Dinner with Dreyfuss
“Hello,” she said to me in a thick foreign accent, when I turned around to take a peek at the actor Richard Dreyfuss, who was sitting at the table next to me. I heard her “hello” but turned quickly back to my table companions, thinking she couldn’t possibly be talking to me.
I was out with clients in La Jolla, California following a presentation skills training session I conducted. Our group was a mix — some in-house marketing people, me and the company’s outside agency. They were shooting a commercial the next day so anticipation rode high among our rag-tag group of creatives, out to dinner at a restaurant on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Marine Restaurant in La Jolla, CA
Our table faced the ocean, waves crashing against the window before the tide receded. “Richard Dreyfuss is at the table behind us,” my friend Anita announced quietly to our table. I saw her told her phone low to her lap so she could take a picture of him.
“Hello,” she said to me again when I turned my neck and took another look at the table behind me. She was blond and exotic looking, wearing a tight, sleeveless, sequined white and black dress. I didn’t know why she was talking to me; I thought it was a mistake. I turned back to my table companions. By now, we had all pulled out our phones to google Richard Dreyfuss. From the accounts we read, it appeared that his third wife was a Russian woman named Svetlana. Was this Svetlana?
The sun began to set with its warm orange glow as we talked about our work and our connections. Maria, the producer, lived just blocks away from me in Chicago. Jaime, the agency head, and I realized we had met and worked together more than a decade ago and had a variety of both personal and professional friends.
And there she was again. She was saying ‘hello’ to me. This third time I turned to her and said, “Hello, are you talking to me?”
“Yes, I have been trying to get your attention,” she said with a heavy accent. At first I thought she was Polish.
“Well, hello then, ” I chirped back.
“Tell me about your table,” she asked, raising an eyebrow in an intriguing way. “I’ve been interested in your table tonight.”
“Well, we are a bunch of people from Chicago. That’s about it,” I reported.
“Are you Republicans?” she asked.
“Well, I can’t speak for everyone but I know we all have an independent streak, which is not quite Libertarian but very individual,” I hedged, wondering why she would ask such a question
Without having to wonder, she offered, “Well, my husband Richard Dreyfuss does not like conservatives,” nodding to the white-haired man across the table from her, and confirming what we already knew. Yes, this was Svetlana, the third wife. “Let me introduce you to my friend,” she said, gesturing to the man sitting next to her. “He is a doctor.” The man nodded. “A doctor of our muscles,” she said.
“Oh, he is a physical therapist?” I asked.
“Yes, that is exactly what he is,” she said.
Our earnest conversation continued, and my seat-mate Bill joined in as we asked questions and got to know Svetlana. “You ask me so many questions. You need to know I could kill you in five ways and you would never know it,” she hissed, intimating that the heel of her Chanel shoes might indeed be one of these secret weapons.
“Did we do something to make you angry,” I asked?
“No, not yet. You must know that I am Russian and have learned very much before coming to America.”
Just then, I felt someone move close to me. It was Richard Dreyfuss, pausing as he walked past and whispering in my ear, “What do you think of my wife,” he asked. “She is an interesting woman to be sure. How long have you been married?”
“Ten thousand years,” he said. Svetlana heard this and reiterated. “Yes, ten thousand years. Is there any question?”
We talked a little more and then Svetlana moved on to the bar, joined by all our table companions except Bill. Richard was now sitting all alone. “Bill, let’ move to his table,” and in an instant we were sitting across from him at his table.
The three of us talked. We talked about life, about Richard’s career and about things. Richard talked about the moment he knew his life was changing. His star was ascending and he was performing in a Shakespearean production. “I knew that if I continued, there would be no turning back. That my life would no longer be my own. That I would become a celebrity and everything would change,” he said.
“I did it anyway and the rest is history. But when all is said and done, I’m just a person. A person having a conversation with you, which is nice because I can’t have conversations with people at will, so this is very nice,” he said. Indeed it was nice. I thought of his work — American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The list went on. This was a unique moment.
Sun setting over the Pacific; view from our table.
Eventually a woman came to the table to let Richard know they were ready to leave when he was. Taking the cue, he thanked us and excused himself, collecting his wife at the bar and leaving the restaurant. We were the only patrons left and we called cars to take us back to our hotel in downtown San Diego.
Later I surfed the web, learning that Dreyfuss had been a cocaine addict in the 70s, among other many other colorful life facts. And then there was this tidbit:
“Dreyfuss attributes much of his ability to end drug addiction to a life-altering vision experienced in hospital after a bad car crash. Under the influence of drugs while driving, Dreyfuss knew the crash was his fault. Though he was the only one injured, in his recovery state he was moved by the image of a beautiful little girl in a white dress. The girl served to remind him of the kind of innocent life he could have destroyed, and it compelled him to save his own life, he says, by confronting his drug demons.”
If only we had more time, I would have asked him about this too. Was it a brush with the divine, a figment of his imagination or a sign that came just when he needed it? And why did he heed it? What made it so powerful that it made him change? (Read Sarah Hinze’s account of this incident here.) But, for now I was satisfied — we had a moment, a very nice moment.
I thought about his comments, when he knew his life was changing, when he knew he could never go back, when he knew he would be a celebrity. And how he brought us to his table, to talk, to discuss, to have that moment.
If we think about it, we all have moments when we know our lives are poised to change, when we can no longer go back. These are the fires of our lives — whether it’s an actual incident like burning on a stove or a shift in our minds. Sometimes things change forever and we don’t know it at the time. But Richard Dreyfuss did, he saw his life moving from the precipice of rank-and-file actor to celebrity, and knew nothing would be the same again. Imagine that moment. Would we all take the risk ahead of us when we are fully aware of the moment?