[10 February 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Now, over three decades and a billion jaded movie experiences later, it’s hard to explain the impact Jaws had on those who first experienced it. As any film fan will tell you, Universal didn’t expect much from the project. The book by Peter Benchley was indeed a bestseller, but it was a terribly tawdry read, more Peyton Place with sharks than a pulse pounding actioner. The director, a certain tenderfooter named Steven Spielberg, was more accustomed to doing TV films. In his naïve, novice way, he thought it would be simple to film the complicated story on the actual waters of the Atlantic Ocean. And then there was the cast - a relative unknown group of struggling stars that had solid credentials, but very little turnstile twisting face value.
All of that changed when the first few moments unfurled. By the time Chrissie was crunched up like so much skinny dipping granola by our unseen aquatic villain, audiences were indeed hooked. But it took a classic line delivered by an equally iconic actor to really sell the situation. Decked out in a season hiding slicker (the Summer film was shot in deepest winter), rugged tan, and lawman like glasses, Police Chief Martin Brody manned the Orca’s chum bucket with a sense of immature consternation. When boat Captain Quint demanded he keep the slurry line going while Oceanographer Matt Hooper manned the engine to go slow ahead, Brody was pissed. “Slow ahead?” the words echoed. “I can go slow ahead. Come down here and chum some of this shit”.
And with those words, viewers got their first major glimpse of 25 foot sea beast Bruce, the great white devil at the center of Jaws’ story. And at that moment, Roy Scheider became an instant member of cinema’s indelible icons. An already mature 42 when he made the proto-blockbuster, the seasoned stage and television actor was better known for his episodic work than his feature films. While he had starred alongside Gene Hackman in The French Connection and proved his tough guy mantle in 1973’s The Seven-Ups, it would be the timeless fish frightmare that cemented Scheider’s status. He never went on to top the popularity of his work in Spielberg’s popcorn perfection, yet his career would remain one of grace, gravitas, and gumption.
Born Roy Richard Scheider on 10 November 1932 in Orange, New Jersey, sports would dominate the future thespians young life. By the time he hit college, he was already the proud owner of a broken nose (the emblematic feature was his only reward after a stint in the Golden Gloves competition) and an adventurous spirit. Studying drama at both Rutgers and Franklin and Marshall, he spent some time in the military before finally foraying into performance. He even won an Obie Award (the off Broadway equivalent of a Tony) for his work in Stephen D, and was part of the New York Shakespeare Festival company. Early film roles, however, found him wallowing in grade-Z schlock (Curse of the Living Corpse) and minor supporting parts (Star! , Paper Lion).
In 1971, he was lucky enough to costar alongside Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland in the controversial award winner Klute. He was so memorable that, from there, William Friedkin hired him to play Det. Buddy Russo in Connection. That turn would earn Scheider his first Academy Award nomination. It would also threaten to typecast him as a tough as nails NYC cop. His role in The Seven-Ups, as Det. Buddy Manucci seemed to stress that possibility. But when he was tapped by Spielberg to play the transplanted New Yorker charged with keeping Amity Island safe from an unusual string of shark attacks, Scheider sensed something was about to change. Though Jaws would be one of the most grueling shoots of his entire career, it raised his professional profile drastically.
Marathon Man followed, the newfound A-lister standing astride acting maverick Dustin Hoffman as the sibling catalyst for all the diamonds and Nazis intrigue. He then turned down the role of Michael Vronsky in Michael Cimono’s Vietnam drama The Deer Hunter, believing the script was illogical and implausible. Robert DeNiro ended up with the part. Reports claim that Universal was so angry about his stance and consternation (he even reneged on his contract) that he was forced to appear in Jaws 2 as punishment. It was not his most memorable work.
There was another film for Friedkin (the Wages of Sin remake Sorcerer), that second dip into dorsal fin territory, before the role that would come to redefine who audiences thought Roy Scheider was literally fell into his lap. When despotic stage director Bob Fosse found newly anointed Academy prima donna Richard Dreyfuss wanting in the role of Joe Gideon, he realized his egomaniacal epic needed a new leading man. He immediately said “Goodbye” to his star and went looking for a singing/dancing reflection of his onscreen, autobiographical self. Oddly enough, he wound up picking Dreyfuss’ costar, the man who endemically complained about the rotten fish buffet he was forced to serve up.
Scheider was the first to admit that he was the completely wrong choice for 1979’s All That Jazz. While his resemblance to Fosse was frightening, he was practically tone deaf and had a self-described pair of two left feet. Weeks of intense training as well as careful song reconstruction in the studio resulted in one of the stand out tour de forces in the actor’s canon. Jazz would go on to become one of 1979’s most critically acclaimed films, and while the Academy chose to ignore it in favor of the family drama Kramer vs. Kramer (it got to share the loser’s circle with Apocalypse Now - not the worst company to keep), Fosse’s vision has since stood the test of time.
Oddly enough, it appeared as if Jazz jinxed Scheider’s fortunes. While he worked consistently (Blue Thunder, 2010, 52 Pick-up), he never eclipsed his performances from the ‘70s. In fact, by the end of the ‘80s, he was resorting to direct-to-video filler (Night Game) and off the radar independents (he was very good in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch). He would eventually reteam with Spielberg for a project about a futuristic underwater science vessel (SeaQuest DSV), but the F/X heavy TV drama failed to capture the imagination of audiences. It was back to the ‘Bs’ then, popping up occasionally in minor roles in mainstream movies (The Rainmaker, The Punisher).
Schieder never stopped acting, though. When the news of his passing at age 75 was released this past Sunday 10 February, the Associated Press quoted longtime friend Dreyfuss as follows:
“He was a wonderful guy. He was what I call ‘a knockaround actor’. A ‘knockaround actor’ to me is a compliment that means a professional that lives the life of a professional actor and doesn’t’ yell and scream at the fates and does his job and does it as well as he can.”
He also never shied away from his past. When DVD arrived, allowing actors to offer their often unheard perspective on the films they appeared in, Scheider was there for interviews and commentaries. His insights into the directing styles of now legendary filmmakers (he once called Fosse “a real SOB”) added a great deal to the historical legacy of cinema. He also participated in the 2005 Jawsfest celebration which saw many in the cast and crew return to Martha’s Vineyard (where the film was shot) to share memories and memorabilia with fans. His contributions to the convention (captured by filmmaker Erik Hollander in the Scheider produced The Shark is Still Working) were a major part of its success.
As an actor and an activist (he championed environmental causes), Scheider was never known to back down. Even during times when the freezing waters off the Maine coast threatened to chill everyone to the bone, he jumped in and did his job. Rumor has it that Spielberg needed 75 takes of the sinking Orca to get said all important final shot right - and the angular actor was there for every one. While family and friends will remember a man who was dedicated in all pursuits that struck his fancy, those of us mulling middle age will never forget his turn as Chief Brody. If anyone could make it safe to go back in the water, this well meaning peace officer had the ability. Quint will just have to find someone else to do his dirty work now.