Years ago, Richard Dreyfuss felt the urge to contact an old teacher.
“I was about 20-some-odd years old, and I was sitting and talking with a friend of mine who had gone to grammar school with me,” the actor recalled. “And we were remembering this particular teacher whom we didn’t like.
“And all of a sudden I realized that a lot of the things that I came to really love in my life, I learned in her class: Shakespeare and literature and reading in general. So I thought, ‘Hmmm. I never realized that before.’ She was a mean, impatient woman, who didn’t care about liking me or anyone else, and we didn’t like her. She was tough.
“So I called her,” he intoned quietly. “I found her in a retirement village in Southern California and I called her up. I said, ‘Mrs. Wilcox, you’re not going to remember me, but my name is Richard Dreyfuss and I was a student of yours at Horace Mann Elementary. And I just wanted to let you know that I only recently realized that everything I’ve come to love I learned in your class.’
“And she said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and hung up,” Dreyfuss said, laughing at the memory. “That was it.”
So much for a misty-eyed reunion with Mrs. Wilcox. But that’s OK. Now her former pupil has given us Mr. Holland, who’s making his bid to join Mr. Chips and Miss Brodie in the movie pantheon of exceptional educators.
In the drama “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” Dreyfuss plays the title character, an aspiring young composer who reluctantly turns to teaching music as a temporary gig and winds up spending his entire career as a band and orchestra leader at one Oregon high school.
Directed by Stephen Herek--whose “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” was probably not a favorite among educators--the new film is to teachers what “It’s a Wonderful Life” was to loan officers.
At first, Holland “not only doesn’t want to be a teacher, he’s got it in his head that there’s only one way he can really be happy or fulfilled,” Dreyfuss said. “It takes him years to realize he’s had a pretty good life.” Over the course of the film, the character is called upon to age from a callow 30 to a sage 60.
Dreyfuss, who passed the time before an interview reading a newspaper in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont hotel, appeared from a distance somewhat older than his 48 years. A sunbeam made his white hair glow like a light bulb, and spectacles and pale skin combined for a look of intelligence with a hint of frailty. Dressed in a bomber jacket and dungarees, he looked for all the world like a relaxed professor emeritus.
“I’m always being asked to play professional people,” he said later. “I give the impression that I went to college. I didn’t.”
Yet Dreyfuss has packed far more into his life and career than the typical academic. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Beverly Hills, he first appeared in bit parts on “Gidget” and other ‘60s TV shows. Starting with 1973’s “American Graffiti,” he quickly became one of the nation’s hottest film actors, with memorable performances in two Steven Spielberg blockbusters, “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” An Academy Award for best actor--for 1977’s “The Goodbye Girl"--capped this heady period.
But when his Mercedes-Benz overturned on a canyon road in 1982, the star was arrested for cocaine possession and later entered a drug treatment program. (Earlier this year, he crashed his Lexus into a light pole in Studio City, although police said neither drugs or alcohol was a factor.) Since making a highly touted mid-'80s comeback with “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” he has worked steadily in movies, some acclaimed (“Tin Men”) and some largely forgotten (“Let It Ride,” “Silent Fall”).
Munching on a tuna salad sandwich in the Marmont’s small dining room, he claims no particular ambition: “I like to do nothing. I’m probably the laziest person you’ve ever met. I like to just sit around and read.”
But modesty aside, he keeps himself busy with an assortment of low-profile projects that have nothing to do with movies. In 1991 he founded L.A. Works, a volunteer group that organizes tree plantings, park cleanups and other activities to benefit low-income communities. A history buff, Dreyfuss coauthored “The Two Georges,” described as an “alternate history” of the American Revolution (the book was just published in England and should hit U.S. bookstores in mid-1996).
He has also developed a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most outspoken liberals and talked at length about his views on the Middle East peace process, the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the 1996 elections.
But people still know him best for his acting, on screen and, increasingly, onstage. Last March he won praise for playing an unscrupulous businessman in Jon Robin Baitz’s play “Three Hotels” at the Mark Taper Forum. A less happy experience, at least from his point of view, was his 1992 Broadway run in Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden,” opposite Gene Hackman and Glenn Close. He now calls it “the longest six months of our lives.”
“I thought the play has a great premise and doesn’t go anywhere,” Dreyfuss said. “I thought we would work on the play in a certain manner, and we ended up not doing that because the author didn’t agree that there was anything wrong with the play. . . . We had a six-month run which was sold out to the last day to the last seat, but we didn’t enjoy performing it.”
An unassuming, family-oriented film, “Mr. Holland’s Opus” might not set the box office on fire. But the film gave Dreyfuss--a non-musician who can hardly pick out a tune on the piano--a chance to play a different kind of character. His performance has already earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best actor in a drama.
“One of the great secret things about being an actor is that you get to dip into another life without any of the hard work or responsibility,” he said. “Fifteen-some-odd years ago, I did ‘The Competition,’ and I could neither play the piano nor any other instrument, or read music. So for four months, I learned how to fake parts of the ‘Emperor Concerto’ and other pieces.
“And so this film came along, and I got to conduct music, conduct an orchestra in Beethoven and others. I couldn’t turn that down; it was too much fun. Because if you do it right, you really feel like you’re doing it.”
In other words, those who can, do. And those who can’t, act.
Just ask Mrs. Wilcox.