On the surface, no two people seem farther apart than the movie star from Beverly Hills and the famous German refugee rabbi. But Richard Dreyfuss, now appearing as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in Colin Greer’s “Imagining Heschel” at the Cherry Lane Theater, feels a profound kinship with the character he plays.
The play focuses on Heschel’s secret audience with Pope Paul VI in 1964 to try to convince him to revoke the charge of deicide against the Jews, during which Heschel angered the Vatican by also bringing up the issue of the Church’s complicity with the Nazis.
In a telephone interview with The Jewish Week, Dreyfuss, who won an Academy Award in 1977 for his performance in Neil Simon’s “The Goodbye Girl,” said that he knows how it feels to fall short of your potential as he feels Heschel did.
“I thought that I was the best actor in America,” Dreyfuss said, his deep voice twinkling and resonant, over the phone, “and I had to learn that I wasn’t. Heschel wanted to be Martin Luther King; he wanted to be a man who had been to the mountaintop. But in the end, even though he went to the Vatican, he failed in his mission. He was told by the cardinal [Cardinal Augustin Bea, played by Rinde Eckert] that this is a 2,000-year-old institution and there are complex threads, each one of which is against you. You can’t turn an institution on a dime.”
Dreyfuss said that many successful people “get a good yetz of momentum in their lives by believing themselves to be better than they are. Heschel wanted to be a person of greater courage, one who could overcome the obstacles of losing his family in the Holocaust. He was a great man with discipline, honor and integrity who found himself acting as small, petty and blinkered as so many others.” Referring to the play’s original title, “A Man Can Come Too Late,” Dreyfuss said that the rabbi “came too late — to the knowledge of himself.”
The Brooklyn-born actor lived in Bayside, Queens, until age 8, when his family moved to Beverly Hills. He first appeared on stage at 10, playing Theodor Herzl at the Westside Jewish Community Center.
As a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Dreyfuss worked as a file clerk in a hospital and moonlighted as an actor, eventually landing his first Broadway role in 1969 in Julius J. Epstein’s play about a Beverly Hills screenwriter, “But, Seriously…,” which closed after just four performances. In an otherwise scathing review, Clive Barnes of The New York Times singled out Dreyfuss for praise, noting that the play “cheered up on his every entry, and he made quite a surprising number of his lines sound funny.”
The actor launched his film career in 1974 in the controversial Canadian film, “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” in which he played a scheming Jewish teenager from Montreal. The following year, he starred in Stephen Spielberg’s “Jaws” as marine biologist Matt Hooper. In addition to “The Goodbye Girl,” his later films included “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus” (for which he was again nominated for an Oscar). He has also continued to act on the stage, starring in recent years on Broadway in Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden,” and Larry Gelbart’s “Sly Fox.”
Foreshadowing his role in “Imagining Heschel,” Dreyfuss hosted the Vatican’s first official commemoration of the Holocaust, which took place in Rome in 1994, and was broadcast worldwide. Dreyfuss recited the Kaddish as part of a performance by the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Leonard Bernstein’s Third Symphony. More than 200 Holocaust survivors attended the concert.
Like the character he plays, Dreyfuss has spent a lifetime immersed in social causes. His mother was a peace activist, and he describes himself as a “red-diaper baby” who “never met a liberal until I was 16, and didn’t know that Republicans existed.” He grew up as a very secular Jew, but “I visit Bayside,” he once told interviewer Abigail Pogrebin, “like I visit a synagogue — it really has quite a heavy aroma for me.” On summer nights, his father and other men in the neighborhood would sit outside and play union songs or songs from the Spanish Civil War.
“There’s a little rabbi in each of us,” Dreyfuss said. “Telling people how to live is fun. My inner rabbi is not far from the surface. Politics are a secular arm of faith.” He has been especially involved in promoting peace in the Middle East, including sponsoring a conference in Salzburg, Austria, in 2005 to bring together two dozen senior journalists from both Western and Arab countries.
In 2006, he founded The Dreyfuss Initiative, a nonprofit corporation that seeks to promote the teaching of civics in American schools. High school students “don’t know what was revolutionary about the Revolutionary War,” Dreyfuss lamented. “They don’t believe that they have power or the right to power.”
“Imagining Heschel” has had a rocky start. Originally scheduled to open on Nov. 8, the producers first postponed the show’s opening night indefinitely, and have now decided not to allow any reviews. Dreyfuss had well-publicized problems last year remembering lines when Kevin Spacey directed him at London’s Old Vic in Joe Sutton’s “Complicit.” While “Imagining Heschel” was initially announced as a full production, it has now been changed to a “concert reading.”
Dreyfuss conceded that not much rehearsal time went into the play. He arrived in New York on Nov. 1 and the performances began three days later. “I wish that we had originally decided to do this play as a reading, as we did with ‘Exonerated’ [a 2002 Off-Broadway play, starring Dreyfuss and Jill Clayburgh, about six wrongly convicted death row inmates], so that we could focus on the heart of the play, which is intellectual verbal prose.”
In any event, Dreyfuss said, “I’m retired as an actor. I’m more interested these days in finding a place for Americans to discuss serious issues. I believe that we need to move toward the center. So many people want to stay on the extremes, but that is toxic and will kill the country.”
He noted that Heschel also had to move on after his audience with the Pope. “Martin Luther King had a revelation on the road to Damascus. Heschel didn’t. He had to live with the knowledge that that he would not accomplish everything that he had set out to do.”
“Imagining Heschel” runs at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., through Nov. 28. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200.