Richard Dreyfuss stood before a packed community meeting in Martha’s Vineyard last week and asked, “Where do we offer young people the chance to fall in love with America?” He insisted that he was “not speaking for Democrats, Republicans or anything else. [But] as an American who wants to hand to his kids the country he learned about.” He then led a discussion on the importance of reviving civics education in our nation’s public schools.
The man who once obsessively built clay models of a form that couldn’t escape his mind, who warned locals on this same island of a killer shark roaming the waters offshore, who devoted himself to teaching music at the expense of his relationship with his hearing-impaired son… Those fictitious events were part of Dreyfuss’s other life as an actor. But it is Citizen Dreyfuss who spoke at the community meeting–living what he calls “the second half of my life.”
From the age of 12, Dreyfuss has wanted to do three things: be an actor, be a movie star, and be in politics. He says that four years ago, after he was fired from the London production of The Producers, he decided it was time to retire and do the third thing.
“I’ve been acting since I’m 12,” he says. “I’ve been famous since I’m 25…. So, I just got really tired of it. After forty years, there are other things you love and want to spend time with…. I decided that instead of waiting to be rich enough to do whatever you want to do, you’ll just do whatever you want to do and scramble around for the money.”
What he wanted to do was enroll at Oxford University to study democracy. And he did. “I came there with a notion that I had tried to sell to Coca-Cola about ten years previously,” he says. “That was to create a two-hour show for kids. The idea was the story of democracy as a biography like a Dickensian tale. Think of David Copperfield as Democracy, and it becomes immediately a more interesting story: born under perilous circumstances, raised without any love and affection–fragile childhood. Held in contempt, dismissed… surprising allies and surprising opponents. And then, out of nowhere almost, he prevails. And he not only prevails he becomes the system of choice–the most popular in England. But he carries within himself the seeds of his own destruction because that’s what he sought. And I think that that could be a legitimate two-hour movie for TV, and never stray from the truth. And hook people on that story, and make them want to go even further.”
But Dreyfuss found himself drifting towards political writers at Oxford and wanting to be in the classroom. And he was deeply distressed about the state of America’s democracy.
“There is no serious place to discuss serious issues any more and that’s a serious problem,” he argues. “How do you discuss serious issues without the melodrama and all that stuff? Kids grow up thinking that shouting is the only way to discuss politics–that rumination and thinking things through is for sissies.”