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February 11, 2008

Bye, Bye, Roy

Roy Scheider passed away yesterday after a lengthy bout with multiple myeloma. At seventy-five, Scheider had proven his mettle on both stage and screen, and as both leading man and character actor. He was 75 years old:

Roy Scheider, a stage actor with a background in the classics who became one of the leading figures in the American film renaissance of the 1970s, died on Sunday afternoon in Little Rock, Ark. He was 75 and lived in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

Mr. Scheider had suffered from multiple myeloma for several years, and died of complications from a staph infection, his wife, Brenda Seimer, said.

Mr. Scheider’s rangy figure, gaunt face and emotional openness made him particularly appealing in everyman roles, most famously as the agonized police chief of “Jaws,” Steven Spielberg’s 1975 breakthrough hit, about a New England resort town haunted by the knowledge that a killer shark is preying on the local beaches.

Apologies to Spielberg, but Scheider's brilliance didn't exactly get a lot of notice in Scheider's most famous film of the time, playing against a mechanical shark. (Neither did Richard Dreyfus or Robert Shaw, for that matter; what a cast that film had!). He had already established himself as a powerful presence in Klute and The French Connection before Jaws.

The film that put all of Scheider's talents and energy on display came not long afterward was Bob Fosse's megalomaniacal tour de force, All That Jazz. Scheider essentially played Fosse, whose attempt to stage the musical Chicago -- and his excessive life -- nearly killed him. Scheider had to rely on his stage instincts, singing and dancing, while providing an absolutely gripping and sympathetic performance as a man who was difficult to like. The film culminated in a 20-minute death scene extravaganza with Ben Vereen, a dance number based on the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love", transformed into a Vegas-style number called "Bye Bye Life".

It's one of my favorite films, despite its excesses, or perhaps because of them. Scheider somehow made the excesses seem real. He could do that; he provided grit as an antidote to glitz. In later films, like 52 Pick-up and 2010, and as a supporting actor in RKO 281, Scheider's realistic and impassioned portrayals made the films compelling. IMDB lists two films in the can for release this year, Iron Cross and Dark Honeymoon. I'm looking forward to seeing both.

Bye, bye, Roy. You gave us everything you had, and we thank you.


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