A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool
By Roderick Heath
One of the first films I ever saw was Jaws. My first viewing of Jaws was an auspicious event—a double bill with Raiders of the Lost Ark at a university movie theatre when I was five years old. I caught lice from some unkempt member of the collegiate crowd, and my dreams were haunted for weeks afterwards by melting faces and people being masticated by massive teeth. But a love affair with a medium had begun. Once we obtained the movie on videocassette, I memorised it. It’s also the film that made me appreciate acting. With Jaws, Spielberg perfected his Everyman hero, in the shape of Roy Scheider’s aquaphobic but resolute Police Chief Martin Brody. Brody reminded me of a skinnier edition of my father, with whom he shared a propensity for singing shanties after sinking a few beers. Spielberg chose Scheider, passing on the studio’s pick, Charlton Heston, who, at that stage of his career, was guaranteed to have reduced Brody to a pillar of smarm.
Scheider was a bony, self-contained screen presence, pushing 40 when he lurched into the public eye in 1971 with the one-two punch of Klute and The French Connection. Playing Buddy Russo to fellow late bloomer Gene Hackman’s explosive Popeye Doyle, Scheider’s cool provided a perfect counterpoint and the kind of distinctly real presence beloved of the American New Wave. He’d been around the block a few times by that stage. Born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1932, he had been a young sportsman, playing baseball and boxing, where he gained his jagged nose, thus joining the long list of male actors who had their features interestingly rearranged in the ring (Yves Montand, Bob Hope, Gabriel Byrne, Mickey Rourke, Liam Neeson, etc). In college, he became interested in theatre, a passion that survived his conscription service. Scheider’s stage career began professionally when he played Mercutio in a 1961 New York Shakespeare Festival production of Romeo and Juliet, and reached its height when he won an Obie award for the play Stephen D in 1968. His film debut at the age of 32 was in a trash horror epic, The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964). His work in TV and film was sporadic until his 1971 breakthrough. His lean physique and toughened, fairly proletarian demeanour first made him appeal as a modern heir to a tradition of screen male presences like Gary Cooper and James Stewart, but with a tougher, savvier, utterly contemporary edge.
Klute and The French Connection established Scheider as a star of the new urban-noir genre. He followed them up with a memorable turn as Lenny, a creepy hired killer, in Jacques Deray’s uniquely cool Franco-American thriller, Un homme est mort (The Outside Man, 1972). Tracking down Jean-Louis Trintignant’s on-the-lam patsy, Scheider anticipates future merciless forces of underworld thuggishness, like Karl Urban’s super-assassin in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (2007), taking out hippies and housewives without a blink. At one point, Trintignant attempts to convince him that they’ve both been used, and Scheider promises they will now join forces, but tries to shoot him anyway at the first opportunity.
Scheider was a self-effacing actor, not given to exercises in cunning ham and award grabs that made notable careers for costars like Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, the latter his costar in John Schlesinger’s gritty 1976 opus Marathon Man. Scheider played Hoffman’s older brother, a shady CIA operative who survives one brutally memorable scene: when an assassin tries to garrote Scheider, Scheider gets his hand between the wire and his throat, the wire digging into the flesh of his palm. Scheider played the Yves Montand role in William Friedkin’s big-budget, big-flop remake of The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer (1977), and appeared in two Hitchcockian dramas, making for a soulful stand-in for Jimmy Stewart in Jonathan Demme’s Last Embrace (1979) and Robert Benton’s Still of the Night (1982), opposite Meryl Streep’s mysteriously comatose impression of a Hitchcock blonde.
Hoffman later beat out Scheider in vying for the 1979 Best Actor Oscar, Hoffman for the egregiously bland Kramer Vs Kramer, Scheider for his emotional and physical high-wire act in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Playing Fosse’s alter ego, Joe Gideon, Scheider is dynamite in one of the few parts that stretched his capacities to the limit, requiring him to sing and dance as well as put across with compulsive force the drama of a man whose lust for life and creation rapidly destroys him. All That Jazz was and is a litmus test, unbearable to some, hypnotic to me, but I don’t think anyone can doubt Scheider’s commitment to and impact in the role, whether in scenes as grimly memorable as when Gideon tries to ignore his heart palpitations during a cast reading or when he escapes his hospital bed to yak it with a cleaner, or when he sings, in Gideon’s imagined farewell extravaganza, “Bye Bye Love,” with its suddenly meaningful lyric, “I think I’m gonna die!”
At this point, Scheider decided to go back to the stage, winning a Drama League award for Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, before returning to the screen for Still of the Night. In 1983, he played another policeman in John Badham’s cheesy techno-crime thriller, Blue Thunder, a film stuffed with almost every fashionable “Screw The Man” cliché of its period. The hero is a haunted Vietnam veteran who tries to expose government corruption and the fascist threat represented by the titular chunk of super-expensive steel, an Apache helicopter, ready to deal with any potential civil disturbances (read “race riots”) during the L.A. Olympics. Scheider’s boss (Malcom McDowell, another terrific actor in B-movie purgatory) was also his ‘Nam commander, lending an edge of national, psychological struggle to their final confrontation as Scheider’s sturdy hero repurposes Blue Thunder to kick authoritarian ass.
Peter Hyams’ 2010 (1984) the sequel to Kubrick’s mighty 2001: A Space Odyssey, was a good film that has been deliberately forgotten mostly because it substituted Kubrick’s poetic mysticism for a more spelt-out, standard, scifi drama. Scheider played Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester in the original), the man who conceived the disastrous Discovery mission to the Black Monolith at Jupiter, and hitches a ride with a Russian salvage expedition to find that HAL 9000 was reprogrammed by evil government types, and that the aliens behind the Monolith are now protecting a new experiment in life-creation, apparently disappointed by the still-festering tribalism of their human progeny. Amidst an excellent cast (including Helen Mirren, Elya Baskin, and John Lithgow), Scheider is laid-back and so unutterably down-to-earth, he slices through the bunk with barely a raised eyebrow and provides an easy emotional centre, like when he holds onto a frightened Russian girl as their spaceship makes a dangerous entry into Jupiter’s gravity. It’s easy to imagine him circumventing the original by demanding in his Jersey honk, “Hal, just open the goddamn pod bay doors, for chrissakes!”
He also contributed to Peter Medak’s largely, unfairly trashed but intriguing The Men’s Club (1986), an adaptation of Leonard Michael’s novel, about a group of professional men, aging golden boys all, who attempt to start an encounter group and end up fleeing to the boyish dream world of a high-class brothel. With a few flops behind him and now over 50, Scheider ceased to be a star around this time. He did feature in two substandard John Frankenheimer films, 52 Pick-Up (1986) and The Fourth War (1989). A solid TV movie, Somebody Has to Shoot the Picture (1990), saw him play a photographer documenting an execution who tries to save the condemned man’s life. Steven Spielberg had found a younger, better-looking actor in the Cooperesque mould, Harrison Ford, for the Indiana Jones films, but handed Scheider a good role as the stoic captain of a huge futuristic submarine in the expensive TV series SeaQuest DSV (1993-1995), an ambitious enterprise that unfortunately proved a dull update of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, something Scheider publicly bitched about. After this, Scheider was officially an aging character actor with more roles than good films to his credit, and a smattering of genuine cult films: David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991) and, working for Peter Medak again, the utterly perverse Romeo Is Bleeding (1993). But the last 10 years of Scheider’s career are not much to look at. He had made some missteps from which he never recovered, like not taking the role offered to him in The Deer Hunter that eventually went to Robert De Niro; instead, he made Jaws 2 (1978). He never achieved that sort of late-career recharge that Michael Caine gained with The Cider House Rules or Peter O’Toole had with Troy. Scheider died on February 10, 2008, of bone cancer.
For most people, he will always be Chief Brody—and that’s fair enough. Jaws still rocks, and remains a rich, tart study of male behaviour. Brody is one of a trio of men engaged in a primal rite of hunting a rampaging beast, the utterly ordinary man between Robert Shaw’s Quint, the ancient mariner and bullying blowhard full of patriarchal arrogance and a Conradian sense of horror, and Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper, the rich kid with a billion-dollar brain, convinced of his own brilliance. Hooper’s willing to go toe to toe with Quint in a game of one-upmanship, whilst Brody, whom we’ve seen barely able to hold his own against his chaotic family life and politicking small towners, is reduced to watching as they compare scars—he can only glance furtively at his appendix scar. And yet, both Hooper and Quint’s attempts to be technological in taking on the Jungian nightmare gets one of them killed and the other very nearly. Brody is the only one to confront the beast directly with no protection other than his guts and wits, building to one of the great climaxes in cinema, where Scheider’s joyous, triumphant whoop rings in the ears. He’s just as good in the inevitably contrived sequel, Jaws 2, where Brody’s warnings about history repeating get him sacked, even more impotent than before in confronting the indifference of civil authority. He gets drunk and mopes, and the next day, embarrassedly kicks aside a stack of beer cans from the front lawn. You just gotta love the guy. And you know he’s gonna be proved right.