Richard Dreyfuss: “I was raised in a very left-wing community”

Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss looks back on his socialist upbringing, and extols the virtues of therapy, in his Letter To My Younger Self

When I was 16 years old, I was trying desperately get my actor friends to talk about the nobility of actingbecause I was terrified that I was going to spend my life in pointy ears holding a laser gun. And then John Gielgud came to Los Angeles. At that point we all thought of him as yesterday’s news, a has-been. We went to see him perform Ages of Man. And when this little guy stepped down from the curtain and opened his mouth, I bifurcated into two completely different people. One of them was sitting in the balcony with his friends and the other was experiencing awe for the first time. I was in a state of shock or revelation or something, as I listened to this extraordinary voice validate every high ambition I had ever had. He sounded like a beautiful French horn. I was numb. When the show was over I went backstage, walked up to him and said thank you, and walked away. Then 20 years later I worked with him and I told him what had happened to me at 16 and he patted my knee and said “How amusing dear boy.”

If you met the teenage Richard you’d think I was funny. And a flirt. And very smart. There were no hidden insecurities, I wasn’t that way. I was completely confident and certain and my success was, as far as I was concerned, preordained. If I was talking to an attractive 40-year-old woman I’d be flirting my brains out.

Manic depression is one the defining elements of my character. And I have no problem with saying it

If I could talk to the young Richard I would apologise to him for breaking my promise to him. I thought that I was – I had the ambition to be and I thought I was – a good guy. I thought that I was going to be a good guy who would hurt very, very few people, especially women. And then I discovered one day that my marriage – my idea of myself – was a complete deception. And I had in fact hurt many people I had loved. That sudden revelation hit me not just about one woman – I felt them all at once. I pulled the car off the freeway and sat in my car and wept for about two hours. Then when I went home I tried to email each of them and apologise and say that I had been incorrect. And the basic response from most of them was, that ship has sailed. But one of them was actually in LA and I managed to spend a good deal time with her talking and talking until she believed me.

I knew since I was 10 or 11 that I had what was later diagnosed as manic depression. I had fun in therapy when I was 17 or 18 years old, because it was such a great entertainment to spend X number of hours talking about your favourite subject; yourself. And then finding things, uncovering things that you didn’t know. It takes an intelligent stranger to point that out to you, which is why I am a fervent supporter of people who are thinking of taking therapy. Most people think that therapy means that they’re going to be discovered as lunatics and they’re terrified of it.

I was asked at one point to speak to a foundation about the depression side of manic depression. They said to me, we’d like you to speak about your shame and your embarrassment. I said, you’re talking to the wrong guy. I had no shame at all. Manic depression is one the defining elements of my character. And I have no problem with saying it. And I got up and I gave that speech, and the next day in The New York Times, they wrote that I had talked about my shame and my stigma and coming out of the closet. So I phoned another mental health foundation and told on them.

My mother was great, my dad wasn’t. I think about my mom a lot. She was my best friend. She was smarter than hell. She taught me things. I was raised in a very left-wing community. I was what they call a red diaper baby. And I once said to my mom, Why were you a socialist and not a communist? And she said, Better doughnuts. One time she was walking past my bedroom and she asked me what I was doing. And I said, I’m inventing a religion. She said, Really? What’s the idea? I said, Be nice. And she said, that’s valid, and walked away. I used to talk to her about things I couldn’t talk to anybody else about. And she was always able to give me honest answers, no matter how perhaps uncivilised they might be interpreted. So I think of her as a brave person, a great soul, and she knows everything that’s ever happened to me since she died. Of that I have no doubt.

I wanted to be a bachelor until one day when I was 36. I was in bed with a girlfriend and my mother called. And I told her I wanted to introduce her to someone. She said, Is it a woman? I said Yes. She said, Do you love her? And I said Well, uh… And she said, Say it. If you don’t say it you don’t love her. So I said Yeah, I do, I do love her. And she said, And? And all of a sudden, in one millisecond, I went from being a confirmed bachelor to wanting to get married and have children. I turned to Jeramie [Rain], my girlfriend, and I said, Would you marry me? And she said Yes. And we were married for 10 years. Then I married again for 10 years, and now I’m married for the third time. I don’t think men are mature enough to have a loving, caring relationship until we’re in our 50s. Everything before that is practice.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

I think when actors fall in love with other actors, that’s a pretty stupid thing to do. That’s walking the plank. If an actor falls in love with a civilian that’s OK. As an actor you’re surrounded with people who do things for you. If I’m on the set of the film and I want coffee, someone will go, I’ll get it. It’s not that they love you or worship you, but they look like they do. That night you go home thinking you’re great. And then your wife says, take out the garbage. And that punctures that self-deception pretty quick.

I feel pretty good about most of the work I did but I would like to have had the courage to do All That Jazz [in 1979]. Instead, I kind of chickened out and it took me a long time to realise I did that because it was the first time I was being asked to play an adult. Whatever flaws that character had, he was an adult. And I just was afraid. It took me years to realise that and then one day I was at this event and the director [Bob Fosse] was there. He had hated me for years since and I said, I just want to tell you that the real reason that I quit the film is because I was afraid I was not an adult, and I didn’t know how to do that yet. And I’m sorry that I screwed up your mind, but that’s the real reason.

I was blessed by the fact that I was able to do that which I was passionate about. And I was considered good at it. And I was praised and paid accordingly. And I did that for 60 years. I’ve had a gazillion more happy days than unhappy. And I have spent my whole life in endeavours that I truly loved. I can tell you, my life has been pretty damn great. So that’s that.

Richard Dreyfuss stars in Astronaut in cinemas from March 27