‘Madoff’: Dreyfuss takes on the man behind the Ponzi scheme
Of all the shocking scandals that emanated from the 2008 financial market crash, the most notorious is that of Bernie Madoff, the investment adviser who infamously defrauded clients out of billions of dollars in the largest Ponzi scheme in American history.
The story of Madoff’s rise and fall, how he managed to steal from friends and charities — including Hadassah and the Elie Wiesel Foundation — as well as how he fooled his family and lined his pockets with victims’ retirement portfolios, nest eggs and college funds is the subject of “Madoff,” a miniseries airing Feb. 3-4 on ABC, starring Richard Dreyfuss as Madoff and Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth.
“Everyone knows the name and what he did, but there’s so much more to it,” executive producer Linda Berman said. “As we developed the script and even during production, we were all fascinated to find out things about the story and the family that were never told to the public. He never invested a single dollar. He just put all the money into his bank account.”
Madoff also betrayed his own family, lying to his brother, sons and Ruth, and cheating on Ruth with another woman. But Dreyfuss believes that because he was so affable, he was able to get away with the unforgivable.
“In order for him to be as successful as he was at this scam, he had to be an enormously likable and charming guy — you couldn’t help but like him,” Dreyfuss said in a recent interview. “Then you realize that he was, metaphorically, raping children and stealing their futures, and that’s impossible to forgive.”
Dreyfuss didn’t hesitate to accept the role, to Berman’s delight. “Richard is an extremely likable guy, and we needed someone that you didn’t automatically hate,” she said.
The Academy Award-winning actor likens Madoff to a villain in a Shakespearean tragedy. “This is an epic story of crime, an epic rise and an epic fall. That’s Shakespearean,” Dreyfuss said.
Other Bard-worthy themes, including betrayal and the sins of the father, are evident in the story, as well. And while Berman thinks Madoff’s actions may have contributed to the stress that led to some family members’ tragic fates, including his son Mark’s suicide, Dreyfuss doesn’t think divine retribution had anything to do with it. “I don’t think you have to believe in a vengeful God to understand his story,” he said.
Although he said he finds playing admirable characters in films such as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “The Goodbye Girl” “more satisfying than playing Bernie or Dick Cheney,” Dreyfuss doesn’t think villains are more difficult to portray. “If you’re honest with yourself, you can find Bernie Madoff in your own life and behavior. Impulses to lie, cut corners and serve yourself happen to people all the time, and an actor’s job is to build on those instincts and make them fit the larger story,” he said.
“Madoff” was based in part on “The Madoff Chronicles” by Brian Ross. “But that was just a jumping off point for us,” Berman said. “We did a lot of research, used other books and articles and interviews with people. We spoke to Eleanor Squillari, who was Madoff’s longtime assistant, and interviewed some people who had invested with him.”
Danner spoke with Ruth Madoff and Dreyfuss talked to some fraud victims, but the actor said he had no interest in speaking to Madoff himself. “The chances were that he wasn’t going to tell me the truth, and I wasn’t interested in listening to him rationalize or justify,” Dreyfuss said. “I would have been interested, I suppose, in listening to his Queens accent, but I heard it from a lot of other sources.”
“Madoff” was shot on a modest budget in eight weeks entirely in New York and on Long Island in many of the story’s actual locations. That lent authenticity, but some artistic invention was necessary. “We had to take some dramatic license in re-creating conversations between people because we didn’t know exactly what was said,” Berman said.
“Life does not fit into a three-act break,” Dreyfuss added. “You have to do some condensing and combining and stuff like that. You always have to do some condensing and combining. If it wasn’t accurate, it was certainly not with intention.”
“Madoff” includes many Jewish-themed references, scenes and some cast members (Lewis Black and Charles Grodin, among them), but was there concern about the ramifications of a Jewish villain? “We were very careful not to portray this as an anti-Semitic story. It’s a global story … a much bigger story,” Berman said.
Dreyfuss pointed out that Madoff scammed Jews because that’s who he knew, and when he discovered there were Christians in the world, he scammed them, too. The actor recalled how he responded when his starring role in “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” raised issues of anti-Semitism in 1974. “When they said, ‘You’re washing our dirty linen in public,’ I went out and washed some more dirty linen, as loudly as possible.”
“Madoff” also raises important issues about the workings of the financial industry and how Bernie Madoff was able to get away with his scheme.
“It’s been said that the only way a Ponzi scheme like this could fail is if the world fell apart, and that’s exactly what happened. If it weren’t for the fact that there was a volcanic explosion in the financial world, he could have gone on doing this forever,” Dreyfuss said.
He believes the current system doesn’t sufficiently protect investors from the failings of the financial industry, and hopes “Madoff” inspires viewers to demand more accountability. If Berman has her way, the film will remind people to ask questions and be absolutely sure with whom they’re dealing before entrusting their money to anyone.
“This movie hopefully will be a cautionary tale,” she said. “Bernie took a lot of people down the rabbit hole with him, and we’re trying to do justice to the story so that people learn from what others went through and don’t fall into that same trap.”
“Madoff” airs Feb. 3-4 on ABC.