A few weeks ago Richard Dreyfuss found his past, present and future all converging in a rehearsal hall on West 43rd. Readying his next Broadway turn — Larry Gelbart's Sly Fox — he was flanked by two of his favorite film memories: "The Goodbye Girl" on the left, "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" on the right. Marsha Mason, his Goodbye Girl, was doors away doing a Second Stage play; a block-and-a-half the other way lives Jack Warden, Duddy's Daddy. Both flicks were later musicalized for the stage, but, when Dreyfuss did them, he made his own music.
"I have no memory of not wanting to be an actor," he has confessed freely. His idols were Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, and he followed their leads straight into character-acting.
Gone is the fresh-faced high school senior of "American Graffiti." Somehow, Dreyfuss took a quick quantum leap from teen parts to mature roles, skipping the twentysomething leading-man epoch. Today, at 56, with an unruly row of white hair semi-circling his shiny pate, he could well be Jack Warden's offspring — and he laughs appreciatively at the notion because he knows he can use that.
That just happens to be the look of Sly Fox's Foxwell J. Sly, a gold-hoarding old galoot who puts on a bogus death scene to trick expensive trinkets from a trio of wannabe heirs. One of these equally avaricious adversaries — Bob Dishy, redishing his Tony-nominated performance of 1976 — offers up for sacrifice his gorgeous wife, Elizabeth (Showgirls) Berkley, to win the favor of the lustful Sly. Another returnee is the comedy's original director, Arthur Penn, who keeps in a perpetually dizzy spin farceurs like Eric Stoltz, Rachel York, Rene Auberjonois, Bronson Pinchot, Peter Scolari, Nick Wyman and Professor Irwin Corey.
By any other name, Sly Fox is Ben Jonson's Volpone — the classic con man, transplanted from Venice in the early 1600's to San Francisco in the late 1800's. Dreyfuss, whose screen record is stained with fast-talking hucksters, from the Kravitz kid to the Tin Men who hustled aluminum siding, doesn't have to think long and hard about why he wanted to do Sly Fox: "First, it's hysterically funny. Second, it's written — brilliantly written in the sense that there are two things going on here. There's this homage to re-creating a 400-year-old classic, which has its own formality, but Gelbart didn't just update it. He put it in this specific time and place [the Barbary Coast during the Gold Rush] and then he threw in the Friars Club."
Dreyfuss began in movies with one-line bits "in the best and worst pictures of 1967" (i.e., "The Graduate" and "Valley of the Dolls") and became a box-office commodity with two of the biggest hits of the seventies (both Spielbergs: "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind").
He did film versions of a pair of Tony-winning performances (Kevin Spacey's in "Lost in Yonkers," Tom Conti's in "Whose Life Is It Anyway?"). There's not, he feels, one particular role that got by him — "there's a whole career that got by me: I'd like to have done more Shakespeare. I'm not really ambitious anymore about performing things, but I could just sit there and listen to Shakespeare because it's such a mysterious, magical act of genius."
As it is, Dreyfuss played Cassius to Austin Pendleton's Marc Antony and George Rose's Julius Caesar at BAM, and he did The Player King (by way of an overripe Sir Donald Wolfit) in the film version of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." And who could forget the Richard III he was forced to flounce out in "The Goodbye Girl?" ("Because of a mentally arthritic director, I'm about to play the second greatest role in the history of the English-speaking theatre like a double order of fresh California fruit salad.") Or the deadly silent self-awareness with which he greeted empty compliments on opening night?
It's entirely fitting, given the line of work Dreyfuss so clearly chose for himself, that he should win his Oscar for playing an actor. "Fact is, I was Elliot Garfield in ‘The Goodbye Girl.’ I used to say I'd like to be Elliot Garfield for the rest of my career and then retire. That's the character I'd want to play for the rest of my life." When Dreyfuss strode to the podium to pick up his Academy Award, he was 156 days into his 31st year, making him the youngest person to win the Best Actor Oscar — a distinction he held for a quarter of a century, till last spring when Adrien Brody, 22 days before his 30th, won in that category.
Now, the second youngest Best Actor Oscar winner has moved on, taking Elliot Garfield deep into Character-Actor Land with an Americanized Volpone — a dirty old man rubbing his palms together over gold and gals. Actors just love to leap through The Ages of Man.