One of my loudmouth coworkers, who’s louder than I am, if you can believe it (he’s The Mouth from the South, I’m just “that scary knife guy”) was babbling about JAFOs and Blue Thunder, when I overheard that actor Roy Scheider had passed from this green Earth into the great cinematic beyond. Now Mr. Scheider will probably always be remembered as Chief Brody, the Amity policeman who had to deal with the killer shark in Jaws. But I’d like to go over some of his lesser known roles that are quite memorable and show off Roy’s acting chops and his legacy as an underrated and underutilized character and lead actor.
Blue Thunder (1983)
This is from whence the aforementioned “JAFO” term comes from. It’s what Scheider, as chopper pilot Frank Murphy, calls his ride-alongs. Just Another Fucking Observer. When you’re 12, as I was when I saw it, that is especially clever and you start calling your classmates in Mr. Olson’s 6th grade class that, and he is none the wiser. Despite spawning Airwolf, this movie was quite good for the time as a spectacular action flick with some of the best helicopter stunts until Terminator 2 had one skim under a highway overpass with inches to spare. The premise is that Scheider has to test out a new police surveillance chopper with a bunch of new goodies and a mini-gun cannon for riot control. He and his JAFO buddy overhear something they shouldn’t, and their superiors have to take them down, thus leading to a chopper duel vs. fighter jets above L.A. Not only does it deliver top-notch action, it also provides poignant commentary on the nature of government surveillance of the populace. What more could you want? Oh, it also has Warren Oates, another underutilized bad-ass who will be covered in a future blog entry.
The Seven-Ups (1973)
Sort-of an unofficial sequel to The French Connection, this stars Scheider as a cop on the bunco squad in NYC. No longer playing second banana to Gene Hackman, this lesser-known movie has a car chase as good if not better than the one in the bigger film. It’s not currently on DVD, but sometimes shows up on cable, and is worth your while for a good cop movie from the 70’s with some great shots of New York City during that period, with a Chevy Nova tearing ass around town chasing bad guys. Scheider is affable and charming as usual, with his reassuring voice and sly smile.
Marathon Man (1976)
This is usually thought of as a Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier film, but people forget that the entire plot is driven by Roy, as the murdered CIA agent and brother of li’l Dusty. His role is small but important, and his death scene is as touching as being stabbed by a white-haired Nazi with a sleeve dagger can be.
Of course this isn’t as good as the original film, Kubrick’s psychedelic masterpiece of monoliths, man-apes, and murderous machines. But as sequels go, it’s pretty damn good. Roy is Dr. Heywood Floyd, one of the best-named astronauts in cinema. He also gets to say the immortal line, “My God, it’s full of stars!” the best line of the movie.
Roy only narrates this movie, about a gay samurai novelist who kills himself after trying to return the Japanese government back to a time when the warrior class was appreciated, so he could be worshiped for his finely sculpted abs. Okay, it’s slightly more complicated than that- I suggest following the link for Roger Ebert’s review. He has dubbed it one of his Great Movies, and Roy’s black velvet voice must certainly have figured into his choice. I’ve actually seen this movie, and it is quite good, as far as gay samurai movies go.
Naked Lunch (1991)
If you thought the previous movie was the weirdest Mr. Scheider played in, you’d be wrong. This film of William S. Burrough’s infamous drug-addled novel, directed by David Cronenberg, tops the list. Who better to direct it? If all you’ve seen of Cronenberg is Eastern Promises or A History of Violence, I suggest you rent eXistenZ and most importantly, Videodrome. Roy manages to fit right in as the mysterious Dr. Benway, the purveyor of mugwump jism, the addictive substance that also serves as the muse for wayward writers. He was as good at playing the villain as he was as the shark-exploding lead.
All That Jazz (1979)
Joking aside, this is probably Roy Scheider’s best acting role. In an autobiographical film by hedonistic choreographer Bob Fosse, he plays the lead and dances his way through a life of cocaine and poontang. I must say that seeing this as a child on HBO I was scarred for life, in the best way possible. Seeing Chief Brody snort coke and dance in a leotard was more than my little eyes could bear. But I forgave him for it, and after seeing Cabaret, I know it was all Bob Fosse’s fault.
So there ends my brief eulogy to Roy Scheider, who burst onto the movie scene in the 70’s during a time of auteurs and daring Hollywood films, and died with two of the latest items on his résumé being direct-to-video Dracula movies. There’s hope to recharge his legacy, as his last two projects, Dark Honeymoon and Iron Cross, sound interesting. Better than SeaQuest, at least. Rest in Peace. You have shined so very brightly, Roy.
I’m putting Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s remake of the excellent film Wages of Fear, at the top of my NetFlix queue in honor of your unfortunate passing.