The marathon man: 6 great roles of Roy Scheider

Scheider 1I’ve been a long time fan of American actor Roy Scheider. But it was only after a recent viewing of his performance in the Alan J Pakula’s 1971 film, Klute, I realised despite having seen and liked him in a number of films I knew very little about his overall career.

I recently reviewed Klute on this site here, so I won’t go into further detail about the film except to say that Scheider is great as Bree Daniel’s former pimp, Frank Ligourin. His is not a large role, just one or two short scenes, but his presence elevates the entire movie and gives it an additional layer of malevolence. That’s Scheider in every movie I’ve seen him in. He elevates and heightens what’s already present.

Scheider could act and had a great presence, his ropey, perpetually suntanned body and his slightly askew, angular face with the broken nose, a legacy of his time boxing in New Jersey’s Diamond Golden Gloves Competition.The first time I can remember seeing him was when my parents took me to see Steve Speilberg’s Jaws upon its release in 1975. That was probably his best-known role but it was just one among many. He got his start in television and gradually moved into the big screen. He would go onto to help put the meat on the bones of some of my favourite seventies films. Although he worked solidly until his death in 2008 at the age of 75, he was never as successful as he should have been and he fell out of favour with mainstream audiences and his career started to decline in the eighties.

Bad choices and few near misses certainly played a part. He was nearly cast in Robert De Niro’s role in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, but disagreed with director Michael Cimino over the direction of the script. Universal let him out of his contract on the condition he do Jaws 2, which was not nearly as popular as Jaws. He was reportedly offered the lead role in The Omen (1976) but he had to turn it down due to other commitments. He was also in talks to play the role eventually taken by Paul Newman in Sidney Lumet’s 1982 film, The Verdict.

But despite not being as successful as he could’ve and should’ve been he did do some fine work. The following are in my opinion his best roles.

Scheider

The French Connection, 1971

The story of two New York cops who stumble across a major drug importation deal with connections back to the French port city of Marseilles, is there anything about this film that doesn’t work? Directed by William Friedkin, with a screenplay by Shaft creator Ernest Tidyman, The French Connection is a perfect storm of seventies crime film. There’s the whole look, the amazing car chase and wonderful cast headed up by Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle and Scheider as his partner, Buddy Russo. Scheider is great as the slow burn to Hackman’s grenade with a badge.

Seven Ups

The Seven Ups, 1973

Not a particularly good film, but Scheider is great in it. He plays a tough detective, the head of an elite police who use unconventional methods to bust tough criminals. In the course of investigating who killed his partner, Scheider’s character stumbles across a plot to kidnap mobsters and hold them for ransom. The Seven Ups (the title refers to the jail time each criminal can be expected to receive if they get caught) was the only directing credit for Philip D’Antoni, who produced the 1968 classic, Bullitt and the French Connection.

MARATHON-MAN-1976_portrait_w858

Marathon Man, 1976

I love New Jersey crime writer Wallace Stroby’s description of John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man as a sort of Jewish revenge fantasy. Dustin Hoffman is Babe, a mild-mannered history graduate and keen runner who gets caught up in the international intrigue around an infamous Nazi war criminal’s attempt to recover a cache of diamonds stolen from his concentration camp victims and hidden in New York. Scheider plays Babe’s brother, Doc. Doc pretends to be an oil industry executive but is really a secret government agent who is tangled up with the Nazi (Laurance Olivier’s last role). Sheider is only in the first third or so of the film before dying but he and Olivier carry this film in the face of Hoffman’s signature over acting.

SorcererThe Sorcerer, 1977

Scheider stars in Friedkin’s 1977 reimagining of the Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic, The Wages of Fear. I have written about this film previously on Pulp Curry here.

AllThatJazzHandAll That Jazz, 1979

Anyone who says Scheider only works in support roles needs to check out this magnificent piece of filmmaking. Scheider is Joe Gideon, a serial womaniser, a drug addicted, chain smoking, perfectionist choreographer who is so brilliant at what he does people put up with his shit and fall over themselves to work with him. A thinly veiled biopic of the life of legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse, directed by Bob Fosse, it was reputedly hatched during a stint Fosses spent in hospital for a heart attack, All That Jazz is a Chinese box of a film featuring stories within stories. Columbia Pictures reportedly wanted Warren Beatty for the role of Gideon and Jon Voight, Alan Bates and Richard Dryfass were also mooted at various stages for the part. But Fosse wanted Scheider. Why, I don’t know given that Scheider had no dance experience and the part was different to virtually every other film he had done. We can only thank the Gods that Fosse persevered with his choice because Scheider is nothing short of phenomenal. He is also helped by a wonderful supporting cast including Jessica Lange as his muse/angel of death, Leland Palmer as his long suffering wife, and Deborah Geffner as his latest girlfriend. Seriously, I dare anyone to watch the nine-minute finale in which Gideon’s death is portrayed as an elaborate song and dance act to the song ‘Bye, Bye, Life’, and tell me that this film shouldn’t have made Scheider a super star.

52-pick-up-poster52 Pick Up, 1986

Everyone will have their favourite Roy Scheider eighties role. Some may like his turn as the chopper pilot in Blue Thunder (1983), or his performance as a hit man opposite Adam Baldwin in the strange 1988 film, Cohen and Tate. My favourite among his eighties oeuvre is 52 Pick Up. Directed by John Frankenheimer and produced by the infamous Cannon Pictures, it is based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, who also worked on the script. Scheider is utterly convincing as Harry Mitchell, a sleazy businessman whose life starts to unravel when he is blackmailed over an affair. In an effort to avoid shelling out $100,000 and prevent the fall out from the damaging the career of his politically ambitious wife (Ann-Margaret), he decides not to go to the police but deal with it himself. This approach turns out to a very bad idea.

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6 Responses

  1. It’s amazing how many stars (and directors) who did such notable work in the 1970s just faded from the scene in the 1980s. I reckon this was because 70s Hollywood was such a liberating atmosphere that many unconventional talents got their chance to be stars. Once the more conformist, blockbuster minded 80s came along, they were squeezed out.

    Hal Ashby always comes to mind when I think of this; the 1970s seem made for him and he could do nothing wrong but as soon as the 1980s his film career went totally off the rails and his life was tragically over before the decade was out.

    Scheider did better than most of these types in the 80s but no coincidence he never got as good a selection of roles post-70s. Glancing over his film roles from the mid-1990s till his 2008 death it looks depressingly full of anonymous dreck.

    I should add that I don’t think Scheider would’ve done better if he’d started in the 1950s or 1960s. He may have gotten some good supporting parts (and probably done better on TV) but to be the star of a blockbuster like Jaws? Thinking about it, it is quite remarkable that such a film had as its heroes Dreyfuss and Scheider; they were almost the polar opposite of what one usually expected to be the heroes of such films up until then.

  2. Marco,
    I think you make some good points. Some interesting perspectives as to why Scheider wasn’t a bigger star have been raised in the discussion of this post my Facebook page. One perspective is that the increasing focus – started by JAWS – on the summer blockbuster meant that in time only more conventional/handsome ‘stars (eg. Tom Cruise) would be given the lead in such movies. Another is his age. He was early middle-aged at the start of his movie career and by the late eighties was pushing 60. Someone also raised the possibility that after ALL THAT JAZZ he basically artistically exhausted and spent the next few years in a hangover state from which he never really recovered.
    Cheers,
    Andrew

  3. JAWS owes a good chunk of its lasting popularity to Scheider’s performance. Brody isn’t some iconic hero or tough guy; he’s badly frightened, uncomfortable, and only there because he’s driven by a sense of guilt/duty. In the sequal to 2001 he is equally a credible human being rather than some genius polymath. Maybe his career fizzled out a bit in the 80s because Producers/Directors started to become bored with putting real human beings on the screen.

  4. I went and saw JAWS with my parents when it first came out but not since, so I can hardly remember anything about it. I very vaguely recall Scheider as the town sheriff and that he was good. I think a re-watch may be in order.

  5. I’d add “Last Embrace,” “Romeo is Bleeding” and his perfect smug insurance company jerk in “The Rainmaker.”

  6. Christopher Dalton

    I definitely enjoyed Roy Scheider’s work in Marathon Man, Sorcerer, Blue Thunder, and 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Plus his work in the first season of SeaQuest DSV/2032.

    Would have liked to have seen him in a film with Harrison Ford.

    He is still sadly missed.

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