Stocky, frequently bespectacled, eventually balding, and prematurely gray, Richard Dreyfuss is an unlikely candidate for a movie star. Even so, he has been one of Hollywood's most versatile, charismatic, and energetic leading men since the mid-'70s. Born in Brooklyn, NY, on October 29, 1947, Dreyfuss moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was nine. There he became friends with Rob Reiner and began acting in school productions and at the Beverly Hills Jewish Community Center. He attended San Fernando Valley State College, but was expelled after getting into a heated argument with a professor over Marlon Brando's performance in Julius Caesar (1953). Not wanting to be drafted for Vietnam, he registered as a conscientious objector and spent two years as a clerk at a Los Angeles hospital instead of enlisting.
During this time, Dreyfuss started getting a few acting jobs on network television series such as Bewitched and Big Valley; he had his first film role in 1967's The Graduate, speaking the lines "Shall I call the cops? I'll call the cops" to Dustin Hoffman. He continued playing bit parts in a couple more films, but did not get his first big break until he played Baby Face Nelson in the bloody biopic Dillinger (1973). A memorable leading role as an intelligent, contemplative teen in George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973) earned Dreyfuss critical acclaim, as did his portrayal of an entrepreneurial Jewish youth in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974).
In 1975, the actor's career exploded when he starred as an arrogant shark expert in Steven Spielberg's Jaws. He worked for Spielberg again two years later, playing an average Midwestern working stiff who learns that we are not alone in the universe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Further success followed that same year when Dreyfuss portrayed a failed actor in Neil Simon's romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl. His performance won him an Oscar, making him, at the age of 29, the youngest performer ever to receive the Best Actor honor. After that, Dreyfuss was in demand and, until 1981, he continued to find steady work in a number of films. However, none of these proved particularly popular, and the actor's career began to nosedive. Matters were worsened by his reported drug use and Hollywood party antics; in 1982, he was involved in a car accident and arrested for possession of cocaine.
Fortunately, Dreyfuss managed to turn his life around, and after appearing in the rarely seen Buddy System (1984), made a big comeback in Paul Mazursky's hit comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), starring opposite Bette Midler and Nick Nolte. With his reputation restored, Dreyfuss went on to appear in lead and supporting roles in numerous films of varying quality. Highlights included Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), Postcards From the Edge (1990), What About Bob? (1991), and Quiz Show (1994). In 1996, Dreyfuss played one of his finest roles as a high school music teacher who sacrifices his dream of becoming a famous composer to help his students in Mr. Holland's Opus (1996). The role earned Dreyfuss an Oscar nomination. That same year, he won acclaim of a different sort, lending his voice to a sarcastic centipede in Tim Burton's animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach. He went on to appear in Sidney Lumet's Night Falls on Manhattan (1997) and to star in Krippendorf's Tribe in 1998. The following year, he could be seen as titular Jewish gangster Lansky, a made-for-TV biopic scripted by David Mamet.
In 2001, with his film career struggling a bit, Dreyfuss took his first stab at series television since 1964's short-lived sitcom Karen. The hour-long CBS drama The Education of Max Bickford starred the actor as a college history professor opposite Marcia Gay Harden and received largely positive reviews from critics. However, despite the accolades, the show failed to garner a substantial audience and was cancelled after one season.
The following years would see Dreyfuss continuing to appear on screen, appearing most notably in movies like W., Leaves of Grass, and Red, and on TV shows like Weeds and Parenthood.