NEW YORK — Don't look to Richard Dreyfuss to defend Bernie Madoff.
Dreyfuss, who plays this rapacious investment guru in ABC's miniseries "Madoff" (airing at 8 p.m. tonight and Thursday), isn't about to plead Bernie's case.
"But actors don't only play people they approve of," says the Oscar-winning actor who for years tried to launch a film project that would star him as Adolph Hitler.
Then he cites another object of his scorn he did portray — former vice president Dick Cheney in the 2008 feature"W."
"I think he deserves to go to jail for a million years," says Dreyfuss, "but I could still play him. People forget that inside everyone is a bit of Dick Cheney, and as an actor you find those little moments when you've been a little bit Cheney. Or a little bit Bernie. Then you extrapolate that out to build the character on."
Whatever his MO for channeling his inner darkness, it works for him here. Charmingly, chillingly does Dreyfuss inhabit this self-proclaimed Wall Street "magician" whose colossal Ponzi scheme lost as much as $40 billion for tens of thousands of clients in more than 100 countries ranging from movie stars to elderly retirees.
Beside him for this monumental rise and fall was his devoted wife Ruth, who in "Madoff" receives a raw but compassionate portrayal by Blythe Danner.
"She didn't know," declares Danner. "She was guiltless, as far as I'm concerned."
The Emmy- and Tony-winning actress met with Ruth Madoff — who now lives in seclusion stripped of family, riches and good name — to prepare for the film.
"I didn't ask her a lot of probing questions, but it was good to get a feeling of who she was: a composed, lovely lady," Danner says. "She was picking up and going on as best she could. But you sensed a lot of pain."
Dreyfuss says he had a similar opportunity: to speak by phone with Bernie Madoff.
"I turned it down. I thought, 'What's he gonna do, tell me the truth?' It would be an exercise in futility."
His crime was notable only for its epic scale. Indeed, the ripple effects of his racket even reached the "Madoff" production last year, according to the film's director, Raymond De Felitta.
During the shoot, New York-area country clubs proved cost-efficient "for mopping up several locations — a dining room, an apartment, a golf course — at one site," he notes. But he was caught off-guard by the welcome with which the film crew (and its fees) were greeted.
"I told the guy at one Long Island country club, 'I remember when country clubs didn't allow film crews to shoot there,'" De Felitta says. "He explained, 'Madoff wiped out a lot of our membership. We need the money.' From prison, Bernie was helping us make the film!"
De Felitta (who also directed the 2009 indie feature "City Island") calls Madoff "villainous. But you have to show him as human."
Helping humanize the portrait is Madoff's relationship — domineering yet caring — with his wife.
Dreyfuss calls attention to a tender moment after Madoff's bare-knuckles disclosure to his family that he's a fraud who's headed to jail, and they're broke. His two sons storm out of the room. "But he can tell that Ruth still doesn't understand. She says to him, 'What do you mean?'"
Reverting to his customary mode of protector, Madoff tries to soothe her: "I don't think we should go into the details right now."
"It's so loving," Dreyfuss says.
"It could have been very dismissive," says his co-star. "But the way you played it, isn't."
The chemistry is obvious between them: For Dreyfuss, 68, and Danner, who on Wednesday turns 73, "Madoff" is their fourth project together.
"I've known Richard since he was 19," says Danner.
"That was the very beginning of my career," Dreyfuss laughs, "and SHE had already won a Tony!"
They were performing "Major Barbara" at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, with Danner in the title role of the Shaw classic.
"I used to walk her to her car in the parking lot," Dreyfuss recalls, "and I had SUCH a crush on her — oh, my God! But she was married, so that was that."
Their latest joint venture won't be the last cinematic word on Madoff's infamy. "The Wizard of Lies," starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, awaits HBO viewers next year.
"All during our shoot, we knew about it," says Dreyfuss. "Quite frankly, as an actor I kept looking over my shoulder: Are they gaining on us?"
Unlike the chronologically plotted "Madoff," HBO's film is expected to take a retrospective tact framed by Madoff as he serves his 150-year sentence.
"In order to understand Bernie Madoff," says Dreyfuss, unforgiving but still clearly captivated by the man, "you probably have to see both films."