Monday, February 11, 2008

You might need a bigger boat, but you're never gonna need a better actor

In his autobiography Born Standing Up Steve Martin shares a lesson he learned about doing comedy; namely, that "it was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the circumstances." I think Martin's observation is an astute one with regard not only to onstage performing but with any endeavor and I recall Martin's sentiment mainly because when I heard last night about the death of Roy Scheider I was struck by the fact that although I've never considered him a "great" actor (like, say, Marlon Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis), when I reflected on his body of work, I couldn't come up with a single bad performance.

I don't think I ever fully appreciated Scheider's ability to be, as Martin characterized it, consistently and reliably good. The fact is that he gave 100% to each film, he devoted himself equally to every part he played, whether it be in a masterpiece like Jaws or The French Connection a relatively forgettable family film like Disney's Tiger Town (which was actually the first time I ever saw Scheider in anything).

According to IMDB, Scheider died yesterday University of Arkansas Medical Sciences hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas. Though an official cause of death was not released at press time, a hospital spokeswoman stated that the actor had been treated for multiple myeloma at the hospital's research center for the past two years. Scheider is survived by his three children and his second wife, actress Brenda King. He was 75.

Scheider's film career was incredibly varied. He could play supporting roles in significant movies like Klute, Naked Lunch and Marathon Man or he could play the lead in a lesser-known, but still decent, piece of work like Blue Thunder, 52 Pick-Up or The Seven-Ups. One of his most memorable performances was as the screen incarnation of dancer/choreographer/director Bob Fosse in All That Jazz. The DVD features iterview with Scheider wherein he relates some rather profound stories about his working with the ailing Fosse and his awareness of who he was playing and why it was significant.

But the movie that first seems to pop into most people's minds whenever Scheider's name is mentioned anymore would naturally be Jaws. The character of Martin Brody, one of the first in a long line of Spielbergian "everymen," is a wonderful creation of Scheider's. While Richard Dreyfus has always been my personal favorite character, Brody is clearly unequivovally the film's "audience incarnate." Spielberg invites us all to experience the film's frightening and dramatic events through the eyes of Martin Brody and the humor, fear and just general humanity that Scheider embodies help makes that a plesant experience for the watcher. Finally, of course, the line of dialogue spoken upon Brody's first glimpse of the shark ("You're gonna need a bigger boat.") has become one of the most quoted* lines in movie history (Ted Pigeon beautifully describes Scheider's performance in that scene, as well as in another important scene, over at his blog The Cinematic Art). It is a declaration which has become identified with the reality of being faced with a situation where you feel ill-equipped and unprepared. Apparently, as it is revealed in the Laurent Bouzereau-directed documentary on the Jaws 30th anniversary DVD, the line was improvised by Scheider himself on the day of filming. How's that for being in the moment?

*It is also, alas, one of the most misquoted lines of movie history, ranging all the way from "We're gonna need a bigger boat" to "We gotta get a bigger boat." Scheider himself recalls it incorrectly in an interview for the aforementioned DVD "making of" feature.

So, rest in peace, Roy.

ROY SCHEIDER (1932-2008)


Tucker said...

Nice piece Damian. It seems appropriate that Jaws is touted as the representative Sheider film. And yet, when one takes a look at All That Jazz one sees an amazingly different performance from Sheider. He was not the greatest of actors, but he was a very versatile actor who gave us some great work.

Damian said...

Thanks, Tuck. I watched Jaws again yesterday in memory of Scheider (not that I really needed an excuse to watch Jaws again; I've seen it at least a hundred times), but I'm thinking I might re-watch All That Jazz too.

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