The first time I became aware of Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss on the silver screen, as the lead in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), he was portraying a character who was a lousy friend, a lousy fiancé and a lousy citizen (albeit of Canada). But the first and only time that I encountered him in person (circa 1980), he immediately stepped up to the plate of being an engaged, activist citizen.
My fellow community organizers in the Coalition against the West Side Expressway and I were flagging down every pedestrian passing by Zabar’s that day. I was halfway through my spiel before it sank in that the guy I had just buttonholed was somebody famous. Without hesitation, Dreyfuss and his then-wife let me lead them over to our sidewalk table, picked up clipboards and quickly wrote their letters to the mayor and City Council opposing the construction of the gigantic Westway project (a battle that hardly anyone remembers anymore, because the tree-huggers won). The actor shoved a five-dollar bill into our jar full of quarters and went on his way; we admired his autograph briefly before tucking his letter into its preaddressed stamped envelope.
By all accounts, Richard Dreyfuss has long been involved in causes like education, the environment and substance abuse, and a guy who places high value on citizen participation in public decisionmaking, government transparency and accountability, privacy, freedom of speech and responsible investigative media. But the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 excesses confirmed him in his life’s mission: to campaign for the revival of civics classes as an essential part of the US public school curriculum.
In 2008 he founded the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, “a non-profit, non-partisan organization that aims to revive the teaching of civics in American public education to empower future generations with the critical-thinking skills they need to fulfill the vast potential of American citizenship,” whose “programs are meant to promote the advancement of civic education, civic virtue and the role citizens can play in the success of our country.” “All people have a right to know who they are and why they are who they are,” Dreyfuss has said. “Clarity of thought and honesty in self-reflection are more than needed utilities; they are the building blocks of our national moral character.”
He also sits on the Committee for Education of the American Bar Association, has served 12 years on the Board of the National Constitution Center, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and served as senior research advisory member of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. Oh, and by the way, he has been no slouch as a stage and film actor either, starring in such successful films as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, American Graffiti, Mr. Holland’s Opus (Best Actor Oscar nominee) and The Goodbye Girl (Best Actor Oscar winner).
Audience members will have the opportunity to ask questions of Dreyfuss about his movie career when he headlines a benefit for Columbia Memorial Health on Sunday, March 15, at Club Helsinki Hudson, but he’ll likely keep steering the conversation back toward the importance of being an informed, engaged citizen and holding our wayward leaders’ feet to the fire. And that’ll be just fine.
Tickets to “An Evening with Richard Dreyfuss,” beginning at 8 p.m. on March 15, cost $100 per person (remember, it’s a charity fundraiser) and can be ordered at https://clubhelsinki.shop.ticketstoday.com/basket.aspx?Action=AddTickets&eventId=164850. For more information, call (518) 828-4800.
An Evening with Richard Dreyfuss, benefit for Columbia Memorial Health, Sunday, March 15, 8 p.m., $100, Club Helsinki Hudson, 405 Columbia Street, Hudson; (518) 828-4800, https://helsinkihudson.com.