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