Three decades later, Richard Dreyfuss still attributes both magic and meaning to his sobriety date: Nov. 19, 1982.
“It's my daughter's birthday, and there's more magic attached to that sentence than I can possibly begin to tell you. But suffice to it say that one year ... before my daughter was born, I was upside down with my head on the pavement with a Mercedes Benz on top of me. And I was held in by a safety belt that I hadn't put on,” Dreyfuss told an Oklahoma City audience Tuesday night.
“I spent the next 10 days in absolute and complete denial. I am an expert on denial, and I did my level best to not see the inevitable consequence of my acts. Except I couldn't shake the image of this little girl that was in my mind's eye, and every day she got clearer and clearer until on the 19th I said, enough. And she disappeared and didn't reappear for one year. She was my daughter.”
The Oscar winner was the keynote speaker Tuesday night at the Oklahoma Outreach Foundation's “An Evening of Courage & Inspiration.” The charity dinner at the Skirvin Hotel raised $212,000 for the nonprofit organization, which supports treatment and recovery programs for state teens coping with dependency on alcohol and other drugs.
Best known for his roles in an array of movies including “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “American Graffiti,” the actor mixed powerful insights gained from his past struggles with cocaine and fiery convictions of his present crusade to restore citizenship and civility to American life and politics.
After telling the story about his 1982 car wreck and vision of his future daughter, Dreyfuss, 63, led the crowd of about 400 people, including a number of graduates of the foundation's Mission Academy recovery high school, in reciting the Serenity Prayer.
“That is the first, most important, most clear spiritual revelation of my life. It changed me from one thing to another and made me better,” he said. “God has always fascinated me, as either fact or metaphor. God works.”
In 1978, Dreyfuss, then 30, became the youngest man to win the Oscar for best actor with his turn as a struggling thespian in the romantic comedy “The Goodbye Girl.” That record stood until 2003, when 29-year-old Adrien Brody won the best actor Oscar for “The Pianist.”
Dreyfuss said he developed his drug habit for “many of the reasons that young people have been doing stupidly risky things forever.”
“I thought I couldn't be killed, I thought I was immortal, and I thought I would always be smarter and faster. ... And the other reason was, of course, that while I knew I was immortal, I also knew that I was a worthless piece of dog dung and I couldn't stand myself and I would do anything to not be me,” he said.
“Every once in awhile I would do something that if it had been just a millisecond different, I would not be here today. I would either be dead or be in prison.”
After his fateful 1982 car accident, Dreyfuss entered a rehabilitation program and made his career comeback in Paul Mazursky's popular 1986 comedy “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.” He was nominated again for an Oscar for his performance in the title role of the 1995 musical drama “Mr. Holland's Opus.”
More recently, the native New Yorker played Vice President Dick Cheney in Oliver Stone's biopic “W.,” a megalomaniacal military contractor in the actioner “RED” and a Tulsa drug kingpin in Oklahoma-born and bred actor/filmmaker Tim Blake Nelson's indie black comedy “Leaves of Grass.”
Calling himself semi-retired from acting, Dreyfuss in the past few years has taught at Oxford University, studied a wide range of subjects from history to politics and passionately campaigned to bring civics courses and critical thinking back to U.S. classrooms.
Expressing a desire that his keynote would make the audience think, Dreyfuss encouraged recent graduates of Mission Academy to reach beyond sobriety.
“Remember, sobriety is a fabulous goal, but is it better to be a sober wife beater than a man who drinks occasionally and loves his family?” he said.
“You have (graduated from) a sober high school, I commend you. I truly commend you. But as you grow up, you'll find that what also counts is good acts and moral behavior and being kind and patient and being a loving parent and husband.”
View a photo gallery.
For more information on the Oklahoma Outreach Foundation, go to www.okoutreach