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Jawing with Richard Dreyfuss about his movies, feuds and why he's coming to SharkCon in Tampa

HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 09:  Actor Richard Dreyfuss arrives at American Film Institute\u2019s 44th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute to John Williams at Dolby Theatre on June 9, 2016 in Hollywood, California. 26148_005  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Turner)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 09: Actor Richard Dreyfuss arrives at American Film Institute\u2019s 44th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute to John Williams at Dolby Theatre on June 9, 2016 in Hollywood, California. 26148_005 (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Turner)
Published Jul. 12, 2018

How is Richard Dreyfuss?

"I'm fine," he said, then paused. I'm ... fine. I'm okay. When you are 70 years old, you have to make that a cautious statement."

The Oscar winner will be in Tampa this weekend at SharkCon, which has expanded in its fifth year from a weekend all about science and sharks to a comic convention element with celebrity appearances by the stars of Sharknado. Dreyfuss will be on a panel talking about Jaws and also sit down for an extended evening called "Jawing with Richard Dreyfuss."

From his home in California, the raconteur talked for more than an hour about his long and varied career that includes cult hits like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, What About Bob? and the band teacher favorite Mr. Holland's Opus. He shot down a story that he didn't get along with his Jaws co-star Robert Shaw, but confirmed that he did indeed think Bill Murray was "an Irish drunken bully."

In the last five years, he has been lured into the comic con scene. It has grown in the last decade into a big business of celebrity spotting, where fans pay $50-$100 each, in cash, for a photo or autograph.

"I thought it was going to be such a drag," Dreyfuss said of his first comic con. "But then I realized, this is the only time I had to say thank you to the people who had seen my movies. The first time I was doing it, people stood in line for six or seven hours and that was an awesome little moment for me. I immediately got coffee for the line."

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Dreyfuss will sit on a Jaws panel on Saturday at SharkCon in Tampa, along with the screenwriter and other actors from the movie that put director Steven Spielberg on the map as the king of blockbusters. The 1975 film about a bloodthirsty great white shark was a notoriously troubled shoot. It went way over budget, had a malfunctioning shark and nearly got the filmmaker fired.

"It started without a script, a cast or a shark and I watched as Steven had to re-imagine the film he thought he was going to make and had to reconfigure it as he went because the shark could not be shown," Dreyfuss said. "Imagine all the pressure in the universe that was targeted at his head. But he never showed it. He never showed the pressure."

Dreyfuss admits that he and Spielberg are among the many viewers of Jaws whose ocean-going habits changed.

"I can scuba dive, because you can see what's around you, but I could never just walk into the ocean from the beach," Dreyfuss said. "Because you don't know what's going on. And Steven has told me he is the same way."

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Part of SharkCon is having fun with sharks in pop culture, but there's also a serious devotion to conservation and research. The experience of being in one of the most iconic shark movies of all time has affected how Dreyfuss thinks about sharks.

"Peter Benchley died of a broken heart," Dreyfuss said of the Jaws author who later came to regret writing such sensationalist literature about sharks. "He had never thought we would develop this phobia that we have now of sharks, and we kill them in the millions for their fins."

One of the ongoing stories of the making of Jaws is that Dreyfuss had a feud with Robert Shaw, the veteran actor who played the shark-obsessed fisherman Quint.

"How does a myth ever get corrected?" Dreyfuss said. "Does a myth's answer get out there? Because I've been answering this question for a long time. There was one day I lost my sense of humor, but we got over it in one day. It was an honor to work with Robert. I was thrilled with it all."

The Bill Murray story, however, he did confirm. The on-screen dynamic in What About Bob? was real. He really didn't like the guy he has called a bully.

"There's something funny about him," Dreyfuss said. "He's someone I don't like, but he can make me laugh, so take that for what it's worth."

His passion these days is the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, a nonprofit he founded 10 years ago to push for the need for comprehensive civics education in the school system. He called the lack of civics knowledge "the invisible killer," in the same way doctors refer to heart disease, and he's writing a book on the subject.

It's because of his interest in education and the fact that pretty much every band teacher plays Mr. Holland's Opus to a class at least once a year, that Dreyfuss says, "I adore me for doing that role."

He got his second Oscar nomination playing the high-school music teacher who aspired to write his own composition. He said he has been so moved over the years by stories of educators who felt the movie championed their profession that he decided to track down one of his old teachers.

The funny thing is, he didn't like her one bit. She was grumpy and impatient, "Yet everything I've come to love I learned in her classroom. She taught social studies and history and Shakespeare and poetry."

So he found her, retired in San Diego — "where all retired Republican history teachers went" — and called her up and told her why he'd been thinking about her. She gruffly said thank you and hung up on him.

"She proved to be exactly as how I remembered," he chuckled. "She didn't give a hoot in hell about my gratitude. But she did something that worked."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

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