Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Roy Scheider

The Thinking Man's Action Hero

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Producer Robert Evans called him the "thinking man's action hero." Roy Scheider died Sunday, February 10, 2008 at the age of 75. He had been nominated for two Oscars and racked up an impressive list of credits, although in recent years he appeared in just as many straight-to-video action films. His filmography includes such bona-fide classics as The French Connection (1971), Klute (1971), Jaws (1975), Marathon Man (1976), Sorcerer (1977) and All That Jazz (1979). More recently he added a touch of class to films like The Russia House (1990), Naked Lunch (1991), The Rainmaker (1997) and The Punisher (2004). He had an unforgettable face and voice and a lively spirit that endeared him to his co-workers. I had the good fortune to interview him once, by phone, while he was sitting "out on my deck, Sagaponac on the Beach on Long Island." The following is a rough transcription of our conversation, on the DVD release of The French Connection. Mr. Scheider will be missed.

Jeffrey M. Anderson: The director William Friedkin said that you were the only member of the cast he was sure about. Is that true?

Roy Scheider: I think I was one of the first people cast. I remember doing a screen test with Jimmy Breslin. I guess he just couldn't cut it as an actor. There was a casting director there, Bob Weiner, who was working for Phil [producer Philip D'Antoni] and Friedkin, he saw me lose my temper and went back to Friedkin and said, 'I think I found the guy, but I don't think you can handle him.' We had this very civil meeting, and I thought I had a chance.

JMA: Apparently Friedkin spent the entire movie badgering Gene Hackman, to get an angrier, more authentic performance.

RS: I don't remember that. Gene, early on in the shooting, saved their arguing for lunchtime. For the first few weeks, I wasn't invited [to lunch], and I wondered what I had said. Billy had a task of convincing Gene that in no way did he possess any humanitarian traits. I knew Gene, and he was just looking to make sure his character was three-dimensional. In the movie now, he seems like a one-dimensional nut-case. If you watch his face, he automatically brings [many more layers]. One of the great joys of that film was working with him. It was a joy to go to work with him every day. We did a lot of improvisation and stuff we picked up on the street. The first time we did it, we weren't hard enough and we weren't vicious enough.

JMA: How did it work having the two real-life cops, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, on the set with you?

RS: It's a great asset to be able to turn to the character and ask them, what did you guys think when this happened. How would you guys react to this? How would you speak to anyone? We had intensive two-week city street training on this thing. Which is a real bonus... you don't usually get that much time. Going on the streets and going to shooting galleries and reporting back to producers what you [learned]. Eddie Egan was kind of an aggressive, loud, Irish guy. And some days his behavior was trying. And I said [to Sonny] 'my God, I know this guy's a good cop, but how do you put up with him?'

JMA: You reportedly asked Sonny to borrow his wristwatch and wedding ring...

RS: It just made me feel, for instance I didn't wear a wedding ring, and I didn't wear a watch like Sonny wore, and it just made me feel more authentic.

JMA: One of the most amazing things about this movie is that when characters run through the streets, they're really running, full-bore.

RS: How about doing it 8 or 9 times? Guys running full out. That scene was a very strong character-setting moment for those two guys. That they would run full out to get that one guys. A lot of that stuff was stolen. The cameras were hidden.

JMA: There's a lot of emphasis on the racist aspect of Gene's character...

RS: It's so politically incorrect, and I went to see it in Lowes 86th street which is kind of on the border of white and black. And when we came to that scene where I'm pissing and moaning and Gene says, 'never trust a nigger.' Well, I talked to a few African Americans then, and they said, 'we know that's what he thinks!'

JMA: Friedkin says that a lot of this was improvised.

RS: Let's say there was a basic outline of a screenplay, and we thought that [screenwriter Ernest] Tidyman got a gift, an Academy Award for that screenplay.

JMA: Friedkin liked you enough to hire you again, for Sorcerer, the remake of Wages of Fear. How did that come about? What was that like?

RS: This is the updated, extended version of [Wages of Fear], with many of the same elements in it. It was terrific. It was one of the hardest movies I've ever had to do. We shot a lot of it in the jungle in the Dominican Republic. We had to fly every morning from Santa Domingo, by helcopter, and after a while you think the odds are going down. I have my good days and my bad days. I was in the air force, and I flew for a while, before I finally washed out. I know just enough about airplanes to scare me.

JMA: You also made Marathon Man with Laurence Olivier. How did that come about?

RS: When I was making Jaws, David Brown had the galley for the book. And one day he gave me a copy of it; I wasn't working the next day and I stayed up all night and read it. I said, 'it's a page turner... too bad that one of the most interesting characters dies in the middle of the movie.' Having no idea that a year later I would play that part. Olivier was not in the best of health. He had just battled with prostate cancer, and was in a very weakened condition. He was a remarkable actor. You could see him slowly piece that character together. We used to call him 'Your Lordship' and 'Your Worcestershire,' and everything. He loved it.

JMA: I guess our time is up, but I also wanted to add how much I love Naked Lunch and your performance as Dr. Benway.

RS: Thanks. Writers tend to like that movie.

September 6, 2001

The French Connection (1971) [Academy Award Nomination]
Klute (1971)
Jaws (1975)
Marathon Man (1976)
Sorcerer (1977)
Jaws 2 (1978)
All That Jazz (1979) [Academy Award Nomination]
Last Embrace (1979)
Still of the Night (1982)
Blue Thunder (1983)
2010 (1984)
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) (Narrator)
52 Pick-Up (1986)
The Men's Club (1986)
Listen to Me (1989)
Cohen and Tate (1989)
The Russia House (1990)
The Fourth War (1990)
Naked Lunch (1991)
Romeo Is Bleeding (1993)
The Rainmaker (1997)
The Myth of Fingerprints (1997)
RKO 281 (1999) (TV)
Dracula II: Ascension (2003)
The Punisher (2004)
The Poet (2007)
Chicago 10 (2008) [voice]
Iron Cross (2009)

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