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When he was twelve years old, Richard Dreyfuss had four ambitions – to be an actor, to become a movie star, to go into politics and to become a history teacher. For the past fifty years, he’s been acting in theater and films. His credits include,”Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” and “The Goodbye Girl,” for which he won an Oscar. Now he’s closing in on the rest of his goals. He’s launched an initiative to encourage a civics curriculum in public schools. And, he’s just made his debut at the Kennedy Center, narrating a piece written for the National Symphony Orchestra to mark the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s inauguration.
- Richard Dreyfuss actor and activist
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Richard Dreyfuss began his acting career at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center when he was just eight years old. He went on to appear on television shows and star in dozens of movies, including "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "The Goodbye Girl," for which he won an Academy Award. He's here in Washington where he made his debut with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center performing the narration in a new piece of music titled, "Remembering JFK (An American Elegy)."
MS. DIANE REHMRichard Dreyfuss joins me in the studio to talk about why civics has become more important to him than acting. You can join us as well, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Richard.
MR. RICHARD DREYFUSSGood morning.
REHMIt's good to have you here.
REHMWhat did that performance with the National Symphony mean to you?
DREYFUSSWell, it started as a great complement to be asked and then it was a wonderful reminder of things that he had said that were ahead of its time. He really was, I think, the last American president to lead the people. Sometimes to places where they didn't want to go and were reluctant and sometimes to a place where they wanted to go and could not articulate and so his statements that I spoke within the symphony were statements that were hand held out to the Soviet Union and they were also about what were the elements of leadership that would allow history to give any leader an A as opposed to an F.
DREYFUSSAnd thankfully, civility is one of them and I had the privilege a few weeks ago -- a few months ago of watching his televised speeches about Civil Rights and it was a real shock to see an American president clearly out ahead of his majority. He was ahead of us and he was saying something that if we don't come to this place, we will have failed ourselves morally and it was a hell of a statement.
REHMI want our listeners to hear a portion of that speech delivered by you at the Kennedy Center.
DREYFUSSWith such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests as there are within families and nations. World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor, it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. And if we cannot find an end to our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's future and we are all mortal.
REHMAnd of course, those are the words of John F. Kennedy, spoken by my guest this morning, Richard Dreyfuss, along with the National Symphony Orchestra playing music commissioned by dear friends and Washingtonians, June and the late John Hechinger. Reading those words, hearing those words, which I happened to have been alive to hear when President Kennedy spoke them, must really have been powerful for you.
DREYFUSSWell, in every actor there is a desire to submit to great prose and the thought of spending your life saying, bring that ray gun over here is not as interesting as saying, to be or not to be. And to be able to say these words in these -- in this setting was like a great tip of the hat and I thank them for the complement.
REHMBut isn't it interesting that even back then, President Kennedy was talking about civility, he was talking about differences of opinion, he was talking about how people get along in families, in communities and look where we are today.
DREYFUSSYeah, it's not a pretty picture and what he was doing in 1960, he could've been saying in 1760 or in 1460 or any year before that. Human nature is what it is. We are not Jaguars, we are not built for perfect efficiency, we don't laze away on a nice sunny day while the river runs dry and we don't always hunt only the huntable. We are human and we are diverse and we are silly and stupid and bright and intelligent and what is so extraordinary about the Constitution is that is was able to take into its creation the flaws and virtues of mankind as opposed to ignoring mankind completely.
DREYFUSSWhen I ask students what was so revolutionary about our Revolutionary War, the answer is usually that we broke away from Great Britain. And I say, no, it was that for the first time ever, we were actualizing the idea that the ruler and the ruled were one thing and that the people were not the audience to the performance of the nobility, that we were all the same value and all contributed. And that was at the time probably the most important message in 13,000 years of politics.
REHMYou have been involved in an effort to bring civic education back into the classroom. It's ironic, in a sense, because of course, you quite college or were kicked out for one thing or another. Why were you thrown out of college?
DREYFUSSThe literal reason was that my teacher in drama class had said that Marlon Brando mumbled during "Julius Caesar" and I raised my hand and said, "Julius Caesar" is playing at the Las Palmas Theatre right now and you will -- I bet that you that you'd apologize to this class for saying -- and I was kicked out before the sentence was finished.
DREYFUSSBut I was not a serious college student. I was so focused on my work that I never took the -- what they call them, the tests that you have to take to get into school.
DREYFUSSThe SATs and I -- my high school grade average was something around C minus and I was very good in those classes that I was interested in and total failure in all the others.
REHMBecause you had your eye on?
DREYFUSSI was absolutely certain that I would be an actor, be a star as an actor and then I would go into politics and then I would teach history. And I knew that at 12 and never strayed from it.
REHMGotta have a lot of chutzpah to put that in your mind and stick to that belief in yourself without having some doubts along the way.
DREYFUSSAs a matter of fact, I never had a doubt until I was in my mid 50s and I was famous amongst my friends for my certainty, which they took as arrogance and cockiness and kept warning me that I would -- I was making enemies because I turned down small, unimportant work. And I kept saying that that would make me a star. And they said, how? And I said, because they're going to say, well, let's see what he does if we offer him this. And they kept upping the ante. And I got better.
REHMRichard Dreyfuss, he is not only an Academy Award-winning actor, he is an American activist. Stay with us.
REHMAnd it is truly as though Mr. Holland and is Opus have become real right here in the studio because in that movie, "Mr. Holland's Opus," Richard Dreyfuss, who is an Academy Award-winning actor and an American activist, made a pitch for students that every teacher in this country, I think, would agree with today. Let's hear it.
MR. HOLLANDNo, no, do not misunderstand me. I am not talking about my job. I am talking about the education that students once got at Kennedy High versus the education that you people are willing to give these kids today.
MICHAELWe have been going over and over this, Mr. Holland. We've done all we can.
HOLLANDThen do it again. That's what I used to tell you when you were my student, Michael, and it served you pretty well then.
MICHAELWell, that was a different time Mr. Holland.
HOLLANDI don't think the time was that different. I think that more was expected of us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALEFifteen seconds.
HOLLANDAnd I think the big difference is how little you people care and how lazy you've become.
MICHAELI resent your tone, Mr. Holland. And I don't think you have any real appreciation for our financial problems.
HOLLANDOh, come on, Michael. You know, the big problem here is that you people are willing to create a generation of children who will not have the ability to think or create or listen.
MALETime, Mr. Holland.
MICHAELMr. Holland, as I've said, we've done the best that we can.
HOLLANDYour best is not good enough.
REHMAnd it would seem to me that in real life, Richard Dreyfuss, you believe that what teachers consider to be their best right now is not good enough. And that students are not living up to what they could.
DREYFUSSThere's a word in English that should be far more familiar to all of us and the word is exemplification. You can't exemplify reason or logic or goals of virtue unless you exemplify them and if you only exemplify, for instance, the public discussion of politics as something that is yelled and screamed and interrupted and patronized, then that becomes public discourse.
DREYFUSSAnd because you cannot scream reason, your advertisers will support screamers first. And so you raise two, three generations of people who don't know what reason sounds like, who don't know what a public discussion of a public issue can sound like without the melodrama of talk show radio or being demonized. And when you have a representative democracy, sooner or later, you have to get down to a definition which includes the willingness to share political space with those with whom you disagree, but if you demonize, you're not sharing anything.
REHMYou actually went to Oxford University to study in preparation for this civics program that you had envisioned and put forward. Tell us about that study and the program you've devised.
DREYFUSSI was in London. I had just been fired from the production of "The Producers" that was opening in London because I had told them I didn't dance or sing and they said, oh, that doesn't make a difference. And six days before the first preview audience, I was fired 'cause I didn't dance or sing. And I knew that I didn't wanna go home because I wanted and had thought -- I committed myself to six months at least in London.
DREYFUSSAnd so I made an announcement to a group of Americans and said that I was -- they were going to hear that night that the show -- I was leaving the show and that I was trolling for work. And they asked what that meant and I said, I would lecture, I would write, I would teach. What would you teach? And I said, history, drama, ethics and culture. And they said, what history? And I said, what history do you have? And they said, well, British history. I said, yes. How far back? And I said, to the first grunt. And I have -- I've always been comfortable within history and even the history that I don't know, I know. And the history I don't know, I learn very quickly.
DREYFUSSAnd I wanted to -- I was invited to write an article and I wrote an article about torture, the subject of your last segment. And I wrote it because my father had been in the Battle of the Bulge, had been behind the lines for 69 days as opposed to the usual rotation of 21 days. He had been terribly, terribly wounded and had spent two years in the hospital. But during his time behind the lines, he had tortured German soldiers. He was in battle, in a desperate battle, in a desperate war and he had been told to get information.
DREYFUSSAnd so although he never talked about it, I learned from my mom and my uncle that they would capture a German officer of the (word?), strip him naked, put him in a chair and my father would come in holding a knife in his hand and he would say in perfect German, I'm Jewish. Tell me everything. And my uncle said, often times, the man didn't get out of the chair. And when I wrote the article, I wrote, do you understand what I just wrote? Because I don't. I can't wrap my mind around it. I know it happened.
DREYFUSSMy father just coincidentally called me and I said to him, I just doubted you. And he said, what do you mean? And I told him what I had written about. And there was a tiny silence and then he said, tell me everything you said exactly. And I told him. And he said, well, close enough. And I had written the article because I was so hurt and offended by President Bush's casual inclusion of torture in the American Political Lexicon, something that had almost achieved the iconic level of taboo and he brought it back as if it was, you know, higher taxes or lower taxes.
DREYFUSSAnd I was -- I knew or hope that if someone had said, all those American soldiers who tortured raise your hand, my father would've raised his hand and would've been willing to be held accountable for his actions because it was a desperate moment in a declared war and there was no alternative. Not the case under the Bush Administration and in that situation.
DREYFUSSAnd so I thought that it was a worthy enough reason to talk about and personal. And when I wrote the article, I was then asked by Oxford University to submit a project to them. And if they approved the project, they would allow me in. And I had -- I submitted to them the following idea. I wanted to do a broadcast, which was the biography of the idea of democracy as told by Charles Dickens. Think of democracy as David Copperfield, a fragile birth, a dangerous childhood, dismissed, scorned and held in contempt, a shocking victory and carrying within the seeds of its own destruction. And they accepted it and I went there to do the broadcast.
DREYFUSSAnd then I realized that I didn't wanna do a broadcast. I wanted to do it for real because I was very much aware that civics was leaving the public school system at such an accelerating rate. And it was not -- it did not take a genius to see that the rate of the decay in the moral and civic virtue of our country was pretty much in line with the losing of civics. And civics is one of the most boring words in the history of the English language, so I call it power.
DREYFUSSTeach our kids practical political power, teach it to them as their brains develop and can accept it more and more in its complexity, but teach it to them before they graduate high school so that they have a sense of ownership and pride. And that the next time someone tries to steal America, which is now a commonplace daily activity -- when someone tries to steal America from Americans, those future monarchs of this system will know when they're being flimflammed and what to do.
REHMDid you, during your high school years, as I did have government studies, have history studies, have -- being I learned every aspect of how government works. I amend that. I was taught. I don't think I really learned it until I became an adult and began following newspapers, talking with people, understanding how the process worked. But the fundamentals were there. And what you're saying is that in our current scholastic environment, the fundamentals aren't there.
DREYFUSSThe fundamentals aren't there. When I was a kid, I was in love with America. I was -- my father and his generation had saved us from the most vivid civics lesson in history, Adolph Hitler. And when Hitler -- when we realized that Hitler meant every word he said, we stopped the whole world, went over to Europe and beat him to death because we knew we were not going to do that world.
DREYFUSSAnd when they came back, job done, they came back to the coincidental birth of television. And television, in its formative years, didn't really know which direction it was going to take. And so they filled the airways with old American movies, hundreds of them. And by the time the '60s started, I was not only in love with America for being the good guy, I was besotted in a love affair with America because it was the best political miracle in the history of mankind.
REHMRichard Dreyfuss and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Before we open the phones, I do want you to talk about the civics program that you have in, not only theory but practice, put into place and are offering to schools around the country.
REHMWhat does it include?
DREYFUSSIt's what is known in education as soft learning and that tells you a lot because soft learning is the background behind which or on top of which you learn the subject of the class, like geology or arithmetic. But soft learning is reason and logic, clarity of thought and critical analysis. And if taught properly and if you use those words as exercises and tools to make more acute the intelligence level of the student body you raise the IQ level of American kids and raise all votes in all subjects.
DREYFUSSBut when it comes to the study of history and the study of the ethics involved with the writing of the Constitution and how incredible a coincidence in history it was that we could gather those men from the enlightenment era and actualize something that no one had ever thought to actualize. For them to do that and for us to learn it in its context is to make people aware of a pride of a country that is deserved and substantive, as opposed to being asked to love your country for no particular reason whatsoever.
REHMIs that your great concern that young people do not, in this era, grow up with the sense of pride in their country?
DREYFUSSI think it's one of the consequences. Another probably more important is that we grow up without any sense of connection and responsibility. We grow up without accountability and we grow up oddly enough without reward and punishment. Republican democracy is a two-way street where the people are not only the rulers, they are the people. And not only are they the rulers and the people, they are the neighbors in business, they are the neighbors in nursing, they are the neighbors who you are, in one way or another, accountable for and to, to make your society better. And when you remove that sense of responsibility from, let's say, local business and local business starts to recreate what used to be known as let the buyer beware, I can sell you a piece of junk. And if you don't catch me you can't do anything to me.
REHMBut didn't you, in one sense -- I mean, obviously, you had that pride as I did growing up in an era shortly after the Second World War -- didn't you focus more completely on yourself?
DREYFUSSNo. I come from an incredibly activist family and I am a red diaper baby. And I never met a Republican until I was 14. And my mother, I once asked, why were you a socialist and not a communist? And she said, better donuts.
REHMBetter donuts. Richard Dreyfuss, certainly an American activist and Academy Award-winning actor. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones. Your questions, comments, 800-433-8850. First to a caller here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, David, you're on the air.
DAVIDHi, I just like to say that this work in civics is just terribly important. We have a nation that's in peril when people in a Tea Party rally compare President Obama with Adolf Hitler. We haven't learned the lessons of the Joseph McCarthy era when power was seized by creating fears and so and minority groups today are scape-goated under code words like immigration, you know, Latinos. The endless Islamization of America and the need to embrace family values which is a way of fearing homosexuals.
DREYFUSSWell, I think that in every -- if you throw a rock in any direction, you will hit decay and I want to teach a class in the San Diego area where I live which would be based upon that day's newspaper. Because in every day's newspaper, you can find one story at least which is about the complacent thievery that occurs on a daily basis because those institutions that are no longer our allies, but are our enemies, are absolutely sure of only one thing and that is we do not have a sense outrage or curiosity.
DREYFUSSWe lack the ability to be outraged at any offense and once we've achieved that inert uncurious position, they can basically take anything they want and that's exactly what they've been doing. And 8,000 employees of the Bank of America resigned on principle because they said, ‘we will no longer illegally foreclose, sign documents and illegally foreclose on people. And Bank of America spent God knows how much money to have the permanent ban turned into a temporary ban.
REHMDavid, thanks for your call. I must ask our listeners to forgive me for not offering the name the wonderful piece in which Richard Dreyfuss narrating. That is ''Remembering JFK (An Elegy)," by Peter Lieberson. And let's go now to Orleans, Mass. Good morning, Dana, you're on the air.
DANAThank you, Diane, and hello, Mr. Dreyfuss, thank you. This is an honor, I really admired you in ''Jaws'' and it kind of spurred an interest in marine biology and it got me into the water rather than out it.
DREYFUSSA rare bird.
DANAOh, yeah, but anyway, I have to, I mean, I really admire what you're doing in this work now. I really think civics is important, too, but I have a question for you about another movie which relates to your civics activism. Do you think that ''Mr. Holland's Opus'' had a tinge of racism in it?
DANAYes, okay. I was referring particularly to the scene with the young, there was a band member, a black guy in your class and when he was killed in Vietnam and he wasn't -- he was portrayed as not too bright and you really had to work him for the marching routine. And then when he was killed in Vietnam, your character, Mr. Holland, said, 'He wasn't a very bright kid, but he sure tried hard. I mean, you know, and you got the kid's rival, was a really bright, white dude who really knew about modes, you know, music for the Greek modes and music and stuff. I was just wondering if that...
DREYFUSSI don't think, I don't think that's a direct quote, that he wasn't a very bright kid. He was -- the irony of his story was that he was black and no sense of rhythm and that was certainly not...
REHMYou had to teach it, a sense of rhythm.
DREYFUSSTeach him a sense of rhythm and that wasn't meant as a racist remark. It was meant something ironic about human beings.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call, Dana, too. Concord, N.H. Hi there, Mary.
MARYHi, thank you first for the articulating here. I wanted to say that our country has gotten into a point where we're teaching our children to be Walmart greeters and hamburger flippers and not to question anything or to strive towards anything 'cause we've taken away any of the healthy competition. And two, one of the things our parents have stated is that they want it easier for their children than they had it and three, I'm feeling that our government is teaching how to push against each other instead of asking what do we do for the greater good of our country, its people and the ripple effect forward? And that's all I had to say.
DREYFUSSThank you for that. I think there's a basic ubiquitous failure, systemic failure, going on and that is that we say two things. One is that the government is inefficient, stupid, larger than it should be and its involvement guarantees the failure of any endeavor and at the same time we turn over to that same government, the most important moral questions of our lives.
DREYFUSSAnd I don't, for one, see the logic in, for instance, giving politicians, who we disrespect nine-tenths of the time, the ability to set curriculum for what children learn as opposed to teachers and education experts. And that politicians who are catering local political trends or needs or pressures are morphed from being people with little public respect, which is wrong to begin with, to people of utter respect.
DREYFUSSI think it happens only in education, it happens in every field and it's in a sense making sense of changing horses in mid-stream, you can't do it. You can't change horses in mid-stream and make the government good when it's convenient and bad when it's convenient. You can't change your values when it is convenient for you. You have to adhere to known and acknowledged values that we're known and acknowledged and created the support system upon which all Americans stand and from which we can disagree with one another all we want.
REHMAre you planning to or have you already distributed to a school or some schools around the country, a curriculum, which would follow your thoughts?
DREYFUSSWhat I did was, when I came back from Oxford, I realized that I had created something which was not only meant for civic training. It was meant for education and could be used, as I said, to raise all boats. And I have spoken in front of, at the last count, about 167,000 people and I would say at least 30 percent of them are teachers and at least 60 percent or 70 percent of my aggregate audience is of the right and I have not had one person say they were against the study of civics by our young.
DREYFUSSThere are lots of people out there who don't like me. There's no one out there who has said that they were against the teaching of civics to the youngest of our young. And anyone who would say that we don't, that it's not necessary to build foundation into the American ethic, is equivalent to saying that they're going to build a house and start with the roof.
REHMBut everybody builds a house to their own liking, to their own specifications. If you had a general program in mind for approaching the study, the teaching of civic behavior, which it seems to me is part of what you're talking about, is there a Richard Dreyfuss program that you want to distribute around the country?
DREYFUSSI would say that man ought to learn how to learn from his own experience and his own history and that man as a species, has to learn that there are connective tissues. Politics is the secular arm of faith or religion, meaning, that both politics and religion attempt to answer the same question, how do men live together in some sense of decency and freedom and opportunity and mobility?
DREYFUSSAll religions and all government’s theories seek to answer that question and thus far, the best answer to that question is the United States of America. It isn't perfect, but it has a system that comes closer than any other nation to fulfilling that question. And what we must never do is throw out the baby with the bathwater and no -- and throw out whatever is old and think that what is new is better.
DREYFUSSAnd cut ourselves from the one universal law that I accept and that is that people have a right to know who they are and why they are who they are. And there is a very, very real cultural mythology that is part of every family in this country, except for the ones we dragged here against their will and the ones that we found here and killed. Every family in this country shares a cultural mythology of fleeing oppression from overseas, oppression by wealth that designed cast and class that kept those people out and they came here for safe haven and a second chance.
REHMHow do you respond to critics who would argue that movie stars, actors, individuals who have made their names in theaters should not engage in the political public process? I'm thinking of George Clooney, who's out there doing a fair amount of work. Angelina Jolie, all of these people who have become famous because of their acting ability, now entering into realms of political public life?
DREYFUSSI would say that it would be equivalent to saying anyone who sells cars shouldn't be given the right to have a political opinion. I'm American, I'm an American actor and I have been given a lot of rewards and praise for that, amongst which is access and for anyone to ask me to shut up when I'm given the access to speak. When the American tradition is to speak about their political opinions is an idiot and the people in Hollywood think quite differently than people assume. There as many, well, there aren't as many but almost as many Republicans in Hollywood as there are Democrats.
REHMRichard Dreyfuss, he is of course, an Academy Award-winning actor and an American activist and you're listening to ''The Diane Rehm.'' Are you finished with acting?
DREYFUSSI said that I was retired. Nobody seemed to accept that and I now say that I'm not actor-centric. I don't look for work as an actor. I don't look to develop films or make acting and Hollywood as a career the center of my life. I was blessed and I mean blessed, because I was allowed first to adore something and then allowed to do it and then awarded and praised for it over and over.
DREYFUSSAnd after 50 years, no matter what you do, if you are a watchmaker, at the end of 50 years, you say I want to be a ski instructor, they give a dinner and they give you a gold watch and they let you be a ski instructor. In Hollywood, when you say you want to retire, people look at you as if you'd grown another head. And so, when I was asked three times, what are you doing now, Richard? And I said I was retired. No, no, really what are you doing? I'm involved in education. Richard, what are you doing? I said, I'm going for the Nobel. And the person asking said, Oh, okay. That was fine.
REHMThat was fine.
DREYFUSSThat was fine.
REHMWill you establish an institution? Will you create a foundation? How will you go about promulgating these things?
DREYFUSSFirst of all, we have an initiative, it's a non-profit initiative that’s to get the word out and get people out of their seats. If people are not aware of the problem, they're not going to be moved to do anything and this is a problem that is more urgent and more critical and is more fatal to us than any other.
REHMYou have to write a book.
DREYFUSSI know that, I'm just afraid of doing that.
REHMThat may be.
DREYFUSSI do have to write a book because I hate interviewed by print journalists who then translate me and then their editor translates them and I'm three...
REHMWhereas, if you've written it, that's where it is.
REHMWell, I've enjoyed talking with you.
REHMI hope that your endeavor continues to...
DREYFUSSMay I say one thing? For whatever reason, America has built a structure, (unintelligible) structure of philanthropy, we need money. If you believe that civility and this initiative is important, send us money, we need it. It's the dreyfussinitiative.org and we need as much money as we can get.
REHMRichard Dreyfuss, Academy Award-winning actor and now American activist. Thanks for listening, I'm Diane Rehm.
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