Plenty legendary names dominate the conversation regarding ‘70s American cinema. And as far as I’m concerned, a name that should be continually thrown into that conversation is Roy Scheider. Scheider will forever be best known as the dutiful police chief in Jaws, but his impressive filmography (in the ‘70s and later), is stacked with iconic performances. With his ceaseless smoking, slender frame and piercing gaze, Scheider had an old school disposition that made him endlessly compelling. To put it another way: Scheider was featured in 14 films in the 1970s, and nearly half of them are listed below. That there is one hell of a run.
The French Connection (1971)
“Playing it straight,” is a term I throw around a lot on this site. And that’s because stillness is as fine a quality as an actor can bestow, yet one that is rarely praised. It’s why I’m as taken with Robert Duvall in The Godfather as I am with James Caan. Al Pacino’s work wouldn’t be nearly as impactful in Dog Day Afternoon were it not for John Cazale. And, surely, the best way to match Gene Hackman’s frenzied Popeye Doyle in The French Connection is with Scheider’s restrained Buddy Russo.
Popeye and Buddy are on opposite sides of the emotional spectrum, and thereby balance one another out. Popeye is by far the showier role, but Scheider is more fun to simply observe in the film. Watch how he slowly, routinely makes his way into Popeye’s shitty apartment the morning after Popeye has gone on a binder. There’s no pity in Buddy’s expressions, no hesitation in his movements. He’s done this hundreds of times, but he knows that if he has to work the street, there’s no one better than Popeye Doyle to have your back. Buddy Russo – the quiet support, the loyal soldier.
The Seven-Ups (1973)
The Seven-Ups is a sort of unofficial sequel to The French Connection. The film was directed by Phil D’Antoni (who won an Oscar for producing The French Connection), and stars Scheider as an unorthodox cop named… Buddy. The Seven-Ups is shot in the same stark and gritty manner as The French Connection, and even contains a thrilling car chase scene. Basically, imagine if Popeye Doyle had gone to France to chase Charnier (as he does in the actual French Connection II), and Buddy Russo was given his own task force in New York. That’s The Seven-Ups.
But the film is no paltry follow-up; it definitely stands on its own as a worthy (yet underseen) inclusion to American ‘70s cinema. This Buddy was Scheider’s first lead role, and he carries the film as a cop unafraid to bend the law for justice. If you’re a fan of films of this kind, I highly recommend seeking The Seven-Ups out.
One of the most interesting aspects about Jaws is that there really is no human star. Despite the superb acting abilities of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, the star of Jaws is the shark. Or, rather, the terror that the shark inflicts. The three men at the forefront of the film understand this, which is one reason why Jaws contains no grandstanding or cheap melodrama.
Essentially, the best way I can describe Scheider’s work in Jaws is that it is reliable. It’s a sturdy performance that doesn’t get lost in hyperbole, nor does it stay hidden behind the film’s horror. In fact, Brody perfectly encapsulates most of Scheider’s career in general. He was fine hanging back, putting story first, and delivering when he needed to. Sturdy, reliable. Scheider.
Marathon Man (1976)
Marathon Man is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s a staple of classic ‘70s cinema; a slow-brew thriller featuring unrequited love, diamonds, Nazis, and Dustin Hoffman at his very best. It also contains a wonderful supporting performance by Roy Scheider, who plays Hoffman’s older brother, a government agent named Henry (though Hoffman’s character refers to him as “Doc”).
One of the best scenes of Scheider’s career is the scene where Doc takes Babe (Hoffman) and Babe’s new girlfriend, Elsa (Marthe Keller), to lunch. The lunch begins well, but, much to Babe’s frustration, Doc sneakily begins interrogating Elsa, as he suspects she isn’t who she says she is. By the end of the meal, the audience has a much clearer picture of the three people involved. It’s Doc’s patient maneuvering that always gets me. He’s quietly intimidating; a foreboding presence. Granted, that’s likely the most low key thing Scheider does in this film, but it’s a fabulous lesson in character manipulation all the same.
William Friedkin’s Sorcerer is one of the best films about obsession that I’ve ever seen. At the center of the film is Jackie Scanlon, an outlaw hiding out from the New Jersey mob in South America. When word spreads that four men are needed to drive a large and unstable amount of nitroglycerin 200 miles through rough terrain, Scanlon is the first to volunteer. The money he’ll make from the job is enough to start a new life, provided he survives the hellish trip. As the film progresses, Scanlon becomes more tormented by hallucinations, rage, and greed, resulting in several thrilling set pieces that display the best of Friedkin and Scheider’s abilities.
After their success with The French Connection, Scheider and Friedkin had a huge falling out over the casting of The Exorcist. Scheider was furious that he wasn’t cast as Father Karras (who was portrayed flawlessly by Jason Miller), and he refused to work with Friedkin again. Sorcerer was the exception, a film plagued with production problems, least of all Friedkin’s own massive ego. Following filming, Friedkin and Scheider never saw one another again. That’s a shame, but problems or not, all that matters is what’s on the screen. With that in mind, Jackie Scanlon and his obsession will certainly live on.
The Best of the Best
All That Jazz (1979)
Joe Gideon wakes up every day in a fog of his own transgressions. In an attempt to lift the fog, he lights a smoke, pops some uppers, drops some Visine, and downs a few Alka-Seltzers before staring at his sweaty face and red eyes in the mirror and proudly announcing, “It’s showtime, folks!”
All That Jazz shows this routine a number of times, all in an effort to maintain Joe’s crumbling life. As one of New York’s most acclaimed theater directors and choreographers, Joe is a hard living perfectionist who spends his days prepping a massive stage production and editing his feature length film. Plentiful drugs and loose women are his pleasure, but also his poison. With each passing day, Joe’s health gets visibly worse, before he amounts to nothing more than a sad, withering man slowly fading away in a hospital room.
Bob Fosse, who co-wrote and directed All That Jazz, famously based Joe Gideon on himself. Noting this, Joe Gideon is one of the bravest performances I’ve ever seen. There’s really no redeemable quality in the character, and I’m so impressed that Fosse was bold enough to expose the worst aspects of himself so publicly. But this is certainly not all Fosse’s show, as Scheider goes all in for the character, erasing any and all signs of the restrained, patient Roy Scheider we know and love. Joe Gideon is a complete role reversal for Scheider, and, as such, the very finest work of his career. “It’s showtime, folks!” Indeed.
Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)
The Outside Man (1972)
Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York (1975)
Jaws 2 (1978)
Last Embrace (1979)
Still of the Night (1982)
Blue Thunder (1983)
52 Pick-Up (1986)
The Russia House (1990)
Naked Lunch (1991)
SeaQuest 2032 (1993-1995)
The Myth of Fingerprints (1997)
The Rainmaker (1997)
Better Living (1998)
RKO 281 (1999)
Third Watch (2002)
The Punisher (2004)
Family Guy (2007-2009)
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