Forty years ago next month, the summer movie blockbuster was born.
And its name, at birth, was "Jaws," released June 20, 1975, in an at-the-time jaw-dropping number of theaters, expanding from 409 to 675 screens for a mega-premiere made possible by the proliferation of malls and multiplexes.
I was 17 years old and an usher at one of those multiplexes -- the University Square Mall theaters in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida -- on the opening day of "Jaws."
Huge event. Had to get to work early to deal with the crowds. Had to get a fellow usher to clean the vomit off some front row seats after an audience member threw up when Robert Shaw's character spit blood near the end.
The theater was packed and there was shrieking and general terror that day. Truly, the successor to "The Birds" and "Psycho" had arrived.
Many years later, as a journalist, I interviewed some of the stars of the film, among them the late Roy Scheider, who so memorably played the role of police chief Martin Brody and uttered one of the most memorable lines in the film: "We're gonna need a bigger boat."
I telephoned Scheider -- who died in 2008 at age 75 -- on May 15, 2000, for a 25th anniversary piece on the film (though no publication had yet formally assigned me to do such an article). I eventually sold it to The San Francisco Chronicle, which published it on May 28, 2000. Here's a link to that story: http://jawsbyiorio.blogspot.com
But I used only 150 words of my audiotaped conversation with Scheider, fresh off a career uptick that included roles in "The Rainmaker," "The Myth of Fingerprints" and "RKO 281." The rest of the Q&A has never been published or posted anywhere.
So, here, for the first time, is a transcript of my exclusive Q&A with Scheider on "Jaws," director Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the best-selling novel by Peter Benchley, co-scripted by Carl Gottlieb (and Benchley) and starring Scheider, Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss.
Paul Iorio: I heard that [other actors] were vying for the part of Chief Brody in "Jaws"?
Roy Scheider: Well, if that was so, I didn't know anything about it. I got a call from Steven Spielberg and he thought it was a good idea to have a city type of guy put into that ocean community. And he had seen "The French Connection" and remembered my performance and thought that would be the kind of guy he wanted to put into Amity.
Iorio: Right, kind of displaced -
Scheider: A fish out of water, if you'll excuse the expression! [laughs]
Iorio: An apt way of putting it! So, you're trying to assimilate in this seaside community.
Scheider: He's a guy who doesn't understand the community, is afraid of water, the least likely hero, and that makes him the everyman...
Iorio: How was it that you and Steven Spielberg were able to create this character?
Scheider: Well, a very fortuitous thing happened on that film: the shark didn't work! And that left us with weeks and weeks and weeks to shoot, polish, to improvise, to discuss, to enrich, to develop, to experiment with all the other [non-shark] scenes that, in a movie like that, would usually get a cursory treatment.
What happened was, [Robert] Shaw, [Richard] Dreyfuss and Scheider turned into a little rep company. And all those scenes, instead of just pushing the plot along, became golden in developing the characters. So when the crisis came, you really cared about those three guys. And as wonderful as [Peter] Benchley's book was, those characters were not that likeable in the novel.
Iorio: They were very different in the book.
Scheider: Yes, yes. With all my problems, my character was a cuckold as well!
Iorio: Because Hooper had an affair -
Scheider: Yes, yes!
Iorio: [The adultery sub-plot] was jettisoned after a time. And then you did the legendary 159 day shoot --
Scheider: You had a very talented, imaginative, young director and three very fine actors who were quite suited for what they were playing.
Iorio: What about the classic sequence that begins with the scar comparing -
Scheider: In the script, that was just Shaw showing his scars from the U.S.S.
Scheider: That sank. And that he was the victim of a shark. But I and Dreyfuss couldn't take anything too seriously, so we had our way with that! [laughs] We don't want this to get too heavy, now, do we? [laughs heartily] Like everything starts off as a joke. And then the director says, "Wait a minute, we can do that, we'll use that!"
I remember one night we were having dinner up at Steven [Spielberg]'s cabin and we'd all have dinner up there and sit around the table and bullshit. And then we talked about the scene when we first fight the shark. We're running around the boat and the Dreyfuss character is trying to get a picture of it.
Someone said [at the dinner table], you tell me to go out there to end of the boat. And I'll say, "What for?" And he'll say, "Just go out there, just go out there...so I can get a picture so I can see how small you are and what size the shark is."
Iorio: [quoting from the movie] "Foreground my ass!"
Scheider: [roaring with laughter] And I go, "Fuck you, I'm not doing that." That's the playful nonsense that went on.
Iorio: What about the Indianapolis scene? I hear that [Robert] Shaw was drunk -
Scheider: There was no reference to [the Indianapolis] in the original script. But Spielberg's friend, director John Milius, was shocked to find out that Steven didn't know about the boat that delivered the bomb. And the story of the 300 some odd guys who stayed in the water [and were eaten by sharks]. So he had Milius write up something, then Carl [Gottlieb] wrote up something and then Shaw contributed something. And then everyone else contributed a few lines. My line was that sharks had "the doll-like eyes."
Iorio: That was yours?
Scheider: Yes, that was my contribution. And Robert [Shaw] was an alcoholic and he had to be watched on certain days. And that's a very difficult [monologue] that Shaw gives. And there are sections of that speech where he's absolutely ripped. Shot over a period of two or three days.
Iorio: You have one of the most memorable lines that absolutely brings down the house: "We're gonna need a bigger boat."
Scheider: That was in the script. The first time he sees the shark...But I liked the line so much, it amused me so much, that I said, "I bet I could work this in in a few other places." So I worked it in two more times.
Iorio: [Carl] Gottlieb told me that you improvised that line.
Scheider: I don't know if I did or not. I might have. I'd have to check the original script. It seems so long ago now.
Iorio: Yeah, it was 25 years ago. What kinds of things did Steven Spielberg tell you to direct you -
Scheider: For instance, he had a plan of how he wanted these characters to develop. And every aggressive and macho impulse I had for my character, he would grab me and pull me back and say, "No, no, don't talk that way, don't step forward like that, you are always afraid. Just Mr. Humble, all the time."
[Spielberg] would say, "Because here's what we want to do, which is gradually, slowly, carefully, humorously build this guy into being the hero of the movie." And I'm sure he spoke the same way to Dreyfuss and Shaw. For instance, we would build Shaw from this crazy lunatic to a guy with a real reason to hate sharks. And, of course, he would wind up in the mouth of one. So that all the ironies would work.
Iorio: What about the one point during the scar-comparing when you lift up your shirt -
Scheider: That was my improv. I said, here are these two guys showing huge scars and what've I got? There's a little tiny appendix scar.
Iorio: During the shoot, there was a lot of talk that this movie was going to tank.
Scheider: It's not that it was going to tank, but that it was going to get pulled because it was costing too much money. Back in those days, if you went over $10 million dollars -- wow! It was a big deal. That was '74.
Iorio: And this was like $12 mil -
Scheider: And after months of preparation and the shark not working, we got to that figure pretty quickly. Even so, I don't think the picture went over $12 [million]....The threat that was hanging over Steven's head all the time was that he was going to have his picture taken away from him.
Iorio: Was there one point where you felt, this is really taking off...this is really something special?
Scheider: ...I remember one day, they pulled the damn thing [shark] out and put it on the cables and ran it past the boat and it was as long as the boat and I said, "Oh, my god, that looks great." I remember that day. We all probably lit cigars!