His thoughts on Murder at Yellowstone City, his other Westerns, American Films in General, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in Particular
By Henry C. Parke
Richard Dreyfuss, an
Oscar winner for The Goodbye Girl, beloved for Jaws, American
Graffiti, Close Encounters and so many more, has finally made a Western
movie. It’s about time: after all, the
American history enthusiast is a Civil War reenactor. “Why wouldn't I be? When you realize how
heavy their packs were, and what they did with all that weight on them, it's
astounding. We made America to build a different and better country than any
other country had ever tried. I have a great deal of pride, however badly we
might have done it. I call it an imperfect miracle.”
In Murder at
Yellowstone City, a forlorn former goldrush town in Montana gets a sudden
influx of hope when a man dynamites the old mine, and creates a new gold
strike! Then a freed slave (Isaiah
Mustafa) arrives in town just as the gold striker turns up dead. Gabriel Byrne is the law, Thomas Jane is the
pastor, and Anna Camp is his wife. Richard Dreyfuss is the Shakespeare-quoting
saloon proprietor. Produced by RLJE Films, distributed by AMC, Murder at
Yellowstone City is available on AMC+, for rent or sale through Prime, and
on DVD and Bluray. “What appealed to me
about the film was that it was a kind of metaphor for America,” Dreyfuss
explains. “About people who had come to America, who were being given a second
chance.” It’s actually Dreyfuss’ third
chance at a Western; the first two were for television.
The Big Valley
episode, Boy into Man, was a star-turn for young Dreyfuss as a boy
trying to protect his younger siblings when his mother disappears. And in addition to the Big Valley
stars, his mother was Diane Ladd, and he was directed by Casablanca star
Paul Henreid. “I worked with Barbara
Stanwyck, and that's no small thing: she's part of my innermost fantasy of what
it's like to be a movie star. And when I got to work the first morning, she had
been there since 4:00 AM, and the crew made it crystal clear to me that they
were Missy's crew and they were proud of it. And they didn't want to hear any
criticism of Missy. And I had seen every film she'd ever made. So my tongue
cloved to the roof of my mouth for most of the time that I was on that show.”
“I walked in and there
was Paul Henreid, and I said, ‘Oh my God, it's an honor to meet you, Mr.
Henreid.’ And he then asked the question, which is always answered with the
actor's oath. The question was, do you know how to ride a horse? And I said, ‘I
was raised on a ranch outside of Las Vegas: of course I do!’” Actually, he grew
up in Brooklyn.
There was a scene where
Dreyfuss had to drive away in a buckboard with his younger brother and sister
beside him. On the day of the shoot,
Dreyfuss pulled the wrangler aside, “And I said, ‘Excuse me, how do you do it?’
And he went, ‘Oh my God, this is really hard, and you've got two little kids
sitting next to you on this wagon.’ So I
was terrified, and I put the two kids on the buckboard and they yelled, Action!”
Darby Hinton, the boy in
the wagon, remembers, “He only had to go three or four feet, pull up, and
stop. But when they said action, he did the only thing he’d seen in the
Westerns. He yelled “Yee-haw!” and they took off!”
Dreyfuss recalls ruefully,
“And away they ran! Cut! Cut! Cut! I was
out of control,” he remembers with a laugh.
“They were afraid that I was gonna kill these kids.” The wranglers eventually caught up with the
wagon, got control of the horse, and brought them back.” Henreid was furious
with me. And he said, ‘Do you know why you got this part from me?’ I said, ‘I
did a good reading?’ And he said, ‘No! It
is because you said it is an honor to meet you Mr. Henreid!’”
Dreyfuss got through the
show somehow, “And at the end of the show, Barbara Stanwyck came up to me and
she said, "You know, you're the best actor that's ever guested on this
show." And walked away. And I believed her, and I did something I'd never
done before, or since. I invited my family and my friends to watch it with me.
And I realized, as we all were watching, that what Barbara Stanwyck had done
was to say to herself, ‘If I don't say something nice to this kid, he's gonna
blow his brains out because he's such a terrible actor.’ So she said this nice
thing, and I watched that performance, and I wanted to chop my tongue off. But
it certainly did provoke me into being better.
“I did the first Jewish Gunsmoke.”
“This Golden Land” won the Mass Media Award from The National Conference of
Christians and Jews. Hal Sitowitz’
script was nominated for a Writers Guild award for Best Episodic Drama.
Dreyfuss plays a Russian-born Jewish son who is furious with his father for
refusing to bring charges against the three cowboys who killed his brother.
Here he gets to ride horses and fire shotguns. It felt good to play a Jewish
character in a western, “in the sense that, yeah, I'm Jewish and I like being
Jewish. And so it was an opportunity to kind of flaunt my being Jewish. But I
didn't think it was a particularly subtle, well-written script.”
Growing up, Westerns were
not Richard Dreyfuss’ primary focus. “I was a fan of movies, sound American
films. What my daughter disdainfully calls ‘black and whites’. I had probably
seen every movie ever made by an American studio between 1931 and ’60, I knew
everything about everyone. I used to set my alarm for three o'clock in the
morning and watch A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy. And I would sit
this close to the TV so I could keep it quiet, but my mother would inevitably
wake up and come down the hall looking very much like the Wreck of the
Hesperus. She would say, ‘What are you doing?’ And I would say, ‘Spencer Tracy.’
And she said, ‘I'll get some cheese.’ And we would sit there together and watch
Tracy, and [Charles] Laughton movies, and wow: they do not make them the way
they used to.
“You know the story about
when the Germans occupied Paris? They said to the film theater owners, we’ll give
you a week to play anything you want. And then the German films will come in.
And every theater in Paris played Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And at
the end of the occupation, every theater in Paris again played Mr. Smith.
You know why and I know why. I once was
the keynote speaker to a room of about a thousand people, and Jimmy Stewart.
And I described Jimmy Stewart as a metaphor for America, that he was the
perfectly innocent American before the war. And I was specific about saying, in
Mr. Smith, there's this scene when he meets Claude Rain's daughter. And
he's so nervous, he keeps dropping his hat. It's hysterical. And then he went
to war, a very real war. His war was from the sky. And when he came back, he
never made another innocent American film again. And he never made a film that
blamed the Indians for everything. He was a complicated guy. At the end of that
luncheon, I was on my way out, and his daughters ran up to me and said, our dad
can't talk to you right now because he's crying. But he wanted you to know that
he never knew that anyone had ever watched him that closely. And I thought,
God, this guy's been a star since 1934. And he didn't know that people watched
him that closely.”
AND THAT'S A WRAP!
I hope to see many of you good folks starting this Thursday at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood! It has the best Western representation in years, beginning at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, with the premiere of the restoration of Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo! And yes, the lovely star Angie Dickinson will be there! They'll also be showing the great noir Western Blood on the Moon, the great musical Western 7 Brides for 7 Brothers -- Russ Tamblyn will be there (!), plus the great silent Western Clash of the Wolves, plus The Wild Bunch, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre!
And the following weekend, it's the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival! It's a wonderful free event -- if you'd like to attend, go HERE for the official website. And be sure to visit the Buckaroo Book Shop at the Festival, where you can meet your favorite Western authors, and hear their presentations. Click the Rendezvous with a Writer Facebook Page link to get the details!
All Original Contents Copyright April 2023 by Henry C. Parke. All Rights Reserved