Roy Scheider died on Feb. 10th, at a hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he’d been battling a form of blood cancer. He was seventy-five. The obits were respectful, befiting an actor with two Oscar nominations and a reputation as a pro. For days now, I’ve been thinking that we might have taken Scheider for granted as an actor. It’s not that he never screwed up. He and Meryl Streep had zip chemistry in Still of the Night. And the special effects ate him up in Blue Thunder and 2010. But Scheider with his game on was hard to beat. His face and voice radiated authority. Close your eyes and think of what Scheider role comes to your mind first. I have three.
There he was as Martin Brody, the police chief who was scared shitless of the ocean, never mind a great white shark. That quirk put just the right human chink in the sheriff’s armor and gave the role a warmth you never felt in the novel. Thanks to Scheider, we empathized. His acting was solid not showy. Who can forget his face when he first sees the shark emerge from the water? And his line,”You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Scheider knew something then: “That role will be on my tombstone,” he said. Damn near.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION 1971
Scheider had his breakthrough role and his first Oscar nomination playing the cop partner of Gene Hackman’s hothead Popeye Doyle. With cheekbones so sharp you could use them to cut diamonds, he looked coiled to spring. That look would become a specialty for the whippet-thin Scheider, who took the cop star spot himself two years later in The Seven-Ups.
ALL THAT JAZZ 1979
Scheider’s favorite role. And no wonder. Playing a fictional take on dancer-choreographer-horndog Bob Fosse, directed by the man himself, Scheider won an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. Since he lost to Dustin Hoffman in the not-aging-well Kramer vs Kramer, I’m beginning to think Scheider was robbed. Pauline Kael’s original review of the film keeps nagging at me. Kael said that Scheider, a former boxer who had never danced, “made you feel you were watching Fosse himself. It wasn’t an impersonation; it was as if Fosse had taken over his body, from the inside. That’s the only role in which Scheider had an exciting presence, and it wasn’t his; we seemed to be looking right through him to Fosse.”
What pisses me off about that review is that Scheider did have an exciting presence. And not just in the three films I cited above. In tribute to Scheider, here are five more films that showed him at his best:
Scheider is potently scary, his presence electric, as Jane Fonda’s pimp.
THE LAST EMBRACE 1979
Hardly anyone knows this thriller from Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme. Get to know it. Scheider’s performance as a tortured romantic is mesmerizing right down to the finale that has him hanging off Niagra Falls.
52 PICK-UP 1986
Another top director, John Frankenheimer, brings out the best in Scheider — the vulnerability beneath the hard shell — in this underrated adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s brass balls of a novel.
NAKED LUNCH 1991
As Benway, the quack doctor from hell in David Cronenberg’s explosively surreal adaptation of the William Burroughs novel, Scheider pushes the envelope with terrifying results.
THE MYTH OF FINGERPRINTS 1997
As husband to Blythe Danner and father to a dysfunctional WASP family, Scheider oversees a Thanksgiving dinner that means to leave you shaken and does. It was his last meaty role and he seized it with humor and strength worth remembering.