Making his way to the water bottles stashed at the end of the table in the Branford Common Room, Richard Dreyfuss politely turned down a pastry and wondered aloud what a Yale education, or any college education, might have been like.
“I wanted to go here,” he said. “But now instead, I have to try to convince people I went here.”
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Dreyfuss, who decided fresh out of high school that additional schooling wasn’t for him, ultimately opted to pursue a career in acting. Today, of course, he’s famous enough not just to have hosted Saturday Night Live but to have been skewered on it more than once. He can also draw a sizeable crowd and a television camera to a Branford Master’s Tea. But before such films as “American Graffiti,” “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” entrenched him as a big-screen presence, Dreyfuss did receive an education, in his own sort of way.
“When I was a conscientious objector in the Vietnam era, I worked the night shift at a hospital,” he said. “One day, I just decided to sit down and read every book I’d told myself I never wanted to touch. So I went through all kinds of books — anthropology books, history books, all kinds. All of a sudden I was filled by this joy, this love of learning. And I just wish I’d had that feeling earlier.”
Dreyfuss said he especially recalled reading the novel “The Ninth Wave,” written by “Fail-Safe” co-author Eugene Burdick, and discovering a fictional kindred spirit in another reclusive bookworm.
“There was this character who worked the night shift at a bakery,” he said. “His one job was to turn the bread on the stove to keep it from burning. And the only reason he took this job was so he could be alone to read. I really identified with that character.”
Lately, Dreyfuss said, he’s been reading a lot of history: American history, Enlightenment history — the kind of material he loosely calls “Western Civ.” He’s also started exploring the realm of literature known as alternative history.
“There’s a book by Sinclair Lewis, one that everyone seems to have forgotten about, called ‘It Can’t Happen Here,’” Dreyfuss said. He extended his index finger. “That was a great book.”
Still, despite all those novels and anthropology books, despite all that Western Civ and all those night shifts spent scouring the pages, when it came time for Dreyfuss to deliver his talk — no breezy chat on his acting, but a 90-minute political jeremiad on civic education — to the roomful of hushed Yale students, he began by issuing an anticipatory disclaimer of his own intellectual authority.
“I have opinions about everything on earth,” he said, standing and occasionally pacing from side to side. “And obviously I’ve used my celebrity to my advantage. But you should suspect my right to be here.”
If many audience members had failed to suspect Dreyfuss’s right to be in the room, for some it was because they were unaware that — rather than discussing his experiences in the acting profession — Dreyfuss was about to embark on a prolonged spell of political commentary.
“I wasn’t exactly expecting to hear him talk about politics when I came here,” Sylvana Hidalgo ’09 said later. “But I found his passion for America very touching.”
Indeed, if there was one thing upon which listeners of any ideological stripe might have agreed during Dreyfuss’s speech, it was that Dreyfuss appeared to be animated by a deep and heartfelt conviction in the historical, even Providential significance of the American project. Whatever kind of place Dreyfuss imagines the contemporary America to resemble, he is possessed of a very distinct vision for what America ought to be. And what America ought to be, it seems clear to Dreyfuss, is what America used to be.
“I don’t want to impeach the President,” Dreyfuss said. “In my mind, there are two arguments against impeachment: Dick Cheney and the Democratic Party. What I want is to give to my children a country resembling the one I got from my parents.”
As if defending his honor against some invisible onslaught of preliminary accusations, Dreyfuss made repeated attempts to reassure his audience that he does not consider himself a member of the Hollywood liberal pack.
“There are two camps in America today,” he said. “One camp says that America never sins, and that if you say America sins then you’re a traitor. The other group says that America always sins. And both camps are schmucks.”
After completing his lengthy talk, during which he paused only for water and did not once sit down, Dreyfuss greeted questions from an intrigued but slightly dwindled audience. Several students balanced their respect for Dreyfuss’s opinions with their surprise at the political content of his speech. By the conclusion of Dreyfuss’s speech, the actor-cum-advocate may have managed to allay some of the suspicion about his “right to be here,” winning over some Yale minds even as he confounded others.
“I thought he was going to talk about ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus,’” Katie Earle ’09 said. “Not that I disagreed at all with what he had to say. But I just didn’t know he wasn’t going to talk about his career.”