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Richard Dreyfuss talks 'Jaws' and civics before his Clearwater appearance

Academy Award winner Richard Dreyfuss is also a pretty good movie critic, judging by his succinct review of Steven Spielberg's shark thriller Jaws.

"You saw a rose garden created out of horse manure," Dreyfuss said Tuesday by telephone, "and you watched a film boy genius become a man and pull the impossible out of a hat.

"And it works every time."

Dreyfuss, 68, knows better than anyone except Spielberg the challenge of creating a bona fide classic from a beach read and a balky mechanical shark. Playing wiseacre ichthyologist Matt Hooper, Dreyfuss had the second biggest mouth in Jaws, and a front row seat for Hollywood history.

Saturday night at Clearwater's Capitol Theatre, Dreyfuss will be glad to share some of those memories.

Following a 7 p.m. screening of Jaws, Dreyfuss will take the stage for a Q&A session with yours truly moderating. His appearance celebrating the movie's 40th anniversary was twice postponed when Dreyfuss underwent back surgery in 2015.

It's a rare opportunity to hear Dreyfuss discussing Jaws at a screening. The actor paused several seconds when asked if he does it much.

"No," he said cautiously, still thinking back. "As a matter of fact I've done I think two in about 40 years."

Other topics have been more important for Dreyfuss to talk about, specifically his Dreyfuss Civics Initiative promoting civics education in public schools. Once a cornerstone of U.S. curricula, these lessons in government and citizen responsibilities are largely phased out. Dreyfuss' non-partisan initiative calls for reviving those lesson plans.

Over the past decade, Dreyfuss spent six years at England's Oxford University, studying the effects of lacking civics education in American culture.

"It's much worse than I actually imagined it would be," he said. "People don't feel they're involved with their country anymore. They not only don't feel it; they don't know it. ... They have no pride of place, no pride of ownership. The only way to change that is to learn."

After years distracted from acting, Dreyfuss "realized I had to feed my family," landing the plum role of Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff in the ABC miniseries Madoff, premiering Feb. 3. Perhaps we'll have time to bring it up Saturday, along with other Dreyfuss' signature hits American Graffiti, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his Oscar-winning turn in The Goodbye Girl.

But the evening belongs to Jaws, in the theater where I first saw Spielberg's movie in 1975, grinding my teeth in the balcony. Dreyfuss' first time was in a balcony, too. I asked how many times he's watched it.

"Oh, s---t," he laughed, like Richard Dreyfuss does. "I couldn't count.

"You know Jaws has turned into one of those films that when you see it on TV, you turn it on and you can't turn it off. So, in that regard I've seen it a million times.

"It's the only film I'm aware of that could be released now for the first time, and have the same impact that it did then. You can't say that about a lot of movies."

Dreyfuss will take questions from the audience on Saturday. Anyone taking the opportunity is reminded that Dreyfuss has heard it all.

"The person who asks me the question I haven't heard, I should buy a Rolls Royce for," Dreyfuss said. "It's not the easiest thing to come up with something I haven't heard, or anyone involved with making (Jaws).

Or any other movie in which Dreyfuss appears, it seems.

"Usually that's my complaint, you know?' he said. "I'll say to an audience OK, let's have a deal here. I'll tell the truth and you tell the truth. Come up with a question you think I have not heard. And if I haven't heard it, I'll pay you 20 bucks. And I have never, ever reached for my wallet."

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

See the 40th anniversary screening of Jaws, with a live appearance by Academy Award winner Richard Dreyfuss at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater. $39.50, $55, $75. (727) 791-7400. atthecap.com.

Richard Dreyfuss talks 'Jaws' and civics before his Clearwater appearance 01/06/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2016 5:42pm]
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