Interview: ‘Your Family or Mine’ star Richard Dreyfuss on TV’s draw – ‘Money’

Richard Dreyfuss doesn't need to play any reindeer games.

An Oscar winner and one of the world's biggest movie stars for two decades, Dreyfuss has only periodically popped up on the big or small screens in recent years because he's been concentrating his efforts on overhauling the way American children are taught civics and serving as Senior Associate Member of St. Anthony's College in Oxford.

While his recent credits have been sparse, I've talked to Dreyfuss several times in the past few years and the key is always to find what he wants to discuss, even if it isn't necessarily the project he's promoting. 

So with the 2012 A&E adaptation of “Coma,” it certainly wasn't “Coma,” but it could have been the shift in interactions between actors and directors over the years and whether or not TV is more actor-friendly.

With this winter's Sundance debut of “Zipper,” it was the political backdrop to the thriller.

And with TBS' upcoming comedy “Your Family or Mine”? Well, I'm not exactly sure I found the right thing.

I was on the set of the multi-cam family comedy last fall and after talking to most of the show's strong cast, including Kat Foster, Kyle Howard and Angela Kinsey earlier in the day, I waited around for three hours for Dreyfuss to be available to talk about a show that attracted him for what reason, exactly?

“Ummm… Money,” Dreyfuss explained.

Fair enough.

It's also not exactly true. Dreyfuss goes way back with many of his “Your Family or Mine” co-stars, including Ed Begley Jr., who told me about working with Dreyfuss on an episode of “Room 222” back in 1971. Dreyfuss has also had a long friendship with JoBeth Williams, who plays his wife in “Your Family or Mine.” 

But still, Dreyfuss has no interest in sugar-coating his feelings about the multi-cam format and the sitcom-y artificiality that he thinks has infected the genre.

The result is a fun-if-combative discussion that was ended just as Dreyfuss really got going.

HitFix: So Ed Begley Jr was telling me a story of “Room 222” back in 1971.

Richard Dreyfuss: 1968, I think.

HitFix: Okay. So you Ed might need to have a little fight about this one.

Richard Dreyfuss: He's too up there in the clouds.

HitFix: So do you remember?

Richard Dreyfuss: F***ing-A I do! I played the kind of rebel kid and I was the valedictorian. So the director, who was a friend of mine said, “When we turn around on the audience piss them off.” And I said, “Okay.” And I did. And it was in the middle of the Vietnam War. And it was easy. And they really got pissed, like extras were saying, “I don't have to take this s***.”

HitFix: And do you remember meeting Ed specifically back then?

Richard Dreyfuss: Oh yeah. We've know one another for longer than that.

HitFix: What is it like being able to come onto a new show but having someone like Ed, who you've known for that long, and JoBeth was saying it's been around for 30 plus years that you guys have known each other as well?

Richard Dreyfuss: Well, I have an enormous affection for him. And it's just the luck of the draw that we hadn't worked together more often. So he's great. He's fun. And so is she. She's a pro.

HitFix: What is it like actually bouncing off those guys? Because I know that you guys are actually getting to all be in scenes together, to be able to share the screen with those two?

Richard Dreyfuss: I don't know how to answer that because you bounce off good actors. If they're not good, you don't bounce. And they're both great and they don't get stuck on, you know, the one way to do it or the one thing. So it's always fun and always kind of new. Yeah.

HitFix: When you were doing those early TV gigs that you were doing back when you were just starting out, did you do this multi-cam comedy thing back in those days? I know that sounded really awful what I said that.

Richard Dreyfuss: No. No. Everyone says to me, “Have you ever done three cameras before?” And I say, “Vet me, you bastard.”

HitFix: I just know that you did a ton of the TV back in the day, but I didn't know which multi-cams you might have done in those days.

Richard Dreyfuss: I did just about every show that Sally Field did, I followed her. And I did shows like the precursor to “All in the Family” called “Peace in the Family.” And I did “Catch-22;” I played Yossarian and like that.

HitFix: Had you been wanting to return to that format? Have you had pleasant memories of doing that?

Richard Dreyfuss: [He laughs, a bit incredulous.] No. No. Not at all. No. There's an old truth in show business, which is you either shoot a film or you shoot a budget. When you're doing television like this you're shooting a budget and it's not fun. It can be funny and that's what you hope for, but is it a preferable art form? No.

HitFix: Is it a different set of muscles that you're working?

Richard Dreyfuss: Well, yes I suppose. I never thought about it like that, but yes. There's something about television that makes people say things like, [He goes stagey.] “Hi. How are you?” Instead of, [More naturalistic.] “Hi, how are ya?” And so I do my best to build a wall around that and not do that.

HitFix: And I imagine that there's something specifically about this format that makes the, “Hi. How are you,” even more demonstrable.

Richard Dreyfuss: Yes. Although I don't think there's any law and I have a feeling that if actors just started acting normally they'd get away with it.

HitFix: Can you think of any examples of TV comedies that you watch where people are acting normal or is it too hard to think of that kind of thing? I'm trying to get an idea of what the right thing is.

Richard Dreyfuss: I don't watch TV anymore so I can't really say. But are there comedies that are better? Oh yeah of course there are. When I was a kid there were shows at Universal and all of them were basically reality or underplayed. And I don't know when this sitcom disease took over. I really don't. “Hello. How are you?” It's funny.

HitFix: People always make the comparison of this format to doing live theater. Does it not feel quite like that to you? 

Richard Dreyfuss: Nothing like it. When you do a play, you have a payoff and the payoff is that there's an audience watching you. When you work in front of the people, either in a film or in television, the people who are in the room with you are not watching you work, they're working so you'd have to light a fire to get them to watch what you were doing. And theater is completely different, completely. And it has a beginning and a middle and an end and it's different every night. And it's far preferable to any other except in the sense of not getting paid, people who want to eat should do film and television.

HitFix: So in that case what brought you to this project? What was the major draw?

Richard Dreyfuss: Ummm… Money. Yeah. It was money and also because Greg [Malins] had a great rep and I thought , “Give it a shot.” And I'd rather work with people I like and respect than people I don't.

HitFix: Well, I assume though that there were other alternatives out there for the money in TV or bad movies?

Richard Dreyfuss: No. Actually I kind of withdrew from show business about ten years, 12 years ago and I had stopped seeking work. I went to Oxford and I was I've been running a nonprofit initiative for the revival of the teaching of civic authority. And that's what I've been doing. So I was not looking for acting work. And then I realized that acting was the only thing I knew that I could make a living at and feed my family, so thus.

HitFix: Talk, then, about sort of the challenges you set for yourself in this. Because you talked about making it seem natural and trying to do that with yourself. So how do you challenge yourself episode to episode?

Richard Dreyfuss: I have the same sense of quality or lack of quality that I do in a film, in a play, in a speech, whatever. And if you've got a good radar and you can sense your own bulls***, then you know, “Let's work on this and get it better.” And that's really what I do. I try to do that.

HitFix: Have you and the different directors that you've worked with on this show have you guys had the same bulls*** detector, the same bullsh** radar?

Richard Dreyfuss: To a great extent yes. Directing a three-camera show is all about the angle of the camera. It's really far more about that than you can imagine. And so they're not really watching the subtleties of a performance, they're watching, “Are you in the line of sight?” And it's interesting. 

[A production coordinator tries to step in to call time.]

Richard Dreyfuss: Oh you mean after all that now it's over?

“Your Family or Mine” premieres on TBS on Tuesday, April 7, 2015.