Before Steven Spielberg’s iconic, forever-quoted, parodied-to-death, beloved and still fantastically frightening 1975 masterpiece “Jaws” became the mega-hit mother of the modern blockbuster and forever changed the way movies were marketed and gobbled up, there was a little bit of a problem during filming.
The shark sucked.
“The shark almost never worked and the script wasn’t fleshed out,” said “Jaws” star Richard Dreyfuss, now 71, in a recent telephone conversation.
“So we wrote the script every night, sitting at Steven’s house, with Verna Fields the editor, and Roy [Scheider] and [producers] David Brown and Robert Zanuck …
“Steven had to reconceive a film about a shark — a shark he could never show. And he had to imply it. And watching that experience for me was watching a boy become a man.”
‘An Evening Jawing With Richard Dreyfuss’ When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday (preceded by receptions at 5 and 6 p.m.) Where: Tivoli Theatre, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove Tickets: $39 ($135 with VIP reception) Info: www.classiccinemas.com
Still brimming with energy and his trademark upbeat, quick-witted style of conversing, the star of such lasting films as “American Graffiti,” “The Goodbye Girl” (for which he won the Academy Award), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Tin Men,” “Always,” “Stakeout,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus” is scheduled to be at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove on Thursday for “An Evening Jawing with Richard Dreyfuss,” which is pretty much what it sounds like: a screening of “Jaws,” a VIP meet & greet reception — and, for about an hour or so, Dreyfuss will be, well, jawing onstage.
Asked if this is part of a tour, Dreyfuss said, “Yes, in a kind of way. [We hope] to do this all over the country. This will be the first stop.
“And just so people know, it’s not specifically ONLY about ‘Jaws,’ because [if that were the case] I would put a gun in my mouth and blow my brains out. It’s about ‘Jaws,’ but also my other movies. Over a period of 50-60 years, I did about 60 or more films, and I’m REALLY proud of them. Even if people didn’t see [some of] them, that’s their ‘too bad,’ because they’re great.”
Whether playing the brilliant but inexperienced oceanographer Matt Hooper in “Jaws” or the schoolteacher in “Mr. Holland’s Opus” or various family men, Dreyfuss specialized in likable everyman roles, but he’s also played villains ranging from the mud-slinging candidate in “The American President” to Bernie Madoff to a well-mannered and outwardly benevolent but ruthless mobster in last year’s “Asher.”
“In fact I did three films in a row where I got to play these evil gangster types,” says Dreyfuss.
(The other two are “Bayou Caviar,” which stars and was directed by Cuba Gooding Jr., and “Polar,” currently on Netflix.)
A couple of times during our talk, Dreyfuss paused as he tried to recall the name of a colleague or two (which I started doing about 10 years ago, so …).
“When your mother asks you what you want to be when you grow up, don’t say ‘Old,’ ” he joked. “And if any of my brain cells fall to the floor during the course of this interview, you have to return them to me.”
In fact, Dreyfuss’ memories are razor-sharp as he recalls his time on “Jaws,” made when he and Spielberg were still in their 20s.
“I had met him only briefly before when he called me and said, ‘I want to talk to you about doing this movie ‘Jaws.’ But don’t read the book! And I am SUCH a well-trained actor that I have never read the book, even to this day.
“When we met, he told me he wanted to make a bullet. And what he meant was, no subplot, just the shark. Just one bullet. Bang! And that’s what he shot.
“And I make no bones about it, if anyone [is] questioning Steven Spielberg’s creative brilliance, all they have to do is watch ‘Jaws’ for the first time now and realize, that movie could be released now without one change and it would make as much money now as it did then.”
I told Dreyfuss about screening “Jaws” last summer for a group made up mostly of millennials — about half of whom hadn’t seen the movie before — and how much fun it was to watch THEM watch the film.
“When it was first out, I used to escort friends of mine to showings,” he said. “Like this couple from … the woman was a high-society Brahman type, the single most elegant, graceful, aristocrat I’d ever met in my life.
“So I escorted the two of them to the theater and just hung around until they came out — and she was a dribbling wreck.
“Those moments never cease to be satisfying.”
I’ve long felt the most beloved character he’s ever played was the title character from “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”
“I actually agree,” he said. “I’ve been very, very taken by how deeply that film has impacted on so many cultures: the hearing-impaired, the music world, the teaching culture.
“Months after that film opened, I turned on the radio and it was a national talk show, and they were still talking about the movie, which is NOT the norm.
“During the making of the film, we literally had a thousand extras for the audience and the parents and all this. There are reunions of people who made that film.
“Those extras bonded with the cast and the crew in a way that I’ve never known before or since. We shot these huge scenes, like when I was conducting the John Lennon piece …
“And a thousand people and I did these scenes 10 or 12 times — to the point where we were doing them just because we wanted to.”