Richard Dreyfuss on playing “Madoff”

In the early 2000s, Richard Dreyfuss had an epiphany.

Disheartened by the scarcity of the meaningful, character-driven films he preferred to make, and appalled by the civil and political landscape in which his teenage sons were growing up, Dreyfuss decided to scrap acting and head for England’s University of Oxford to learn how to resurrect the vanishing civics curriculum in U.S. schools.

“To me this was such an easy call,” says the Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA winner. “I already had my career, and I had started asking myself, ‘How many times do you have to win in order to win?’ When I realized my kids were not taught this, I walked away and I went to Oxford for four years so I would know why we teach civic authority — and how do you bind a country that is bound only by ideas?”

Returning home, Dreyfuss founded The Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, a nonprofit organization that aims to restore civics instruction and critical-thinking skills in public schools. And when he was approached to star as disgraced investment adviser Bernie Madoff in ABC’s Madoff miniseries (airing Wednesday, Feb. 3 and Thursday, Feb. 4), he saw a prime opportunity to lay bare the personal and professional fallout of willful ignorance.

“I took it because it was an example of what I’d been trying to talk to people about for seven years,” Dreyfuss says of playing Madoff, who was sentenced to 150 years in federal prison for bilking investors out of $65 billion in America’s largest Ponzi scheme. “It was a perfect example. People no longer were told that they had the right to question institutions or exercise civic authority — and if you’re not told that you have that power, you don’t got it! Madoff is told from an angle that includes no one demanding accountability and no one pursuing the obvious.”

As the miniseries — culled from ABC News chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross’ book The Madoff Chronicles — conveys, investors and investigators ignored Madoff Investment Securities’ curious double-digit returns in a teetering market. “Every investor knew what not to ask,” Dreyfuss says. “Because if you asked, you were culpable. If any of his investors had ever said, ‘Are you breaking the law in any way to do this?’ — that’s it. Their money was not their money.”

While some beg to differ, Dreyfuss doesn’t believe Madoff’s wife Ruth (Blythe Danner) or their sons Andrew and Mark (Danny Deferrari, Tom Lipinski) knew about the scheme before Madoff decided to confess to them the true nature of the family business — with devastating results for all. “The only human thing he does — in an inhuman fashion — is to protect his closest by not telling them anything,” Dreyfuss says. “He humiliated them. He degraded them. He lessened their character by doing it. But you can’t say that he made them criminals.” — Lori Acken, Hopper Magazine