You’d think that being one of the three leads in Jaws would put you at the top of Steven Spielberg’s cast list forever. But that didn’t happen for Richard Dreyfuss, who had to fight tooth and nail to work with the director again on the 1977 sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Richard Dreyfuss ultimately did win the lead role of electrical lineman Roy Neary, who becomes embroiled in humanity’s first contact with aliens, in one of the best science fiction movies ever made. He found himself front and center in another of the best Steven Spielberg movies, but he was willing to fight dirty to do it.
Despite the success of Jaws, Dreyfuss was far from Steven Spielberg‘s first choice for Close Encounters. After the nightmare of making Jaws, perhaps Spielberg just never wanted to see anyone involved with it again while he got a few more new movies under his belt.
It was Steve McQueen who topped Spielberg’s shortlist for the role of Neary, but he turned the job down. Many more huge Hollywood names were given the opportunity to star in the movie, but Dreyfuss was mounting a campaign of his own.
He told The Guardian in 2020: “I swore an oath to myself that I would badmouth every actor in Hollywood. I would walk by his office and say: ‘Pacino’s crazy. De Niro has no sense of humor’.”
We have to admire Dreyfuss’s audacity on this front. We don’t know Al Pacino personally, but we wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. That was especially true in the 1970s when he had spent most of his time calmly ordering people’s deaths in the Godfather trilogy.
Speaking at the Sedona Film Festival in 2018, Dreyfuss revealed the words he said that finally convinced Spielberg he was the man for the job. “One day, I leaned into his office and I said ‘Steven, you need a child’, and he looked up and said: ‘You got the part’. I knew he needed a man, who had a family, but had a child inside him.”
Dreyfuss was certainly a genius bit of casting and, although we consider Jaws to be right up there among the best movies of all time, Close Encounters of the Third Kind might well mark Dreyfuss’s best performance. It’s a work of real complexity, which also makes the most of Spielberg’s gift for intense sentimentality.
For more on Dreyfuss’s other big hit, find out how the best Jaws scene was written over the phone and learn about the Jaws scene so gory that Spielberg refused to include it. Alternatively, check out our picks for the best shark movies. Spoiler alert: Jaws made the cut.