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A Silent Witness
COU P OLI
n Silent Fall, actor Richard
Dreyfuss' actions speak vol-
Portraying a psychiatrist
reluctantly agreeing to treat a
young autistic patient who may
hold the clue to his parents' mur-
ders, Mr. Dreyfuss — cajoling,
kvetching, carping — tries to ease
the elusive truth out of his silent
It is an ironic twist of circum-
stances for Mr. Dreyfuss' char-
acter, who has lived in his own
world of silence for years — shut-
ting out memories of an incident
years before, when he lost a
young patient in a tragedy.
The courts found the doctor in-
nocent of any complicity in the
youngster's death, but memory
can convict on its own, sometimes
with a viciousness for which there
is no leniency.
There is no time off for good be-
havior for the good doctor. The
psychiatrist has lost his ambition
and interest in life.
It is a complicated role for a
complex actor whose credits are
not so easy to categorize outside
of their general commitment to
excellence. Richard Dreyfuss has
tried comedy (What About Bob?
Stakeout, Tin Men and The Good-
bye Girl, for which he won an Os-
car), historical drama (HBO's
Prisoner of Honor, about the
Dreyfus Affair) and classic sci-
ence fiction (Close Encounters of
the Third Kind).
A close encounter with the 47-
year-old Brooklyn-born Drey-
fuss about his role in the new
film reveals an intense actor in-
tent on getting the message
across that movies are, by and
And nobody, says the actor
with an outrageously infectious
laugh, is a better audience than
he is. "I like to entertain myself,"
he says of the process of picking
projects. "I'm always looking for
a good story or character that is,
in some way, connected to the
Or out of it. Mr. Dreyfuss' por-
trayal of the aliens' choice to
board their spacecraft in Close
Encounters was the critics' choice
for huzzahs in 1977. So were his
portrayals of the itchy, greedy
Jewish entrepreneur in The Ap-
prenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
(1974) and the small-time Jew-
ish hood with larger-than-life
Michael Elkin is the
entertainment editor of the
Jewish Exponent in
dreams in last year's Lost in
Richard Dreyfuss has found
a sense of purpose in Hollywood,
it would seem. There is an ele-
ment of social responsibility in
much of the actor's work. But talk
to him and you discover that his
interest lies more in the enter-
tainment value of a role than in
"I would like to think that is
why I choose roles," because of
their social significance, he says
this "serious fellow with a prob-
lem in his past."
The challenge for the actor was
in "making a balance" — doing a
film about autism that also is a
"If we had made just a film
about autism, it would have been
a clinical, sterile film," says the
And Mr. Dreyfuss, a fertile
source for complex characteriza-
tions, had no intention of doing
that. To ready for his role, he
Richard Dreyfuss and Linda Hamilton in 'Silent Fall'.
with a wide grin. "But that's not
the case. I want something that
Not that he's not committed to
causes: "My parents were pro-
gressive liberal Democrats. I
grew up thinking that's what Ju-
daism is all about."
And, so it seems, that is what
Richard Dreyfuss is all about.
Long active on behalf of peace in
Israel, Mr. Dreyfuss has seen his
activism pay off in the Mideast
As an ardent advocate for
Americans for Peace Now, and as
a onetime student of Torah in a
Hollywood enclave, Richard
Dreyfuss has long been concerned
with Jewish, Israeli and political
"I pick my shots," he says of
his political concerns. And the
accord reached between Israel
and the Palestinians has him
His vocal involvement as an
activist says much about the in-
tense actor. When it comes to
looking for messages in his films,
however, he would rather the
story do the talking for him.
There is no mystery why Mr.
Dreyfuss chose this mystery/
chiller as a project, since it show-
cases his many talents.
He says he enjoyed the role of
studied with an autism expert at
He also found a fund of infor-
mation in screenwriter Akiva
Goldsman, whose parents are
child psychologists working with
What about playing opposite
child performers, supposedly
anathema to actors? No problem,
says Mr. Dreyfuss, who can hold
his own on screen — even when
pitted against such natural
scene stealers as beginner Ben
Faulkner, who portrays the 9-
year-old autistic murder witness,
and the stunning Liv Tyler, also
making her film debut in Silent
Fall, as the sister of the autistic
Richard Dreyfuss is not a self-
ish performer, he shared insights
and rehearsal time with the two
actors. While Ben Faulkner, 11,
is a novice before the camera, Liv
Tyler is not.
The 18-year-old was a model
before turning to film.
She is also familiar with what
it means to be the focus of atten-
tion: Ms. Tyler is the daughter of
former model Bebe Buell and
Aerosmith lead singer Steven
For the record, Mr. Dreyfuss
was impressed with the actors'
accomplishments. Was he also