Richard Dreyfuss: A lesson in civics, and civility

PHOTOS: Hollywood backlot moments

"You can't get the same answer from any educator about what is the goal of public education," said Dreyfuss, who attended Beverly Hills High School and spent a year at Cal State Northridge.

"They just don't know," he said. "The goal of public education is pretty simple — to make children smarter on Tuesday than they were on Monday. I say if we don't start teaching our children better we are going to lose our manufacturing industry, our commercial businesses. Our military is unreliable because we are in the grip of a paranoia about money. We don't want to spend money on anything, including education."

His interest in civics and American history isn't a recent passion. When he was young, he memorized the speeches of famed attorney Clarence Darrow. And in 1987, he did the ABC special "Funny, You Don't Look 200: A Constitutional Vaudeville."

PHOTOS: Hollywood backlot moments

And it was the one and only time he got to work with his idol, Gielgud.

"I picked up the phone, called him and asked if he would play a member of the House of Lords deriding the Constitution. He said, 'Yes, dear boy.' So I wrote it, sent it to him and flew over to London. I got to the studio Monday morning and there is John Gielgud already dressed and lit. I said 'action' and he did it perfectly. I asked him to do it again and he did it perfectly. I changed the camera angle and he did it perfectly. I went up to him and said could you play it — I don't remember the actual direction I gave him — and he patted my knee and said 'How amusing, dear boy.' Then he did it perfectly. We were done by 11 a.m."

Dreyfuss admitted that he made a mistake using the word "retire" when he stepped away from film and TV work. "Frankly, I don't know how else to make a living," Dreyfuss said. "The only way I could make any money was to come back."

Because he was out of the limelight, when he came back to work the roles weren't as substantial. He's done some movies — playing Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone's 2008 "W" — guest shots on "Weeds," "Parenthood" and A&E's 2012 miniseries, "Coma." And he's worked in a few more films since "Paranoia."

PHOTOS: Celebrities by The Times

"It's been difficult because most of the roles are just so stupid," he said. "I wouldn't recommend to a young actor anymore to become an actor because I think the film industry has changed so terribly. The tools in the director's tool kit used to be story, dialogue, character, and after that came cinematography and editing. Now it's special effects, editing, and we are way down at the bottom part."

Before he goes, Dreyfuss has another story to tell — about the first time he met Gielgud, when he was very young and very full of himself.

"I was 15 and a young prince in Hollywood then," he said. "Everyone knew I was going to make it. We all heard that John Gielgud was coming to the Huntington Hartford to do 'The Ages of Man.' We all decided to go and make fun of him because he was an old has-been."

But the unexpected happened.

"The man steps out from behind the curtains and opens his mouth. I bifurcated into two people. One of those people was Richard sitting with his friends in the balcony, and the other was in complete awe that the human voice could sound like that. I went backstage and shook his hand and said thank you. He changed my life. He changed my entire life."

susan.king@latimes.com