Last Sunday, the world lost the remarkably gifted actor Roy Scheider. He had been fighting multiple myeloma since 2004 and underwent a bone marrow transplant the following year. Though he lived an active 75 years, he left us far too soon.
Like most film fans of my generation, I first saw him in Jaws and thought he was perfectly cast as Martin Brody, the driven police chief hell-bent on hunting down the titular great white shark. Underneath the hardboiled stoicism he conveyed so naturally, there was something sensitive, congenial, and refined about his presence that made him genuinely likeable. Watch the magical dinner table scene between him and young Jay Mello where the son emulates his father's gestures and facial expressions. Fast forward to the heart-pounding climax where Scheider's courageous cop lands a last chance, dead-on rifle shot that blasts the monstrous creature to smithereens. The joyous scream Scheider emits while clinging to the shredded remnants of the sinking vessel captures the triumphant spirit of an impossible mission accomplished more beautifully than the most articulate declaration of the words "I did it". The tonnage of cinema provides filmgoers with an abundance of golden moments that leaves the viewer wondering whether credit belongs to the director or to the actor for their conception. In this case, Scheider's electric spontaneity was too real to be thought of ahead of time by Spielberg.
Four years earlier, he found worldwide fame -- and his first Academy Award nomination -- for The French Connection. Although it was a top-grossing dynamite action movie, his role of Buddy Russo featured no memorable lines of dialogue, shocking confessions, or climactic confrontations. Yet, his effort was enough to make a splash and get noticed.
Then in 1979, All That Jazz arrived and brought the role from Heaven with it. Roy was brought on board to replace Richard Dreyfuss, who left the production during rehearsals. After seeing the former's performance, one wonders what led Bob Fosse to consider (much less cast!) Dreyfuss in the first place. Skilled as he is, Dreyfuss possesses none of the raw sexuality and slick, manipulative guile that Scheider amplified so easily through his Joe Gideon. Only Scheider could have made that role so simultaneously charming and churlish. He seduces the audience as easily as he does his latest leading lady. How did Scheider acquire such an innate understanding of the Fosse sensibility? Even though the two men had never before worked together (and never would again), did Fosse trust this tough-guy veteran of The Seven-Ups, Marathon Man, and Sorceror enough with his deepest, darkest secrets? He was making his own autobiography, after all. For this blogger's part, Jazz is one of the most incredible examples of an actor playing against type ever captured on celluloid. The Academy had to have struggled with its decision to award the 1979 Best Actor Oscar to Dustin Hoffman for Kramer vs. Kramer. Between he, Pacino for ...And Justice for All, Lemmon for The China Syndrome, Sellers for Being There, and Scheider, the decision had to be next to impossible. Had I been old enough to follow movies then, I would have certainly hoped that Scheider's nomination would be a call for better roles.
Sadly, those roles never came and his second nomination would be his last. Scheider did make several memorable appearances thereafter, albeit in movies than which he was better. His chopper cop in Blue Thunder seemed like a routine police flick assignment, but he gave his best effort all the same. His impassioned liberal law school professor was the only saving grace of Listen to Me, a forgettable late-80s drama that futily tried to make Kirk Cameron a movie star. Francis Ford Coppola got maximum mileage out of his presence when he cast Scheider as a slimy corporate executive in 1997's The Rainmaker. In addition, he also busied himself with several television projects, among them an enjoyable three-season run on NBC in "Seaquest DSV" and most recently, a featured role on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" last year.
All career misfires considered, one cannot fault the man for his less than memorable movies. After all, it was the late William Holden who said, "Take any picture you can. One out of four will be good, one out of ten will be very good, and one out of 15 will get you an Academy Award." While some may dispute the veracity of Mr. Holden's claim (personally, I believe his estimates are conservative), one cannot help but agree with the incentive for making an effort. With respect to Scheider, Henry Fonda's wisdom may be more appropriate: "It's not how good you are. It's how long you last." For my own part, Roy Scheider was always good and his work will always last.