“With a narrow face, broken nose, and furtive eyes, it was always most likely that Roy Scheider would be a supporting actor.” – David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
Thomson’s a learned fellow, but that’s bullshit. The only inevitability that attended a Roy Scheider performance was one of excellence; even in movies as soulless as The Myth of Fingerprints or as downright awful as The Punisher (’04), the presence of Scheider bore the promise of something special. Sometimes, especially late in his career, the movies defeated him. But there were some late breaking triumphs: a heartless insurance company CEO in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker, George Schaefer in RKO 281 and a condemned serial killer on a (rare) great episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
If Scheider ceased being a movie star after the 1970s, it’s only because Hollywood lost interest in the everyman. Despite the back-to-basics, no-bullshit credo of the Reagan revolution, audiences quickly fell in love with the impossibly handsome or the impossibly muscled. Flawed protagonists (or simply classic protagonists with flawed features) were unwelcome reminders of American imperfection; if you weren’t swaggering, you were providing aid and comfort to the enemy. It was enough to drive Al Pacino from the big screen for four years.
Scheider disappeared himself for a few years during the late 80s, returning in 1989 with a tremendously vicious turn as a hit man in Eric Red’s very good Cohen and Tate. A couple of years later, he’d play the legendary Dr. Benway in David Cronenberg’s fascinating(ly flawed) adaptation of Naked Lunch. It was wonderful to have him back, but you couldn’t help but feel that he was frustrated with the absence of depth in the roles.
Perhaps that’s because we were frustrated that Scheider’s ascent to the top tier of American actors was abruptly halted after his transcendent performance as Joe Gideon in All That Jazz. Here was Scheider – the tough cop from The French Connection, the stern-faced truck driver from Sorcerer, Chief Martin Brody from Jaws – playing a chain-smoking, pill-popping, skirt-chasing Broadway choreographer. If you want to know why men of my generation never felt at all emasculated about loving musical theater, this is why! Telling a company of women (and, yes, guys) how to contort their pliant bodies while juggling romances with Jessica Lange and Ann Reinking seemed as manly as playing defensive tackle for the Oakland Raiders. According to Bob Fosse, choreography begat pussy. Even at seven-years-old, I knew this was a good thing.
And then there’s Martin Brody. The last sane man on Amity Island. Mr. “Smile, You Son of a Bitch.” More than any other hero in film history, he reminds me of my father: he drinks, he smokes, and he’s not much for people. But he risks his own life to protect his family and an ignorant community from an inexplicable threat. For all his bluster, he gives a shit. And he’s just good enough at his job to sink a bullet into a pressurized air tank.
Men like Chief Brody aren’t heroes anymore because they’re either too improbable or too likely to be defeated. Actors like Roy Scheider aren’t leads anymore because the common man is defeated. Narrow face, broken nose, furtive eyes… that’s too much goddamn character.
Take it away, Mr. Vereen: