The movie star speaks candidly on Hollywood greed, civics education, how living with bipolar disorder has been good for him, and why stigma is “stupid.”
By Fergus Ewbank and Marianne Haynes
Some people who live with bipolar find it difficult to talk about. Not so Richard Dreyfuss. The celebrated actor speaks readily about his illness—stressing that it should be referred to as such—and finds the notion that it should be tiptoed around literally laughable.
“Step away for a second,” he recommends. “Understand the advantages that manic depression can give you.”
Dreyfuss is well-versed in the down side of bipolar: feelings of anxious dread that started in boyhood, bouts of depression as he matured. He’s been in psychotherapy since age 19, when he sought help to cope with profound feelings of loss after breaking up with a girlfriend.
He’s strict about sticking with his medications because he’s seen that without them, he wouldn’t be as good a father, husband, actor, and civic activist.
Get him talking about his bipolar, though, and this is what he says: “I’ve enjoyed my illness.” He mentions qualities like creativity and grandiose thinking—a symptom that often goes in the negative column.
As Dreyfuss sees it, surges of wild confidence allowed him to power past setbacks. He often talks about how he was able to turn any bad thing into something good.
Though bipolar could have been the antagonist in his life, Dreyfuss treats it as an ally that helped propel his chosen career. At 68, his long resume of stage, movie and TV roles includes top billing in such beloved classics as Mr. Holland’s Opus, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, American Graffiti, and, of course, Jaws.
In 1977, he won an Academy Award for Best Actor for The Goodbye Girl—the youngest actor to receive that honor at the time—and he has an impressive collection of other awards and prestigious nominations under his belt.
‘ALL 16 RICHARDS’
Dreyfuss has slowed his acting work in recent years, taking on mostly cameo roles and concentrating his energies on other endeavors. (One notable exception: His star turn as crooked financier Bernie Madoff in the ABC mini-series Madoff, which aired in February.)
He actually attempted to retire about 10 years ago, and he’s made no secret of his disenchantment with Hollywood. In his view, there’s too much emphasis these days on special effects and not enough storytelling, character development and dialogue.
“There is very little substance in what has been produced in the film industry and very little opportunity for great roles as an actor in any film, and that’s because it’s all been taken over by our only common denominator—greed,” he says now.
Of course, this is a man who co-starred with one of the scariest special effects of its day: a menacing mechanical shark.
In fact, the original Jaws is an excellent example of how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“They only made Jaws because it started out as a $4 million budget … and they said it could be made in eight weeks,” Dreyfuss recounts. There were just two problems: “They didn’t have a shark and they didn’t have a cast.”
In the end, director Stephen Spielberg went way over budget. Yet the movie recouped its production costs in two weeks, earned $123 million in its first theatrical run in 1975, ushered in the “summer blockbuster” phenomenon—and made Dreyfuss an even bigger star.
His winning streak at the cineplex fell apart in the early 1980s due to a hard-partying lifestyle. At the same time, however, he was establishing a family with then-wife Jeramie Rain. Their first child, Emily, was born in 1983.
Two sons followed—Benjamin in 1986 and Harry in 1990—as Dreyfuss pulled himself together and restarted his career with crowd pleasers like Down and Out in Beverly Hills and What About Bob?
He also did artsier projects that fed his creative soul, including a scenery-chewing performance as The Player in Tom Stoppard’s film version of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and a stint on Broadway in Death and the Maiden.
Although Dreyfuss got clean and sober, it wasn’t until later that he saw the connection between his avid substance use and trying to escape the pandemonium inside his head.
“It took me until I was in my late 40s and early 50s before I really understood what the phrase ‘medicating yourself’ meant,” he said in a Sarasota Herald-Tribune interview. “Until then, I had accepted all the phrases that came at me in the culture: you’re a drug addict, you’re drug-dependent, you’re drug-this, you’re drug-that.”
It took me until I was in my late 40s and early 50s before I really understood what the phrase ‘medicating yourself’ meant. —Sarasota Herald-Tribune
In that 2012 interview, Dreyfuss recalled an early experience with the way illicit psychotropics could quiet his antic mind. He was 17 or 18, working at the Los Angeles County Hospital as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. When a co-worker on the midnight shift offered him an “upper,” he accepted.
“Ten minutes later, my head jerked up, and I felt all 16 Richards become one. … I had never known that that was possible—not to have to spend so many ergs of energy trying to corral all the Richards. I was a convert.”
As experience proved, that didn’t turn out to be the best choice. Dreyfuss has long since swapped illegal substance use for tailored prescriptions.
After his marriage to Jeramie fell apart in the early 1990s, he experienced a stretch of depressions marked by profound sadness and self-loathing. That gave him the motivation to persevere with a long hunt for effective medications to keep himself grounded.
“It took four years to find the right protocol … but the protocol of different drugs that we finally found helped me,” he explained during a 2013 speech for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation. As a result, “I became the best Richard you could possibly imagine.”
Dreyfuss brought the same persistence to finding psychiatrists over the years, refusing to be discouraged when working with a particular doctor wasn’t helpful. Chatting with a reporter from the website Everyday Health after his speech, he described his attitude toward recovery:
“You have to have patience, and you have to have grace, and you have to be willing to forgive others and forgive yourself. That’s the goal.”
You have to have patience, and you have to have grace, and you have to be willing to forgive others and forgive yourself. —EverydayHealth.com
ACTING V. ACTIVISM
Not content with confronting his own illness, Dreyfuss has tackled what might be described as symptoms of a systemic disorder in our society. In fact, he gives his own diagnosis to well-worn political responses—for example, throwing more military might at our opponents.
“When you keep doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different outcome and you don’t get it, that’s called being a neurotic!”
Although Dreyfuss has a long association with liberal causes, he has stepped back from party affiliations because of bigger worries about our political system. He even stepped back from acting, after nearly 40 years in front of the camera, to pursue his passion for fixing American democracy.
In 2004, he became a guest scholar at England’s Oxford University, studying what good citizenship means while popping back to the States to speak about strengthening civics education in public schools.
“I went to Oxford for four years to learn the subject and I came back and tried to spread that word and found that I still had to make a living and feed my family,” he says. “So I’ve come back to acting, but not at all for the same reasons or same rewards.
“If I didn’t have to, if I [had] another way of making a living, I wouldn’t have returned to acting,” he confesses.
In 2008, he founded the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative “to empower future generations with the critical-thinking skills they need to fulfill the vast potential of American citizenship,” according to the organization’s mission statement.
The actor’s commitment to citizenship extended to a house he bought that year with his wife, Svetlana. Their plan was to make the nearly 5,000-square-foot home in Encinitas, California, as energy self-sufficient as possible. Dreyfuss told the San Diego Tribune it wasn’t environmental issues driving him, but rather concerns about U.S. reliance on foreign oil.
Dreyfuss certainly isn’t shy about speaking his mind on issues he cares about, whether it’s how the media shapes public opinion, the right to privacy, or the corrupting influence of special-interest money in political campaigns.
Of course, Dreyfuss is a legendary talker, animated and almost unstoppable at times. (In fact, he claims he graduated high school only because he verbally dazzled his teachers—he couldn’t concentrate on written assignments, so he never turned in homework.)
There isn’t much that Dreyfuss won’t speak freely about, and that includes his bipolar disorder. When the topic is brought up, he actually lets out a loud laugh at the idea that it’s something to be treated delicately.
“I laugh because there’s this assumption that people wouldn’t want to talk about it, that there’s a shame or a stigma,” he goes on to explain. “I have no feeling of shame.
“I’ve never had a feeling of shame, and I’ve never felt a stigma. I’ve never been embarrassed. I’ve never had to ‘come out’ with it because I’ve always talked about it since I was 11.”
Dreyfuss has frequently shared the story of how he realized early on that he felt things more intensely than the people around him. During his teen years, as he tells it, friends would joke about anchoring him with cables when his words started tumbling out with manic speed and intensity.
Dreyfuss went public in a big way by participating in Stephen Fry’s 2006 documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. Dreyfuss and Fry—a beloved British comedian, actor, game show host and mental health advocate—are on the same wavelength when it comes to how their diagnosis should be described.
“First of all let’s call it what it really is, which is manic depression. Bipolar is one of those safe, politically correct words that don’t say anything,” says Dreyfuss, insisting: “I’m a manic depressive.”
No matter what you call it, this is an illness no different from, say, diabetes or asthma—and like those conditions, should be neither ignored nor stigmatized. Feeling ashamed would mean surrendering to someone else’s judgment—and ignorant judgment at that.
“Stigma is silly, stigma is stupid … ‘stigma’ is a word that should be kicked away—and ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’—because it’s a condition,” Dreyfuss vented on NBC’s Today show in 2013.
‘Stigma’ is a word that should be kicked away—and ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’—because [bipolar disorder is] a condition. —Today show on NBC
It’s vital, Dreyfuss urges, that society talk more openly about bipolar (or manic depression) and mental health in general. To use the analogy of the popular parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, nobody is ever more than a few associations away from someone who experiences mental health challenges. And the sooner we realize that, the sooner we’ll understand this is something that needs to be addressed properly.
That’s as true for individuals as for society, which is why Dreyfuss talks about liking his illness: “You can enjoy it or you can run from it and hide behind stigma and shame,” he explains.
Of course, it wasn’t all unicorns and butterflies. But accepting that bipolar is an inherent part of his makeup means taking the bad with the good.
“When I didn’t like it, I didn’t like it, but that didn’t mean I was running from it. There have been some bad moments, but name any human who hasn’t had highs and lows, ups and downs—you name that person and I’ll tell you he’s a liar.
“You wouldn’t be you without whatever it is you’ve got,” he notes. “Just because my thing has a name to it doesn’t mean anything. It just means that there’s a group of people that have a name attached to their condition. And you have a condition called living as a Homo sapiens on the planet Earth. Boy, do you have problems!”
Printed as “A close encounter with Richard Dreyfuss,” Summer 2016