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Learning From Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Dreyfuss’ career has come full circle.

After starring in such popular films as “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The Goodbye Girl,” for which he received the best actor Oscar, and “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” which garnered him an Academy Award nomination, the 53-year-old actor is headlining his first TV series, “The Education of Max Bickford,” scheduled to premiere Sunday on CBS.

Dreyfuss, though, is no stranger to the small screen. As a teenager and young twentysomething, he cut his acting teeth by guest-starring on such TV series as “Karen,” “Gidget,” “The Mod Squad,” “Gunsmoke,” “Room 222" and “Ben Casey.”

“It was the greatest time in the world,” says Dreyfuss, in high spirits during a recent interview. “Years later, I taught a class in Hollywood and the class was entitled ‘How to Be an Unemployed Actor in Los Angeles.’ I had 500 students in the class. What I was trying to get across to them was how wonderful a time it was to know you are apprenticing, to know you are learning and to know you are making money every once in a while and are learning how to deal with casting directors and how to make agents your best friends.”

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Dreyfuss was still at Beverly Hills High School when an agent caught him in a school production. “He asked to represent me,” he says. “I was living the life of a happy itinerant actor in Los Angeles.”

Before “The Education of Max Bickford,” Dreyfuss had been asked once before to do a TV series. “I wasn’t ready,” he says. But by the time CBS signed him to a development deal last year, he was. It was the consistent quality of NBC’s “The West Wing” that convinced him that “the ability to do good work was certainly there [on TV]. That was a big draw.”

In the hourlong series created by executive producers Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin (“Judging Amy,” “Chicago Hope”), Dreyfuss plays a professor of American studies at an Eastern women’s college who is thrown into a midlife crisis when he’s passed over for a promotion. Instead, the job goes to Andrea Haskell (Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden), Bickford’s former student and lover, who made a name for herself at Harvard. Bickford, though, hates her love for pop culture and dismisses her books as trivial studies.

A widower, Bickford is also a recovering alcoholic and the father of two: the headstrong Nell (Katee Sackhoff), who is a freshman at the college, and sweet, 11-year-old Lester (Eric Ian Goldberg). Bickford also finds himself adjusting to the fact that his best friend Steve is now a she (Helen Shaver). Now named Erica, she has returned to teach at the college after an 18-month sabbatical and a sex-change operation.

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Max Bickford is cut from the same cloth as Dreyfuss. Both are passionate about history. If Dreyfuss hadn’t pursued acting, he would have become a teacher, he says. Bickford is a recovering alcoholic; Dreyfuss had a highly publicized bout with substance abuse in the early ‘80s. And both Dreyfuss and Bickford were conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War.

“One of the things the show is meant to do is represent a certain take in the last 30 years of his life,” says Dreyfuss. “I do feel that there is a part of me that yearns to have gone to Vietnam, only because it was the central experience of the generation. But it was nothing to do with guilt or nothing to do with someone going in my place.”

Prestwich and Yorkin initially pitched Dreyfuss a concept for a series in which he would have played a doctor who had hit bottom. “He really liked the midlife crisis aspect of it a lot, but he didn’t want to do a doctor,” says Prestwich. “But he liked our character enough, so he said let’s keep talkingNjust give me a call with your other thoughts.” “He had expressed an interest in politics in that conversation,” recalls Yorkin. “We weren’t interested in politics, per se. We were looking for some other venue, and then we seized upon the idea of a college campus as a microcosm of the world.”

Of course, the creators didn’t want “Max Bickford” to become a variation of “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” in which Dreyfuss played a dedicated but irascible high school music teacher.

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“We wanted to do something a little edgier,” says Prestwich. “Something that could live for a long time.”

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“The Education of Max Bickford” can be seen Sundays at 8 p.m. on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language).


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