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July 19, 2016

Blind Trust

The most hated man in America was, for a long time, one of the most trusted: Bernie Madoff. For ABC's biopic, Richard Dreyfuss stepped into the shoes of the super swindler, with his longtime friend Blythe Danner as the spouse who followed him — seemingly blindly.

Kathleen O'Steen
  • Bob D'Amico/ABC
  • Bob D'Amico/ABC
  • Bob D'Amico/ABC

“You want to know how to get people to trust you with their money?

"You present it as an exclusive thing — "Look, it's a closed fund." Nothing on Earth makes people want something more than telling them they can't have it.”

So says a smug Richard Dreyfuss in the guise of financier Bernard Madoff, in the ABC mini-series Madoff.

The dramatization — which aired in February and is available on Hulu and iTunes — was inspired by Brian Ross's The Madoff Chronicles: Inside the Secret World of Bernie and Ruth.

In his 2009 book, ABC News' chief investigative correspondent reveals how Madoff ran his massive Ponzi scheme — the largest financial scam in United States history. Investors and institutions worldwide were devastated; many victims worked in the entertainment industry.

The deception not only shocked Madoff's family, friends and investors, it left a stain on the investment community that will not soon be forgotten.

The mini — written by Ben Robbins, directed by Raymond De Felitta and executive-produced by Joe Pichirallo, Rudy Bednar and Linda Berman — presents Madoff as a self-confident Wall Street wizard and devoted family man who, at first glance, has it all.

He offers his investors double-digit returns and lavishes on his family the rich rewards of a seemingly successful career. Blythe Danner portrays Madoff's wife, Ruth.

But, in truth, he was running an operation that was separate from his financial investment company, a secretive fund for select investors that had bilked them of some $65 billion.

Today Madoff, 71, is serving a 150-year term at a federal prison in North Carolina. Since his imprisonment he's lost both of his sons — one to cancer, the other to a suicide that stemmed from the scandal.

In 2014 it was reported that Madoff had had a heart attack and been diagnosed with late-stage kidney disease. His wife lives a quiet life, far removed from the media spotlight.

Dreyfuss, who's won an Oscar and a Golden Globe (forthe1977film The Goodbye Girl), says the Wall Street swindler was a character he was destined to play. "This is not meant to be egotistical, but this is the kind of role I do," he says.

Over a long career, he has taken on a wealth of memorable characters, from a quadriplegic seeking to legally end his life in Whose Life Is It Anyway? to a high-school music teacher yearning to compose an unforgettable piece of music in Mr. Holland's Opus. In television he has guest-starred in shows like NBC's Parenthood and Showtime's Weeds.

Danner has won two Emmys for Showtime's Huff, playing the manipulative mother to Hank Azaria's title character. She also appeared in NBC's Will & Grace, as mom to Will (Eric McCormack).

Both actors are involved in off-screen passion projects — Dreyfuss runs the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, a nonprofit that promotes the teaching of civics in American public education; Danner, who lost her husband Bruce Paltrow in 2002 to oral cancer, is committed to the Oral Cancer Foundation.

The two are longtime friends and colleagues. "I've known Richard since he was Richie," Danner says with a chuckle. "He was a young actor just starting out. The first thing we did together was a production of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara in Los Angeles."

With emmy contributing editor Kathleen O'Steen, they recently discussed the bitter legacy of Bernie Madoff, whether his wife of more than 50 years had any inkling of his deceptions and the financial aftermath for the victims.

Do you know anyone who lost money because of Bernie Madoff?

Dreyfuss: Yeah, I knew a bunch of people; I knew the great and the non-great. But I didn't really experience the horror of it, seriously, until I was facing a table of people — who were not millionaires — who seriously can't talk about it, even now.

These people were completely gang-raped by this man. None of them were wealthy; they were just people who put all their money into his fund and then found themselves with nothing. That was the worst part of it for me, to meet them in preparation for this role.

Danner: I talked to a few people who were friends of Bernie and Ruth, and they did lose money. They all are still in shock, and, of course, angry, too. No one had any suspicion of this happening.

What did you discover when you talked to the victims?

Dreyfuss: That there's one thing that people don't know about all of this: the people who were victimized by Madoff were then victimized by the process. The return of money was made into a really vicious obstacle course. Most of the people didn't get back anything like the money they should have received.

If you gave money to Madoff, and you had established trusts for your grandchildren, the man responsible for returning that money decided that those trust funds should be taken from the grandchildren. That decision impoverished a whole line of people unnecessarily.

It's my view that the people responsible for returning the money did not do their job well. They should be investigated.

Such schemes continue today....

Danner: I heard a couple of weeks ago that something like 60 Ponzi schemes were now being looked into. The plethora of them is really astonishing.

Dreyfuss: Harry Markopolos, [the former securities industry executive and independent investigator] who pursued Madoff for 20 years, knowing he was guilty of criminal activity — and who got no support from government agencies — says there are now bigger scams in process on Wall Street. Clearly, Madoff is not the problem.

Why did Madoff get caught?

Dreyfuss: The story itself was, in fact, remarkable. Basically, Madoff said the only way this Ponzi scheme would fail was if the world ended... if the financial institutions of Wall Street became so weakened and so suspicious that people would take their money out of anything. He said that was the only way he would be discovered

And that's exactly what happened, after all these firms collapsed and people began taking their money out.

Does it bear witness to what's happening in today's financial institutions?

Dreyfuss: It's still going on. This case wasn't the opening to a transformation of the financial industry. It wasn't an opening for the prosecution to use the Madoff case to get everyone else doing criminal things — and there were many, and they were clearly involved in Madoff's story. They just never bothered.

There was a bank that had a savings account from him with $2 billion in it. By law, that bank is obligated to call the federal government and say, "We have an account here with $2 billion in it; do you want to take a look at it?" They didn't do it. They ended up paying an enormous fine — and getting away with it.

It almost sounds like Madoff wanted to be caught.

Dreyfuss: When we first started to explore this, I kept thinking that we were going to find that Madoff always had an exit strategy. But he didn’t.

At one point [in the film], he has a speech where he looks up to the gods and says, "Boy, this is so much fun. I'm going to keep doing it just for the fun of it, and I'm going to destroy the world" — just because he could.

And that's really what Madoff was up to. He did it because he could. He took money from Holocaust victims — from his family, everybody.

Did Ruth know what was going on?

Danner: I don't believe she knew. I don't believe the sons knew — he was so secretive. He kept everybody [in his financial firm] two floors away from this operation. He ruled the roost.

Dreyfuss: There was no one person in the world who knew what he was up to — except the people who were working with him on the Ponzi scheme. Did his family know? Absolutely not! The more we investigated it, the more normal it all seemed

I was raised in the same [Queens, New York] neighborhood as Bernie Madoff. And whenever anyone would say to me, "Oh, the children must have known! Or the wife must have known!" I would say, "Where were you raised? And what did your father do? When he came home at night, did you ever say, 'What do you really do, Dad?' Well, neither did Ruth and neither did the sons."

When your father tells you what he does for a living, you don't suspect he is lying. You accept it.

Blythe, you actually met with Ruth in preparation for this role.

Danner: Ruth knew someone that I knew, so they reached out to me. They wanted me to know that Ruth was upset that we were digging this all up again with this telefilm.

And, of course, Robert De Niro is doing another one [The Wizard of Lies] for HBO, with Michelle Pfeiffer, and Barry Levinson is directing.

She was upset mostly for the grandchildren — some of them had been so young when this all happened. This person wanted me to meet Ruth and see that she was a grandmother and someone who is loved by her family, that she was not an evil woman.

How did that meeting go?

Danner: I went up to Connecticut on the train to see her at her daughter-in-law's house. She was very frail. She was clearly a woman who had been wounded and who had been to hell and back. She has two sons who are no longer in the world — I can't even imagine how she was dealing with it.

When I first saw her, I got a little catch in my throat. I stopped for a minute and then said to her, "Oh, gosh, I'm verklempt [overwhelmed]." And she said, "Me, too."

Richard, did you ever think about trying to meet Madoff?

Dreyfuss: Yeah... I decided not to. I would not have been allowed to meet him; I would have been allowed to have a phone call with him. And I thought to myself, Well, what's he going to do — tell me the truth? He's going to tell me what he wants to tell me, and I don't need to hear that... and I already have a Queens accent.

What was it about Bernie Madoff that made people trust him unequivocally?

Dreyfuss: First of all, he really was a very good man of finance — he did in fact create NASDAQ, and he did that as a legitimate businessman. He had a reputation for being very good at this stuff. He was also the nicest friend and the best buddy and the Uncle Bernie — you'd be a fool not to invest with him.

That's why he had the greatest line — he would refuse any and all people who would want to invest with him, and people would line up and beg him to take their money.

What was their marriage like?

Danner: Ruth met Bernie when she was 16 — he was her life. She'd been in love with him all those years. Everyone knew they had a good marriage. They were close as a family, with the boys.

Dreyfuss: These two people loved each other. They never stopped loving each other. It's a very familiar kind of American love story. But it was like finding out your father was a bigamist and had a whole other life.

At the moment he confessed, and his sons ran out of the room to go call the FBI, his wife said, "I don't understand. What is this Ponzi scheme?" And he turned to her and said, "Oh, honey, I don't think you want to talk about this now. It's going to give you a headache."

Richard, do you think Madoff is a broken man now?

Dreyfuss: I don't. He was a sociopathic character, He has no real empathy — he performed empathy. If he had a real emotion, it was to love Ruth, but he didn't love anybody else — or care about the consequences of his actions in a way any normal person would have.

When he was first put into prison, he was finally living a life without the burden of keeping the whole deception in the air. I can't even count the amount of lies and different lives he had to maintain in his head. I think for him it was a relief to get rid of it.

Blythe, how was it playing one half of a married couple with Richard?

Danner: That part was easy, because Richard is such a wonderful actor and a terrific guy. It makes it so much easier when you work with someone you feel you already know, that you feel comfortable with. You don't have to go through that awkward beginning.

Any final thoughts on Ruth?

Danner: I was impressed to see that she was surrounded by good support. When I met her, one of her grandchildren was there, as was her daughter-in-law. It was clear that she was very cared for and cared about, and that was good to see.

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