When Roy Scheider passed away last week, there were a lot of blogosphere tributes paid to a terrific actor and, by all accounts, a wonderful human being, and it was extremely nice to see them all out there. I grew up with Scheider's work and to me he was one of the first real movie stars; seeing him in JAWS at the age of 9 and then in such other formative years faves as BLUE THUNDER (a little love for BLUE THUNDER, please people) he was unquestionably a big star to those of my generation. As I later began to discover THE FRENCH CONNECTION, KLUTE, MARATHON MAN, SORCERER, LAST EMBRACE and ALL THAT JAZZ my appreciation of his work grew immeasurably. The guy had an amazing streak of work throughout the 70s, in part through talent and in part through being the right guy at the right time. But when the 80s came around, what happened to Roy Scheider? While I'm the only one looking for a little love for BLUE THUNDER (come on, it's BLUE THUNDER!), not many people are talking about 2010, STILL OF THE NIGHT, THE MEN'S CLUB, or LISTEN TO ME when discussing Scheider, and perhaps with good reason. While most, if not all, big name actors (heck, all artists) experience dry spells, Scheider never seemed to get out of his.
It's a little late for speculation as to why this happened, but the fact is that it did happen and little did anyone realize that when Scheider did ALL THAT JAZZ he would be hitting his peak. Certainly he kept on working and he even found his way back to doing supporting roles in major films (like THE RUSSIA HOUSE and a memorable bit in Cronenberg's NAKED LUNCH) that didn't exactly restart his career. You'd see him show up in something like THE RAINMAKER here and there, but there were also a lot of direct to video movies and then eventually a lot of TV (numerous guest spots and SEAQUEST DSV). Towards the end there wasn't much worth talking about. People knew Roy Scheider, they loved Roy Scheider, but did they cast Roy Scheider? Did they call for Roy Scheider to get roles in new major movies? No, they didn't. They may have always remembered Chief Brody or Joe Gideon, but they forgot all about Roy Scheider.
Granted, this is not a call for everyone to go and seek out NIGHT GAME or watch JAWS 2 again; Scheider appeared in a lot of lousy movies towards the end of his career, no doubt about it. And the ones he did that have good reputations, such as John Frankenheimer's 52 PICK-UP, were only appreciated by a select few. What happend here is not all that uncommon; audiences have a tendency to abandon certain stars for no reason other than just "moving on". After 2010 (which did respectable business in 1984) he never starred in another hit movie, though he also didn't seem to get the big roles, either. Other actors of his generation who had similar success, like Hackman and Nicholson, did fine while Scheider's career fizzled for some reason. Maybe there were some bad choices made, sure, but even as we got into the 90s and this decade, the good parts still eluded him. Where were the legions of JAWS fans turned filmmakers, the Tarantinos to his Travolta? Did JAWS fanatic Bryan Singer ever offer him a role? It was known that he was battling cancer over the last few years, but he still found time to work (two films he shot last year will see release after his passing) and no doubt he wanted to. Why did this happen? What was the reason this excellent actor was left behind? I don't know, but the fact that it happend was a major shame.
This brings me back to ALL THAT JAZZ. In late December, Lincoln Center did a mini Fosse retrospective and JAZZ was the only film I was able to catch, having never seen it on the big screen before. It was a wonderful experience, especially since I was watching this definitely New York movie in the heart of the city, but more importantly, I got to appreciate Roy Scheider again after a long time away. I'd always remembered how good he was here, but on the big screen I was blown away and we're talking about a film that has a hell of a lot going on. The film itself is a masterwork (self-indulgent, yes, but that's essential to its success) and without Scheider it might have never been so. He wouldn't have been my first choice to play Fosse (and neither did Fosse; Richard Dreyfuss was originally cast, but left during rehersals), but god dammit, it's impossible to imagine ALL THAT JAZZ without him. Gideon is an incredibly demanding part, so physical and emotional, requiring Scheider to not only relate to us a man who thinks and moves like a dancer, but also to play a creative genius (which Fosse most certainly was), and Scheider unquestionably made that happen. He's also playing a rather unsympathetic character, a self-cenetered asshole ("a so-so entertainer, not much of a humanitarian, and this cat was never nobody's friend"), and making him such a fascinating center was as much Scheider's doing as it was Fosse's. And you contrast this with his work in JAWS, where he was the audience's surrogate and an extremely decent and sympatheic character, and you've got to wonder why more people didn't talk about what a great actor Roy Scheider was before his passing. I'm sure he would have appreciated it.
Like everyone else, I loved his work and then I passed him over. Roy Scheider made his mark, no question, but he should have had more. He deserved better.