Tuesday, March 28

Roy Scheider

He was a unique character in a number of ways.  He looked like he knew his way around the docks of his native New Jersey with his misshapened, gaunt face and tough-guy demeanor and fists to back it all up.  At the same time, he had been a voracious reader since a childhood bout with rheumatic fever that kept him in bed for long periods of time.  He ultimately became a stage actor with a background in the classics.  He could be rough around the edges and yet kind and thoughtful.  He was an ideal candidate to become one of the leading figures of the film renaissance of the 1970s.

His blue-collar parents looked after him protectively due to his long illness.  His mother stayed home to tend to him while his father was a mechanic who owned his own gas station.  Despite his love of reading, young Roy had too much energy to just lay about.  By the time he was eight he begged his parents to let him do something, anything, around his dad's business. He was never afraid of hard work and had a confidence rare in someone so young. Before long he gravitated into sports, which he claims provided him with his lean physique, and then he discovered boxing. Soon, as a welterweight, he was winning most competitions in which he took part. Boxing would remain one of the great loves of his life and he only had to check his nose out in the mirror to smile about the days of glory.

He headed to Rutgers University to study history but transferred after a year to Pennsylvania's Franklin and Marshall College and earned his degree.  It was there that he first rubbed up against acting and while he was pleased with some things he learned about the profession and himself, he thought he would study law.  Before he could gain any headway in any career, he elected to join the Air Force in 1955, staying three years and becoming a first lieutenant.

Fully intending to take up law upon his discharge from the service, he got sidetracked (forever) when Franklin and Marshall offered him a role in some Shakespearean production and Scheider was hooked.  He discovered a love of acting which he undoubtedly saw as a means for him to express his love of words.  He attacked his profession as he might an opponent in the ring.

As we so often say in these pages, that performance was seen by a Broadway talent scout and the next thing the neophyte actor knows is he's in a play on the Great White Way.  His debut was playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.   Ah, the pugilist plays Shakespeare. He appeared with the New York Shakespeare Festival and began appearing in a variety of plays.  He also nabbed some jobs in two soap operas and guest roles in other shows.

Of course movies would come but one wonders how he felt about his first one being a silly horror film, The Curse of the Living Dead (1964).  He remembered it mainly for what they all had to go through for his character to die in quicksand.  His career continued with work, as usual, in plays and television, and movies were added to the spectrum... not particularly good movies or good roles but the bills got paid.

Scheider would unquestionably consider 1971 to be a banner year. He signed on to play Jane Fonda's threatening pimp in Klute (1971) and then as fiery Gene Hackman's more level-headed partner in the Oscar-winning The French Connection. Both films were such high-visibility projects that Scheider was on the Hollywood radar and a supporting Oscar nomination for the latter film to boot.

I recall The French Connection as much for a superb car chase scene as anything else. And hard as it is to believe, Scheider's next, The Seven-Ups (1973), had an even more exciting one.  He was again a New York detective (this time looking for the man who killed his partner) and playing such a similar role in a lesser film may have helped typecast Scheider.  He certainly played a lot of cops and other authority figures, including three times up at bat as a U.S. President. Perhaps it wasn't a good thing... ultimately.

But first it was a good thing... a very, very good thing.  Scheider was given the lead role as the agonized police chief, Martin Brody, in one of the greatest blockbuster successes in U.S. movie history, Jaws (1975).  The role would provide Roy Scheider with Hollywood immortality.  Brody was in a little over his head when he agreed to accompany a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a shark hunter (Robert Shaw) on a boat that needed to be bigger to kill a marauding Great White.  Scheider/Brody was the most level-headed of the trio, both onscreen and off, since the other two didn't particularly get on.

He followed up this great success with a co-starring role (to Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier) in Marathon Man (1976), a superb thriller directed by the great John Schlesinger.  Have your dental work completed before seeing the film.  Scheider played a secret double agent in the tale of a student who gets caught up in an international conspiracy.

He had a three-picture deal at Universal and was sought for the lead role in their production of The Deer Hunter.  But he and his bosses had a falling out when Scheider declined the role because he didn't like it as written.  Ultimately he would consider his decision to be the worst of his career (his part was filled by Robert DeNiro and the movie would become Oscar's 1979 best picture) but a mutual decision between the actor and Universal didn't prove beneficial for Scheider either.

Universal agreed to let him out of his contract provided he agreed to star in Jaws 2 (1978), the first of several cheesy remakes. It stunk and the odor likely contributed to the demise of Scheider's successful career.  But first, there was one more great role, his favorite of them all, and it would lead to his second and final and oh-so-well-deserved Oscar nomination.

All That Jazz (1979) was a pretty good musical biography of actor-dancer-choreographer-director Bob Fosse and the film was directed by him as well.  It tells the story of the manic performer who smoked and drank and lived like a maniac but had an immense talent.  It concerns his women and his multi-tasking attempt to edit his film, Lenny, while staging the Broadway musical, Chicago.  It is a visual treat although the open heart surgery may make a few gulp. Scheider had to learn how to dance and would cop his second Oscar nomination. It was his favorite role.

Good as he was, the bottom seemed to fall out of his career.  How could that happen?  I have an educated guess.  The first notion is that he was somebody who had a publicized row with a movie studio.  Fighting with one's bosses by someone who was likely a bit mouthy and full of himself with his recent successes might have worked for Bette Davis and others in the 40s, but it just didn't cut it for actors of the 70s (and later) who were largely considered somewhat disposable.  Oh he would continue to make films for the rest of his life but who went to see them?  

I thought his output in the 80s was fairly dreadful but there might be three worth landing on.  He worked for director Robert (Kramer v.s. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Nobody's FoolBenton iStill of the Night (1982), which wasn't nearly as good as those other films but in it's tribute-to-Hitchcock way, it entertained.  Scheider is a psychiatrist probing a patient's murder and falls for his mistress. Meryl Streep costars and this is the film she made right before Sophie's Choice. Jessica Tandy is, as always, wonderful as Scheider's mother.

Blue Thunder (1983) had the boys checking their testosterone levels and sending them out at lightning speed in a techno-savvy, ass-grabbing, pow, zap, slam sorta way and it doesn't let go.  If action's your thing, Blue Thunder is your flick. Scheider is a cop test pilot working in a new futuristic helicopter with some fairly predictable results.  The film raked in some coins, no doubt, because there's a large audience for films of this type. I am occasionally sitting there in the dark watching one now and then myself.  But for a lead actor, if action-thrillers become his standard fare, it's time to see the writing on the wall.   

I enjoyed 52 Pickup (1986) because it tried real hard to be a film noir.  Reunited with a former costar, Ann-Margret, they play husband and wife.  She is running for political office and he is being blackmailed with photos of him cheating.  It didn't attract a great following and that's too bad because it warrants a look.

It was unavoidable that he would find his way to series television, and although I never saw it, I am told that SeaQuest DSV (1993-1996), from Spielberg's production company, had a following. Scheider headed a team sometime in the future who patrolled the world's oceans keeping mayhem at bay.  In the second season he began publicly badmouthing the show... another giant no-no.

From here on, Scheider's career just kind of fizzled.  It's not that he didn't make movies and appear on the tube because he did both of those.  Some of the films gathered some attention (Romeo Is Bleeding, The Russia House, The Rainmaker) but so many others one is challenged to recall.  He had also graduated pretty quickly, it seemed to me, to costarring roles.  If he had a leading role, it was in a very unknown film.  I cringe to think I'm being inelegant but he was billed under Gary Busey, Lorenzo Lamas, Michael Madsen and Michael Paré in various movies. What the...

As he grew older he became more and more politically active and concerned with children's issues.  He lent his name and spent money, time and energy on causes that supported his interests.

He had been suffering with multiple myeloma for several years. While he lived in Sag Harbor, New York, he died at a hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2008 from a staph infection.  He was 75 years old. 

I always liked his work and found him to have quite an emotional
availability.  Maybe everyone from Jersey should be in the movies for the same reason. He excelled at playing everyman roles presumably because it was truly who he was.  

Next posting:
Movie review


  1. my first memory of Roy Scheider was seeing a double feature at the local (Clare) drive in of The Seven Ups and Jaws. I was so impressed by his acting that I sought out his future roles.