, and that’s why I did Sam and ‘Rosencrantz.’ I had no clues how to do them and I said, you better just do this.”

Does he know when he’s delivered the goods? Can he tell?

“Literally there are certain sensations you get,” he said, getting up restlessly to walk over to his desk and pick up a golf hat, returning to place it on the coffee table, on top of the new book based on “The Civil War” series. “For certain kinds of roles, I would have confidence in my instinct about how to do it. Other kinds of roles because I haven’t done them before--outsized things, playing characters I do not like--I’m not so sure. I like to play people I like. When I play somebody I don’t particularly like or respect, then I don’t know if I’m doing it right. Sometimes I get confused between what the character needs and what I like and respect.”

His favorite character in recent years, he said, was the morally conflicted salesman created by Barry Levinson in “Tin Men.” “I liked him enormously. I like those characters best that I can play quietly. Thoughtful. If I was asked to choose what I would like to play, it’s the dilemma of that guy. It isn’t manic, it isn’t energetic, it isn’t up-down crazy, it isn’t Sam--it’s that guy.”

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But even when an actor can play them, such roles are not easy to come by. The popular American sport of castigating actors for taking parts in bad movies is based on the erroneous assumption, Dreyfuss said, that movie stars are captains of their fate. “Most people don’t understand that it is far less our choice than dictated by circumstances that we are handed.”

The role in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” that of a plucky, enigmatic leader of a band of traveling players (an actor again), falls outside the usual Hollywood game because it is not a film anyone is betting will top the Variety charts, regardless of how good it is. It is, instead, a high-class art-house movie based on two of the minor characters in “Hamlet” and directed by one of the leading playwrights in the Western World.

Dreyfuss has worked regularly on the stage, several times in Shakespeare, and remembers being impressed when he saw the national touring company of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” back in 1966. Sean Connery was originally set to play the part in the film, but was forced to drop out because of illness. When Stoppard called Dreyfuss to replace him, he said yes almost immediately. It’s not every day, after all, he is offered a role previously tendered to Sean Connery.

“One could see from the part Sean Connery doing it,” Dreyfuss said when asked about this. “He would have been like Sean Connery.” Which is to say not like Richard Dreyfuss. “I played it like Donald Wolfit,” he explained, referring to the legendary British ham who was the inspiration for the play and movie “The Dresser.”

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Third-billed after the title characters (played by Gary Oldman and Tim Roth), the Player King is a good role for Dreyfuss, who gets a chance to unroll his vowels to full length while declaiming Stoppard’s shiny musings on man’s fate.

“I don’t expect to see thousands of people on line to go see this movie, but it’s amazing that we’ve gotten so far away from making films for a smaller audience so that the idea of doing it is like this strange, eccentric phenomenon. In fact, I think it’s great.”

He said he had no idea how it would be received, and that response remains important to him. “Part of the experience of working in the movies is finding out how the audience felt. When you work in the theater, you know then. I’m proud of what I did (in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’) but now, I’ve got to wait. I would be a liar not to be interested in that reaction, even though I wouldn’t say it makes or breaks the experience for me.”

In June he will be seen in the Disney film “What About Bob?,” playing a psychiatrist dogged by a particularly neurotic patient played by Bill Murray. In the meantime, he is producing and acting in a movie for HBO, to be directed by Ken Russell, about the persecution of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer in France accused of treason in 1894. As producer, Dreyfuss has cast himself in a familiar kind of role: that of an anti-Semite who becomes a hero by fighting to prove Dreyfus’ innocence.

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During our interview, we did not talk about his comeback from the crack-up in 1983 and how he has changed the way he lives to something more closely resembling that of a middle-aged family man. This is not news, and he said he was grateful not to have to talk about it again. But in closing, I wanted to know if he thought the competitiveness and status anxieties of Hollywood made it difficult to build friendships and something like a normal life--the sort of questions that might have been addressed in that sequel to “The Goodbye Girl” but which people, in any case, sometimes wonder about movie stars even if they don’t idolize them or listen for their views on the Middle East.

“I’ve only recently come to admit to myself that I have few if any friends in Hollywood,” he said. “Which is not their fault, it’s my fault. I don’t let myself connect. I was with Jimmy Woods in New York recently and we had a great day, and I’ve known Jimmy for a hundred years and we see one another maybe twice a year or even less. And every time we get together, it’s great. But we don’t do it again. And we both realize that we have no male friends. We don’t hang out. I hang out with my wife and children, I don’t see people. And maybe one of the reasons is that I don’t want to worry about the feeling that I want something from someone or someone wants something from me. Is this guy going to give me a job? Or is that guy going to ask me for a job? That’s a possibility.

“But I don’t know. Maybe that’s the same in Dearborn, Mich. Maybe it’s the same at the GM plant. I’ve done this my whole life, I’ve never been in another business. I have friends, who I would call my friends, and who like me as a friend should be liked, but with whom we share a reserve and a observe a distance between us. Maybe that just comes with the Richard Dreyfuss territory. Or maybe it comes with life in this town.”


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