Nichols fires DeNiro, Simon writes “Goodbye Girl,” Dreyfuss gets Oscar


Last night’s “An Evening with Richard Dreyfuss” at the Florida Film Festival was another of those delightful highlights of many a film festival — a public celebration of the life and work of a big screen legend.

Festivals premiere movies, host Q & As with up and coming filmmakers and stars, and panel discussions on the state of cinema, indie cinema and acting. But it is “victory lap” events like this that I’ve always enjoyed, as both a spectator, and on occasion, as a participant — doing the interviewing, moderating questions from the audience.

I led the Q & A with R.D. at the Festival’s home base, the Enzian Theater, after a screening of “The Goodbye Girl,” one of two classics Dreyfuss starred in during his breakout holiday season of 1977. The other Winter of Dreyfuss hit featured him staring — in perfect slack-jawed awe, gaping at the impossible — while sitting in a power company pickup truck at a railroad crossing in the dead of night in BFE, Indiana.

Dreyfuss was full of anecdotes about Neil Simon, whose life and career the festival wanted to celebrate with this event, as well as “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Close Encounters,” “Jaws” and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”

He talked about his Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, about taking years off from acting to study up on the subject,

He wanted to set the record straight on his alleged “feud” with Robert Shaw on “Jaws,” his efforts to acquire a reputation for being hard to please (A way to set himself apart from his late ’60s/early ’70s peers, he says.) and how he always thought of Simon as “my personal writer, my guy.”

Others may have heard versions of how “The Goodbye Girl” came to be, but I hadn’t, and most of the sell-out crowd there hadn’t. So we got into that.

In 1976, Dreyfuss recalled, the great Mike Nichols had lined up the already great Robert DeNiro to star in a Neil Simon script titled “Bogart Slept Here.”

It was based, Dreyfuss said, on Dustin Hoffman’s overwhelmed-by-fame-and-life experiences after blowing up in “The Graduate.”

“And they’d looked at like three weeks of rushes, and Bobby DeNiro wasn’t funny.”

This was long before “Midnight Run” and “Analyze This” found DeNiro’s funnybone. ‘

Nichols had to fire him, and Simon agreed. They brought in Dreyfuss for a table-read, and Simon asked him what he thought of “Bogart Slept Here.”

Dreyfuss says he pointed out “the obvious” to Nichols and Simon. That “nobody is going to feel sorry for a MOVIE star who’s having trouble” with his marriage, his loss of privacy, a career that had turned into a smorgasbord of choices. “Because he’s still a MOVIE star.”

“Neil said, ‘You’re right.’ They killed the project, basically right there.”

But Simon, the most prolific playwright/screenwriter of his generation, said he’d come with something else. “Three weeks later, he handed me ‘The Goodbye Girl,’ written with me in mind, I guess in my voice.”

Nichols had moved on, theater projects and film projects that failed to materialize.

Herbert Ross was brought in, and Simon’s then-wife Marsha Mason (already an Oscar nominee for the very fine “Cinderella Liberty,” NOT scripted by Neil Simon).

It became a career-making movie for Ross and Dreyfuss, with Oscar nominations as best picture, best screenplay, best actress (Mason, who won the Golden Globe that year) and best supporting actress (Quinn Cummings) — and an Academy Award for child-actor turned American EveryMensch — Richard Dreyfuss.

One other tidbit Dreyfuss mentioned about the movie stood out. They shot “probably two thirds” of the actor Elliot Garfield’s performance in a gay camp “Richard III,” the disastrous play Dreyfuss’s character comes to New York to star in (“off off OFF Broadway”). The footage “is somewhere in Warner Brothers’ vault, the negative anyway.”

THAT, I’d pay to see.

And the unknown actor in the play who runs Richard through at the Battle of Bosworth Field in the play’s climax? “A few years ago, Powers Boothe comes up to me at some event and tells me ‘I killed you in ‘Richard III.’ I had NO idea!”

Dreyfuss was a delight, and everything you’d want in a screen legend — anecdotes, a little edge, and the perspective of somebody who has been in on everything from The Birth of the Blockbuster to the Golden Age of Netflix.

I can’t find the Orlando Live Streaming archive of the chat, but when I do, I’ll link to it. Good audience questions, and a lot of funny responses from of the funniest guys the movies have ever produced.

Photos by Jim DeSantis of the Fla Film Festival and Kim Waddell.

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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