“I got a call from Steven Spielberg, and he thought it was a good idea to have a city type of guy put into that ocean community,” the late, great Roy Scheider told The Huffington Post of how he came to be cast in the director’s classic 1975 blockbuster, Jaws. “And he had seen The French Connection and remembered my performance, and thought that would be the kind of guy that he wanted to put into [the seaside town of] Amity. He was a fish out of water, if you’ll excuse the expression! [Laughs] He’s a guy who doesn’t understand the community, he’s afraid of water, and he’s the least likely hero. That makes him the everyman.”
And that’s what makes Roy Scheider’s Chief Martin Brody – the top lawman in the tourist-heavy island community of Amity, whose job doesn’t exactly demand much in the way of tough cop heroics – the most fascinating and relatable character in Jaws. When Brody’s jurisdiction falls victim to a massive, merciless marauding shark, a number of other, far more theatrical characters come into play (Robert Shaw’s famous shark hunter, Quint; Richard Dreyfuss’ marine biologist, Matt Hooper; Murray Hamilton’s Mayor Larry Vaughn, who wants to cover everything up, at the expense of more lives), but the harried lawman always remains the audience’s point of entry into the film.
That’s usually the most thankless role in a movie, but Scheider’s rugged charisma and sense of being truly out of place makes him much, much more than a narrative device. Brody’s relationship with his wife, Ellen (winningly played by Lorraine Gary, who would stick around for all of the film’s three sequels), meanwhile, is textured and rich, adding to his sense of depth and nuance. And despite his badge and gun, Brody is no typical 1970s-era cop hero. “Steven Spielberg had a plan of how he wanted these characters to develop,” Scheider told The Huffington Post. “And every aggressive and macho impulse that I had for my character, he would grab me and pull me back and say, ‘No, no, don’t talk that way. Don’t step forward like that…you are always afraid. You’re just Mr. Humble, all the time.’ Spielberg would say, ‘Because here’s what we want to do, which is gradually, slowly, carefully, humorously build this guy into being the hero of the movie.’”
Steven Spielberg’s instincts were right on the money. But famously, during production, the then-youthful director’s choices were constantly being questioned. “A few of us had a tremendous feeling about it,” the film’s production designer, Joe Alves told FilmInk in 2005, “but there was a lot of negativity as well, from the studio and even some of the actors. Richard Dreyfuss thought it would be a disaster, for instance. But we were most afraid that the audience would just laugh. On set, the shark wasn’t scary at all – it sounded like a bunch of pneumatic rams and cylinders. Even the crew were laughing at it, so it wasn’t until the film was mastered and edited, that we realised what we really had. The audience, of course, went crazy.”
That craziness famously pushed Jaws into immediate blockbuster status, with Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody returning for the better-than-you’d-think 1978 sequel, Jaws 2, where he’d developed into a more confident and standardly heroic lawman. Chief Brody (who is revealed – via dialogue only – to have passed away from a heart attack in the beginning of 1987’s execrable Jaws: The Revenge), however, remains that wonderful everyman, and that’s what makes him so great. “I try to cast people who are at least touchstones to the human race, that anybody can identify with,” Steven Spielberg told Ain’t It Cool. “I want the audience to say, ‘That could be me.’ That’s all that I look for in a movie that I go to see as an audience member. Is there any character in the film that I can identify with, and that I can experience these events through their eyes? That’s all I’m looking for…somebody that I can believe in.”