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Richard Dreyfuss: Like It Or Not, There's A Bit Of Bernie Madoff In All Of Us

Actor Richard Dreyfuss has played a variety of roles — from the bubbling teen in American Graffiti to a man lured by aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Now, in a new ABC miniseries, he plays Bernie Madoff, the former Nasdaq chairman who orchestrated a Ponzi scheme considered to be one of the largest financial frauds in American history.

"Madoff is universally despised, as well he should be," Dreyfuss tells NPR's Robert Siegel. But Dreyfuss believes there's a bit of Madoff in everyone: "All you have to do is find that part of you that has been despicable, and you can find it if you look hard enough," he says.

The fraud Madoff perpetrated brought financial disaster to the people who trusted his fabricated investments. Madoff wound up in prison, his family was destroyed, and one of his sons committed suicide. Dreyfuss talked with Siegel about what it was like to portray such a despised character.

Interview Highlights

On whether viewers can sympathize with Madoff

If you know the story, you can't really pull for him. If you don't know the whole story, you're taken by his charm. He has to be a guy who you really like or else he wouldn't have been successful, you know, taking your money. Everyone liked him ... until they hated him.

That's one thing that actors sometimes make a mistake — where they wink at the audience and say, "I'm not gonna be fool enough to play him so that you always like him." Well, if you didn't always like him, you wouldn't have given him your money. So I play him as likable as possible.

Everyone liked him ... until they hated him. ... He was a completely despicable human being, but in order to achieve that he had to be lovable.

Once you read about him, you can never empathize with him again, and you do want to ride back and forth over his inert body. I mean, he was a completely despicable human being, but in order to achieve that he had to be lovable.

On taking on this role as a Jewish actor

I had gone through that when I did The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz when I was 25. A lot of famous Jewish people in LA and Montreal said, "Oh, you're washing our dirty linen in public." And I said, "Well let me do it louder then so we can get a bigger audience."

There's nothing wrong with washing your dirty linen in public. I gave the script to an unnamed star/actor/director, and this person came back with, "I wouldn't do that because he was such a shame on our people."

And I said back, "Well, wouldn't you have liked to have had a hand in how the world looked at him?"

In my mind, I participated in this thing because I am very, very proud of being Jewish — although there are limits, I suppose — and I did not want my being Jewish to interfere or get in the way. I felt I was strangely equipped to tell this story.

On whether Madoff had an addiction

I think he was addicted in the same way that Iago was addicted. There's a point in Othello where Iago turns and says either to the gods or to the audience: I am really good at this, and I'm going to keep doing it until I'm dead — and he didn't care who he took down with them. And in a way, Bernie never once said to himself, "Well, I'll take $10 million and put it aside and create an exit strategy." He never did that; he just kept going.

I personally think you can call that an addiction — or you can call that sociopathology. He didn't care whether he was caught or not. He was just so good at what he did that he had a great sense of pride, and he said so. I mean, basically he said, "No one is going to ever be better than me at doing this."

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