Chief, cop, thespian, Everyman: remembering Roy Scheider.

roy scheider

Last weekend my husband and I watched All That Jazz, Bob Fosse’s thinly-veiled 1979 biopic of himself. Roy Scheider played the lead role of Joe Gideon. I’d seen the film before but not in many years, and watching it again reminded me both of what an amazing film it was, and how great Roy Scheider was in it and the many other films he made over the years.

Roy is known most for playing Chief Brody, the pragmatic police chief of Amity in the 1975 mega-blockbuster Jaws (and its very silly sequel). But before he went shark fishing, Roy Scheider had already had a fascinating career–several, in fact. When I looked up some information about him to do this article, I was frankly amazed at the various things he did in his very interesting life.

Although known for playing tough New Yorkers, Scheider was actually born and raised in Orange, New Jersey. During his high school and college years he gravitated toward two particular activities: boxing and acting. In fact Roy was a well-regarded amateur boxer with a pretty respectable record. His characteristic angular nose shape was the result of breaking his nose twice in boxing matches, once in 1947 and again in 1950. He hung up his gloves in 1953–except for one final rematch five years later–and then served three years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force before turning to acting.

Roy Scheider’s breakthrough role was in “The French Connection,” which won an Oscar for Best Picture of 1971. Here’s the trailer; he is visible in the supporting role as Gene Hackman’s partner.

As an actor, Roy Scheider had range. He worked with the New York Shakespeare Festival and won an award for off-Broadway acting in 1968. By then he’d just begun to work his way up in movies, starting in low-budget horror features. His real break came in 1971 when young director William Friedkin cast him as a no-nonsense Brooklyn cop in The French Connection, based loosely on a true story. The French Connection was a huge hit. Both Scheider and his on-screen police partner Gene Hackman got Oscar nominations; Hackman won. Three years later another young director took a chance on Roy as the action lead in a movie about shark attacks. That young director was Steven Spielberg, the picture was Jaws, and Roy’s ad-libbed line–“We’re going to need a bigger boat”–became one of the iconic utterances in popular movies in the final quarter of the 20th century.

Roy considered his turn as Bob Fosse–er, I mean Joe Gideon–the pinnacle of his movie career. In All That Jazz he portrays a talented but tormented man, haunted by bad relationships and bad life choices, but still soldiering grimly on, facing himself in the mirror each day by saying, “It’s showtime, folks!” I would never believe that Roy Scheider could sing and dance, but he does, and he’s the heart and soul of All That Jazz. It’s truly an amazing film, very much worthy of the accolades it received, though Roy was again denied an Academy Award for his performance.

Here’s a little sample of Roy’s work in the 1979 musical/drama film “All That Jazz,” directed by Bob Fosse, who modeled the main character after himself.

He continued to rack up movie credits in the succeeding decades: Blue Thunder, 2010, 52 Pick-Up, Naked Lunch, RKO 281, and even a guest turn on the animated show Family Guy. His co-workers, including Jaws co-star Richard Dreyfus, described him as a wonderful and endearing guy. Off-screen Roy was active for various causes, including peace, protesting both the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, and working for access to education and environmental responsibility. The “Everyman” quality he channeled as Chief Brody was clearly not just an actor’s illusion, but, I think, a reflection of who he tried to be as a human being.

Sadly, Roy Scheider died of cancer in February 2008 at the age of 75. But the great performances he put on film live on, and he will continue to connect with audiences for as long as the great films he made remain the fan favorites that they are.

The still of Roy Scheider is a promotional photo from Jaws and is owned by Universal Pictures. I believe my inclusion of it here counts as fair use under copyright laws.
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