Monday, February 11, 2008

Catch Ya Later...

About 20 years ago, I was at a local diner with several other recent High School graduates. I wasn’t the first to notice the movie star at the corner table, having dinner with a group of friends; but when someone at our table caught on, it was immediately brought to my attention – in much the same way that an errant dinosaur might be pointed out to a nearby paleontologist. Being a smallish town, the appearance of an actual celebrity in the decidedly low-key eatery didn’t go unnoticed for long, and he was soon set upon by both patrons and staff for autographs and pictures – for which he was all too happy to comply. Understand that I really hate pestering actors in public; I imagine coming off like Rupert Pupkin at worst, and a necessary evil that comes with celebrity stature at best. This time, however, I was going to make an exception. I waited for him to finish dinner and walk outside into the parking lot before sheepishly approaching him. I didn’t want to mention that movie – everyone mentions that one – so I told him that I thought he should have won the Oscar for All That Jazz.

“Hey, thanks! So did I!”

He asked for my name and we chatted for a few minutes, and to this day I can’t think of another actor as gracious as Roy Scheider.

Roy lost his fight with cancer last night at the age of 75. The expected tone of the obits will surely point out his most prominent role as a peak reached too soon – mentioning later parts out of kindness, but always with the caveat that “he could never escape the shadow of…”. Sixty years ago, his tough, chiseled features would have placed him in a radio car alongside Aldo Ray, chasing down a falsely accused Dana Andrews, or helping Richard Widmark to shove that lady down the stairs. In the 70s, however, there was room at the top for more interesting faces (remember please that Elliot Gould and George Segal were top stars). Early roles in Klute and The French Connection made his name, and though The Seven-Ups suffered from director Philip D’Antoni’s inexperience, it gave Roy his first leading role, and probably allowed him to get on Universal’s ‘Approved’ list for the role of Chief Martin Brody in Jaws. Though co-stars Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw stole scenes wantonly, Scheider’s Brody is the film’s heart; it’s his ‘What the Christ was that?!?’ expression that sold the concept of a 25ft shark. Beyond the hundreds of millions that Jaws has made, it’s a perfect film in both tone and execution, and Scheider deserves of a huge share of the credit.

When critics use terms like “everyman”, it’s usually a backhanded compliment. Let him play cops and crooks and assorted blue collar types, but leave the intellectuals to classically trained actors, not former boxers from New Jersey. But Scheider had a natural, earthy elegance that allowed him to move effortlessly from the driver of a dynamite truck in Sorcerer, to a shady government operative in Marathon Man, to a psychiatrist in the otherwise overripe Still of the Night. But his finest hour as an actor was probably All That Jazz, where Scheider played Joe Gideon, the self-destructive alter ego of the film’s writer-director-choreographer Bob Fosse. For most actors, the prospect of playing a very thinly veiled version of your own director would be a losing proposition – couldn’t he direct anyone to play himself? – but Scheider brought a terrific physicality to the role. We feel the toll that every pill and cigarette takes on Gideon’s system – Scheider makes us feel Gideon’s heart attacks in a visceral way that you just don’t often see.

As Roy got older, decent leading roles became scarce. The 80s had their highlights, though; Blue Thunder was his farewell to blockbusters (it’s tremendous fun watching him spar with co-stars Malcolm McDowell and Warren Oates) and 52 Pick-Up is a splendidly nasty take on the Elmore Leonard story. Roy eased comfortably into character roles, enlivening even the most obtuse pictures (Wild Justice, anyone?) with his dependable mug.

I saw him again a few years ago in a coffee shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was going to say hello, but he looked very tired, and was probably already suffering from the multiple myeloma that took his life yesterday. I’m glad now that I didn’t bother him – instead I just did what any good New Yorker would and pretended not to notice the movie star in the room.

Wherever you are now, Roy, I hope you’re on the biggest boat of all.