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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Chief Brody (1932-2008)

One of the hardest things I had to get my head around about Roy Scheider was that there was no “n” in his name. I always wanted to call him “Schneider.” But it was Scheider. The fact that it was important to know what his name was and to get it right is evidence that, in the vast sea of actors populating our movie screens, he did matter.

The first time we noticed him, he was Gene Hackman’s partner in The French Connection back in 1971, and there was something about him that made him seem destined for the perennial sidekick role. Improbably, he eked out something of a leading man persona. It happened when he got cast in a little summer popcorn movie about a fish. A thirty-ish filmmaker’s second real big-screen movie dealt with a small coastal town being terrorized by a great white shark, and the modern phenomenon of the summer blockbuster was born. And the main hero was not some strong-jawed action hero type. He was an ordinary everyman that we could identify with. In fact, in the best Hitchcockian tradition, Police Chief Martin Brody was actually afraid of the water. The real sense of fear that Scheider projected (can anyone forget how wide his eyes got when he said “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”?) helped make the movie as effective as it was.

Unfortunately, the memory of that role is marred somewhat by the fact that Scheider was obliged to participate in the much inferior sequel, on which Jeannot Szwarc had the unenviable job of following Steven Spielberg as director. This time the fear in Scheider’s eyes clearly came from the knowledge that this enterprise was totally superfluous and unnecessary. I always recall Jaws 2 as the beginning of that movie trend of the final quarter of the 20th century in which watching healthy young teenagers getting viciously and bloodily killed was considered an evening’s entertainment. Mercifully for Scheider, Chief Brody was subsequently allowed to die off-screen and thus did not have to appear in the sequels, Jaws 3-D, in which Dennis Quaid and John Putch played his grown sons, and Jaws: The Revenge, in which Lorraine Gary returned as his wife and Lance Guest and Mitchell Anderson took over his sons. Even poor Michael Caine was dragged in for that one.

But news bulletins and newspaper leads about his passing aside, there was much more to Scheider’s career than Jaws. He got his second Oscar nomination (the first was for The French Connection) for playing a thinly veiled version of Bob Fosse in the legendary director/dancer/choreographer’s quasi-autobiographical movie All That Jazz. Not the least impressive thing about his performance was that he played a dancer without actually doing any dancing, although many people who saw the movie probably thought that he had. We tend to forget that Scheider was in such notable films as Klute and Marathon Man (as Dustin Hoffman’s brother). He also had lead roles in such genre movies as Blue Thunder and Still of the Night (with Meryl Streep), and he starred in French Connection director William Friedkin’s remake of the French classic The Wages of Fear (about drivers transporting highly unstable nitro-glycerine through a jungle), Sorceror. He also appeared in another ill-advised sequel to a landmark movie when he took the lead role in 2010, in which Peter Hyams stepped into Stanley Kubrick’s directing shoes. Always working steadily his entire career and finding time to act on the stage as well as in movies and on TV, by the mid-1990s Scheider was showing up in such eclectic fare as David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, in which he played sinister Dr. Benway, and Romeo Is Bleeding, in which he played a mafia boss. Lots of forgettable movies followed, right up to his death, including a couple that have not yet been released. He had a role in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. And he played the father of the title character in the Marvel Comics movie adaptation of The Punisher. Like any respectable aging male actor, he played the president of the United States a number of times—three, by my count, in Executive Target, The Peacekeeper and Chain of Command.

If you don’t count a recurring role on Third Watch, he had one major TV starring gig, which had him working with Steve Spielberg again, playing yet another captain. He was Capt. Nathan Bridger from 1993 to 1995 on a series called Seaquest DSV. If “Wagon Train to the stars” was how Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to NBC, then Seaquest DSV was Star Trek under the sea. The show followed the Star Trek formula to the letter, with Scheider in the Jean-Luc Picard role and Stephanie Beacham as the ship’s doctor cum maybe-maybe-not Beverly Crusher-style love interest. There was even a Wesley Crusher equivalent in the character of young prodigy Lucas Wolenczak, played by the unfortunate Jonathan Brandis. (In what was probably a personal joke between Spielberg and Scheider, one of the vessel’s lieutenants was named Brody.) The series was set in a future where, in the best Roddenberry tradition, there was one world government running everything. The show was infused with a sense of adventure that seemed a throwback to an earlier age. And with all the best of intentions, it aimed itself at a young audience (even featuring a little educational lecture by oceanographer Bob Ballard at the end of each episode), and so was a bit hampered from true dramatic possibilities—making it seem like little more than an update to the 1960s Irwin Allen series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Frantic efforts to make things work were all too apparent. In the second season, Scheider got a much younger love interest, and Brandis’s role was beefed up in a bald attempt to appeal to the teenybopper audience. Finally, by the third and final season, Scheider had had enough and Michael Ironside was brought on board as the new captain.

Persistent readers will know that, when a veteran actor passes away, the movies that come first to my mind are not the ones that get mentioned in the obituaries or even in casual conversation. And so it is with Roy Scheider. For some reason, when I began remembering him after hearing of his death, the two that came to mind were two that no one ever talks about. The first was a 1975 film with the unwieldy title Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, based on a novel by Gail Parent. In that movie, Jeannie Berlin played an introverted young woman who moves to New York City and becomes infatuated with a doctor, played by Scheider, who picks her up in a nightclub, where she has been dragged by her extremely outgoing roommate. Scheider winds up with the roommate and Berlin throws herself into her job with a record company, making a success of herself. The film ends on an inspirational note, as Scheider comes back to confide that he was an idiot for not grabbing her when he had the chance. It was a lovely ending, ruined only by the fact that the movie kept going and a totally superfluous happy ending was added.

The other movie that came to mind was the 1997 film The Myth of Fingerprints, a domestic family drama/comedy in which he played the patriarch of a family with a lot of issues, who get together for Thanksgiving. It was an auspicious screenwriting debut for director Bart Freundlich, who managed to get a very good cast for a flick that cost only a couple thousand bucks. Scheider’s wife was played by Blythe Danner. Their children were played by Noah Wyle (hot from his ER gig), Julianne Moore (also appearing around the same time in movies like Boogie Nights and The Lost World: Jurassic Park), Michael Vartan and Laurel Holloman. James LeGros, playing a character improbably named Cezanne, stole the show. Still there was something touching about Scheider’s repressed New England father, who retreated from uncomfortable reality by hiding out in the children’s old tree house, playing old family movies and pretending to have shot the Thanksgiving turkey, when he actually went out and bought it.

Somehow I suspect it is the kind of role Roy Scheider would rather be remembered for than for the big budget Hollywood productions that supported him for so many years. Still, he couldn’t have been too unhappy to be remembered as the man who finally killed the monster fish. In the end, he may have been saying, “Smile, you son of a bitch!” all the way to the bank.

-S.L., 14 February 2008

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