Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Roy Scheider 1932-2008
Many years ago, I read an interview with author Richard Matheson in which he discussed the film versions of his apocalyptic vampire novel I AM LEGEND (at that point, there were only two, 1964's THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, starring Vincent Price, and 1971's THE OMEGA MAN, with Charlton Heston). Matheson hadn't been happy with either film - or actor - and told the interviewer he always felt the perfect choice to play Robert Neville would be Roy Scheider, because he personified the normal, non-heroic guy forced to cope with extreme circumstances.
Matheson's description nails it. Scheider was a '70s icon to be sure, but he was also the Everyman hero, the audience surrogate in such high-intensity films as JAWS and THE FRENCH CONNECTION, the self-doubter who nonetheless manages to muster the courage and wherewithal to do what has to be done.
A Jersey guy who (like me) attended Rutgers University, Scheider earned his movie star looks the hard way. His famous broken nose was a reminder of his boxing years (months?), when he fought in the N.J. Diamond Gloves Competition. His Everyday Guy presence grounded - and validated - almost everything he appeared in. THE SEVEN-UPS, Philip D'Antoni's follow-up to THE FRENCH CONNECTION, is an evocative 1970s New York time capsule, but it's not a great movie, except when Scheider's on screen - fortunately most of the time - as the head of an elite police unit (in CONNECTION, his character is named "Buddy Russo." In SEVEN-UPS, it's "Buddy Manucci"). He makes all that follows instantly believable.
He does the same for the character of Harry Mitchell in John Frankenheimer's 1986 52 PICK-UP (one of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations, aside from its logic-free ending, changed from the book), as a philandering - but still loving - husband, who's forced to face up to his own transgressions and extricate himself from a bind involving some very tough people, turning the tables on them in a surprising, but believable, way.
Back in April 1998, I attended the dedication of the Elaine Steinbeck Stage at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y. The widow of John Steinbeck, Elaine was one of the first female Broadway stage managers, having worked on productions such as OKLAHOMA!, OTHELLO and others. It was a small theatre - less than 300 seats - but it was packed with celebrities who'd come to honor Steinbeck (who was in the audience) and perform on the newly renamed stage. Bruce Springsteen opened the evening with an acoustic version of OKLAHOMA!'s "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" (I've waited years for a tape of that to surface, still haven't found one) and closed it with a moving rendition of "The Ghost of Tom Joad." In between, there were dramatic readings from Roddy MacDowell and Gary Sinise, a performance from Betty Comden and Adolph Green and testimonials frorm Edward Albee, Terrence McNally, E.L. Doctorow and others. It was quite the night.
But I think I was most starstruck to see Scheider - sitting about three rows from the back, low-key as ever, looking dapper but slightly frail. As the evening ended and the mingling began, I considered making my way through the crowd to tell him how much I enjoyed his films, for the same reasons I mentioned above. By the time I gathered my courage, he was gone. And that I regret.