Upstaging the Plastic Shark
It was just another superselling potboiler turned movie, but its sinister fin sliced a swath through the consciousness of the land. Beach-blanket pranksters entertained contemporaries and shook up their parents, crying shark. Editorial cartoonists in their summer doldrums overused the symbol until it was quickly long in the tooth. But along the way Jaws has become the most stunning box-office buster since motion pictures were invented.
In two months Jaws is approaching the earnings of the 36-year-old Gone with the Wind, and by Labor Day it figures to surpass The Godfather as the greatest grosser in history. In mercurial Hollywood, the movie has changed lives. Producer Richard Zanuck, 40, has finally kicked the image of the prodigal son whom his daddy, the storied Darryl F., had to fire from the presidency of 20th Century-Fox. And Dick’s partner, David Brown, will never again be just Mr. Helen Gurley Brown. (Aside from the psychic salve, Zanuck and Brown could pocket upward of $20 million apiece.)
But what about the actors? Brown says, “We both agreed we didn’t need any big, expensive stars. The mechanical shark would be the star.” But “Bruce” (actually there were three of the plastic robots) turned out to be a bitch and was partially responsible for the picture’s running twice over its projected $4 million budget. “It’s not like we were making Frankenstein,” observed one member of the cast. “Remember that other great Zanuck-Brown horror flick—about a man who turns into a snake, titled Sssssss? No? Didn’t think so. Sure, sharkomania may be selling the film, but if you don’t care about those men who hunt it, the whole picture wouldn’t work.” That canny observer, in fact, was the pivotal actor in the movie, and the one hired first—Roy Scheider, who at 39 had 10 dexterous performances behind him in movies no one had ever seen except for Klute and The French Connection (for which he was nominated for a supporting Oscar). What sold Scheider to director Steven Spielberg was his ability to get “lost” in so many diverse characters.
Jaws is the story of a resort town faced by a shark scare in peak season, and Spielberg had originally considered Joel Grey for the part of the ichthyologist who counsels the grasping city fathers to close the beaches. Then he settled on Richard Dreyfuss, the smart-mouth kid from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Similarly, Sterling Hayden was the first choice to play the tugboat Ahab commissioned to hunt down the shark before the signing of Robert Shaw, the braggadocio Cornishman who regards himself as the greatest actor this side of Brando. There went Scheider’s sole star billing, but, he recalls, “I finally said what the hell. If I’m good, they’ll know who the star of this picture is.” Roy was, as he is so often, cast as a cop.
But this time he was the chief, and to soften his boxing-battered face and macho mien he and director Spielberg decided to put him in glasses. To explain his vulnerable unfamiliarity with the sea, they made him a recruit to the beach community from New York City. “I essentially play the audience,” notes Scheider. “My reactions should parallel theirs, I should come across as bumbling, dumb, ineffectual and klutzy.” Even Dreyfuss, of all people, concedes that “Roy gave the best performance in the film—his character is the true line.”
Off-camera, Scheider was the cast’s most solid pro when endless delays in shooting led one production executive to contemplate cutting bait. “When everybody began to lose his mind on the Martha’s Vineyard location, Roy stayed cool,” says Spielberg. “He was kind of a cheerleader for everyone else.” Except for one evening toward the end when, as Scheider recalls, “a lot of us were going bonkers. We all had dinner at this restaurant and suddenly I threw a fruit cocktail over Spielberg’s head. He retaliated with wine. Brown and Zanuck fled, and Dreyfuss threw the ravioli. Then we all hit the dessert tray and the whole place was a total wreck in half an hour. I guess we needed the release of tension.” Says Spielberg: “That was Scheider’s way of cracking, but he bounced right back.”
Scheider earlier bounced back from a youthful siege of rheumatic fever that kept him out of athletics until he was 17. His father, who ran a gas station in Orange, N.J., was not too impressed by the alternative of acting. He couldn’t understand why his son didn’t act by day and go to law school at night after graduating from Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall College. But after three years as a reluctant Air Force lieutenant, Scheider marched up the same hard road as did Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman, in regional theater and off-Broadway (where he won a 1968 Obie as the young James Joyce’s friend in Stephen D). To Scheider, playing the classics, especially Shakespeare, is the only training ground, and acting classes are an anathema to him.
Scheider met Cynthia Bégout, his wife of 12 years, while at Stratford, Conn. Just back from acting school in London, she took Roy up to Ontario to see how the Bard should really be done. Because she couldn’t stand the neuroticism of her fellow actresses, she switched to film editing six years ago (and now is an assistant on the prestigious Nicholson-Brando picture, Missouri Breaks, for Arthur Penn).
She worked on several of Roy’s pictures, including The French Connection. “I have never seen him in a bad cut.” She has long told him, “You’re taking all the wrong parts, but despite yourself and your fumbling you’re going to be a star.”
For Cynthia to tie down her star wasn’t easy. “I wanted to live the life of a gypsy,” says Roy. “I never wanted roots. Marriage was Cynthia’s idea. But she said that seven months of living together is enough, so I said well then, I guess we’ll have to get married.” At first, Cynthia says, “I used to really care about using my maiden name. Now I use Scheider because I am truly liberated, so it doesn’t bother me at all.” “I never wanted material goods,” Roy says, but Cynthia talked him into acquiring an upstate farm in addition to their Manhattan flat. “Cynthia said she’d sign the lease and I’d be a guest. That made me feel so silly that I signed, but I still can’t quite believe I did it.” They have an 11-year-old daughter named Maximillia who wants to direct films when she grows up. Says dad, “She wants to be the boss.”
His only real hobbies are gymnastics and reading, and his brain is as sinewy as his body. He is currently chewing through the likes of novelists John Barth, Jerzy Kozinski and Thomas Pynchon at the rate of 15 books a month.
As for returning to work, Scheider rejected the latest Hitchcock movie, but has just been asked to play a karate-skilled spy in Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman. Television is out (“You never see Hoffman or Nicholson on TV”), but he wouldn’t mind a little stage work if the right Pirandello came along. Success is so far no threat. “Sure, it probably ruins some people,” he says. “I think of one offhand, but let’s wait and see what the kid does next.” Was the name Dreyfuss about to spill out? For himself, Roy says, “I have been called the next everything—the next Cary Grant, George C. Scott, Spencer Tracy and Bogart. I’d just like to be called the next Roy Scheider.”