Roy Scheider: He Didn’t Need a Bigger Boat

blog openerOn Saturday, June 4, TCM pays tribute to actor Roy Scheider by showcasing three of his films, The French Connection, The Seven Ups, and 2010. Scheider’s greatest success came during the Film School Generation, an era when directors sought new levels of realism, experimented with form and content, and cast ordinary-looking method actors instead of conventionally handsome movie stars. With his thin body, angular face, and broken nose (the result of an early flirtation with boxing), Scheider exhibited the everyman quality directors preferred.

I did not fully appreciate Scheider until I began showing movies from the 1970s and 1980s in my film studies classes. As I watched some of his best performances over and over, I became a fan. Though I respect all the talented actors from the Film School Generation, I believe Scheider is the era’s best chameleon in that he was completely absorbed into his roles. Pacino seems too showy; De Niro too iconic; Hoffman too calculated; Hackman too physically unappealing. As my personal contribution to TCM’s tribute, I offer ten facts that I did not know about Roy Scheider, which I hope inspires an appreciation of his talents and contributions.

1 I am never surprised to learn that good actors often have experience in soap operas. Soaps are a demanding format that requires actors to work through dozens of pages of script per day with a minimum of rehearsal. Actors play the same character several times a week, sometimes over the course of many years, making it difficult to keep that character fresh and appealing. Not only are they unsung but soap actors are not always respected. Scheider costarred on several soaps, including Love of Life in 1965 as Jonas Falk, opposite Tony Lo Bianco (who later costarred with him in The French Connection) and Bonnie Bedelia. The following year, he landed the part of Dr. Wheeler on Search for Tomorrow, and in 1967 he was Bob Hill on The Secret Storm. In 1969, he was a regular in the short-lived soap Where the Heart Is. Evidently, Scheider did not share my appreciation for soaps; on each soap, he quit after a few months.

 

SCHEIDER COSTARRED WITH TONY LO BIANCO IN TWO SOAP OPERAS AND TWO FILMS.

SCHEIDER COSTARRED WITH TONY LO BIANCO IN TWO SOAP OPERAS AND TWO FILMS.

2 His most interesting soap opera was a short-lived experiment in the daytime serial format by NBC called Hidden Faces, which focused on a murder mystery instead of family melodrama. It premiered in September 1968 but was cancelled in 1969. Tony Lo Bianco also costarred in this soap as did a very young Linda Blair.

3 Though he was a working actor at the time, particularly on the stage, his first film role was in the horror flick The Curse of the Living Corpse (1963), which played on a double bill with Horror of Party Beach.

SCHEIDER’S FIRST FILM WAS A GOTHIC HORROR FLICK CALLED ‘CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE.’

4 Two of Scheider’s favorite actors were Jimmy Cagney, because of the star’s innate energy that made him a force of nature on the big screen, and Orson Welles, because he understood the theme and subtext of the material he was playing.

5 The role that brought Scheider industry recognition was Buddy Russo in The French Connection. Russo and Gene Hackman’s character, Popeye Doyle, were based on Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, two real-life New York police detectives of the 1960s-1970. Scheider soon learned that no one really liked Egan, and he asked Grosso about working so closely with him. Sonny told him that if he didn’t like Egan, who would? Scheider used this idea as the spine of his performance.

THE SCRIPT TO ‘THE FRENCH CONNECTION’ WAS CREDITED TO ERNEST TIDYMAN, BUT THE ACTORS AND FRIEDKIN IMPROVISED MUCH OF THE DIALOGUE.

6 According to Diane Kachmar’s biography of Scheider, he and Hackman went on drug raids with their real-life counterparts during the shooting of The French Connection. The actors were sometimes the fifth or sixth people through the door during a raid, though they had no weapons. They witnessed heroin being cooked, addicts with needles sticking out of their arms, and on one occasion, a corpse in the corner—the victim of an overdose. After the raids, the actors rushed back to the car and made notes for their dialogue in upcoming scenes. Most of the dialogue was determined during improvised sessions, then rehearsed with director William Friedkin so that it came off as natural and seamless. Of all the Film School Generation directors who pushed for an increased naturalism in American cinema, Friedkin exhibited the most realistic style. Something to think about as you watch or re-watch the film, which airs at 8:00pm EST this Saturday.

THE UNOFFICIAL SEQUEL TO ‘THE FRENCH CONNECTION’ WAS ‘THE SEVEN UPS.’

7 In 1975, an official sequel, French Connection II, was released to mixed reviews. In this film, Hackman reprised his role as Popeye Doyle who followed up on the heroin dealers in Marseilles. In a case of dueling sequels, Scheider starred in The Seven Ups, which involved the further adventures of Sonny Grosso. Scheider returned to his role as Buddy Russo, who was the fictionalized version of Grosso.

8 According to Kachmar, Friedkin offered the role of Father Karras in The Exorcist to Scheider. However, the director ultimately went with Jason Miller, an actor-playwright. Coincidentally, Scheider had appeared in one of Miller’s Off Broadway plays called Nobody Hears a Broken Drum in 1969.

 

IN 'ALL THAT JAZZ,' SCHEIDER PLAYS A FOSSE-LIKE CHARACTER WHO COURTS DEATH THROUGH HIS DESTRUCTIVE LIFESTYLE. A YOUNG JESSICA LANGE PLAYS THE ANGEL OF DEATH.

IN ‘ALL THAT JAZZ,’ SCHEIDER PLAYED A FOSSE-LIKE CHARACTER WHO COURTS DEATH VIA A DESTRUCTIVE LIFESTYLE.  JESSICA LANGE PLAYED THE ANGEL OF DEATH.

9 I admired Scheider for taking on the role of Joe Gideon in Fosse’s autobiographical All That Jazz. The character is a choreographer, which required the actor to dance, and the film was a musical, which required him to sing. Though Scheider was neither a dancer nor a singer, he managed to win a BAFTA as best actor as well as an Oscar nomination. Joe Gideon was Scheider’s favorite role.

THOUGH NOT AS LAUDED AS HIS PEERS, SCHEIDER WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR DELIVERING ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS LINES OF THE ERA. AS ICONIC AS THE ‘JAWS’ THEME, “YOU’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER BOAT” CARRIES MEANING BEYOND ITS USE IN THE FILM.

10 My favorite Scheider role is Jackie Scanlon in Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s remake of Henri–Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear. Scanlon is one of four criminals and lost souls hiding from the world in a Latin American country where a U.S. oil company is exploiting the people and raping the land. The four are hired by the oil company to drive a load of dangerously volatile dynamite through the jungle 200 miles to the site of an oil well on fire. In a lengthy opening sequence, Friedkin shows us each man’s crime, so viewers know why they chose to live in such a hellhole. After that, the characters never explain their circumstances, they never open up to one another, and they never reveal what they are thinking. Consequently, there is little dialogue in the film. Scheider offers a highly physical but insular performance. Any thoughts, ideas, emotions, etc. are portrayed using minimal gestures and expressions. Sadly, Friedkin did not seem to appreciate Scheider’s performance, expressing regret that his original choice for the role, Steve McQueen, turned it down. Friedkin rightly noted that McQueen’s star image as a clever, determined tough guy would have carried the character. Because Scheider was not a movie star with an image, he had to act the role. I see Friedkin’s point, but I don’t agree that McQueen would have been better, only different.

 

16 Responses Roy Scheider: He Didn’t Need a Bigger Boat
Posted By Bill : May 30, 2016 2:49 pm

Scheider replaced his diminutive JAWS co-star in ALL THAT JAZZ. Note that the film is composed and cut in that he never really dances. Fosse was satisfied with his impersonation, except for the cough – Fosse dubbed in his own.

Posted By swac44 : May 30, 2016 2:57 pm

Love The Seven Ups, haven’t seen it in years. I consider it second-tier when it comes to great crime dramas of the 1970s, not quite on the same level as The French Connection, but what’s there is terrific, including one of the best car chases of the decade. I’ll have to watch it again to see if I still consider it a 3 out of 4 these days. I recall it’s a title that wears its age rather well.

For another pure action outing, there’s John Badham’s Blue Thunder about a stolen super-copter, with a fun Scheider role alongside the always-amazing Warren Oates. Another one I haven’t seen in years, I recall the whole is less than the sum of its parts, but worth it for its stars, the like of whom we won’t see again, and some great action sequences.

Posted By Steve R Burrus : May 30, 2016 3:04 pm

Susan I share your love/appreciation of the late Roy Scheider. which movoie of his did he give h is best acting performance?

Posted By Flora : May 30, 2016 3:56 pm

I still have not yet seen The Seven Ups – or JAWS, for that matter because I have been avoiding the sharks film for sharks.

However, I loved him in The French Connection and All That Jazz. My favourite film of his is Maarathon Man.

Posted By Emgee : May 30, 2016 7:18 pm

Friedkin even said that he thought Scheider was a “second or third banana, he’s not a star.” He even said that it was the worst casting decision he has ever made and that’s why the movie was a flop. Now that’s harsh.

It’s remarkable how The Sorcerer has been re-evaluated in the last few years. For a long time it was regarded as Friedkin’s Folly, now many call it a masterpiece.

PS McQueen only wanted to star if his wife Ali MacGraw would co-star, but Friedkin refused.

Posted By Marco : May 30, 2016 10:38 pm

Roy Scheider was great in SORCERER. McQueen might have made it a big hit, but I doubt they he could have been more believable than Scheider. I have seen THE WAGES OF FEAR several times, and I like the remake better. It has the back story, and it seems more credible because of the remote jungle setting. The entire ordeal of getting the nitroglycerin (not dynamite) to blow out the oil well fire is so much better filmed by Friedkin than the original one. This is one remake that is much superior than the original, and Roy Scheider is one of the main reasons it is so good. That is just one man’s opinion, but I’ll bet there are lots of other film fanatics that feel the same way.

Posted By Gamera2000 : May 31, 2016 6:11 am

I also really appreciated Scheider’s work in the 70′s and 80′s. I also think SORCERER was under appreciated, though for me, I regard it as an equally good if a very different take on THE WAGES OF FEAR. Also thought he was very good in three very different and interesting films of the early 90′s, THE RUSSIAN HOUSE, Cronenberg’s take on NAKED LUNCH, and ROMEO IS BLEEDING. Though, all in all, I would still pick ALL THAT JAZZ as having his best performance.

Posted By Stephen White : June 1, 2016 10:15 am

I had practically forgotten about Scheider in MARATHON MAN. There’s a little, almost James Bond-like stretch of the film where he gets to be the star. I read years ago in a Playboy interview where Scheider said he and Hoffman worked ahead of time to try to establish a familiarity and easy camaraderie to help convince the audience they were brothers because they in no way physically resembled one another, and I think it worked.

I’d also like to bring up a Scheider film no one has mentioned so far, a nice little noir called STILL OF THE NIGHT, written and directed by Robert Benton, with Scheider and a pre megafame Meryl Streep (and Jessica Tandy!).

Posted By Bill : June 1, 2016 10:32 am

Magazine blew the ending of STILL OF THE NIGHT, causing Benton to refilm the climax. The film, and especially the poster, seemed to be focusing on a Hitchcock “doubling”. Streep and Scheider do look alike here, pale, drawn, and bloodless on the poster.

Posted By swac44 : June 1, 2016 11:07 am

Speaking of Hitchcock, there’s also a fine Scheider role in an OK Hitch pastiche from Jonathan Demme, Last Embrace (1979), which recently surfaced on blu-ray. Haven’t watched it in years, I recall it doesn’t all hang together perfectly, but there’s a big climax at Niagara Falls that’s well done.

A RS title that’s in my to-watch pile is 52 Pick-Up. It doesn’t seem to be very highly regarded, but with John Frankenheimer directing an Elmore Leonard story, with Ann-Margret as co-star, how bad could it be? (Just checked, it was produced by Cannon, so that might be a clue.)

Posted By Autist : June 1, 2016 12:54 pm

I love Still of the Night! I particularly like the intense, menacing performance by the person who turns out to be the killer–I won’t say who so as not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. I’ve been wanting to see this movie again for years, but it doesn’t seem to be easily available for some reason.

Posted By Susan Doll : June 5, 2016 3:58 am

So glad, there are RS fans out there.

Steve: I think he was best in SORCERER, because there is so little dialogue, yet he was able to construct his character. But, I like him best in JAWS.

Posted By robbushblog : June 15, 2016 8:32 pm

JAWS is among my top 10 favorite movies of all-time. As a kid, JAWS 2 was on cable a LOT and we watched it a LOT. I’ve always liked him, so much in fact that he was the main reason I watched the Star Trek-underwater type show, SeaQuest DSV in the late 80s-early 90s.

It’s weird that he played the same character in THE SEVEN-UPS that he played in THE FRENCH CONNECTION, but Tony LoBianco did not.

Posted By Amber : June 22, 2017 11:27 am

Loved the very bones of the man. Like all his films, and swac44 I really love 52 Pick-up.

Posted By Karen : June 27, 2017 7:12 pm

I wish that he accepted the role of Michael in The Deer Hunter. Instead he decided to reprise his Chief Brody role in Jaws 2. Robert De Niro was very compelling but Roy would have been absolutely amazing! I loved Sorcerer – very underrated film!

Posted By Greg Messina : August 10, 2019 8:51 am

One of my absolute favorite actors. My personal favorite performance is from The Seven Ups as Buddy, such an unheralded, unappreciated and little know gem of a movie. Nobody could’ve been a better Chief Brody either. Great as Hackman’s sick kick in The French Connection.

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