“You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”
Steven Spielberg . 1974
Author Peter Benchley wanted Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen.. and learned his first lesson abouut film-making. Hey, kid, that’s the budget gone, right there…!
His next lesson came from the cost-conscious (LA talk for penny-pinching) Universal lowering the ante to the 1973 Death Wish director Michael Winner helming Jan-Michael Vincent and Charlton Heston.
Third lesson arrived with a young film-maker winning his second feature and immediately refusing such stars - or anyone "from the cover of Rolling Stone!” Steven Spielberg craved anonymous actors. “So you'd believe this was happening to people like you and me.” Not sure that Heston ever made the Rolling Stone cover. Nor Vincent. (He won the covers of After Dark, Bravo, Films Illustrated, etc). No matter. The new wunderkind would have his way.
Incidentally, Winner was not the director quickly deep-sixed when saying his opening shot would have the camera pull up from the sea to show the town of Amityville… and then the whale would come out of the water. That was (allegedly) Dick Richards, The producers pointed out that their project was not Moby Dick and they would be happier with a film-maker who knew the difference betwixt a whale and a shark. Richards was later known for such whales (seven in total) as Farewell, My Lovely, March or Die and Death Valley - his his own Jaws, minus any sea or whales but with a serial killer as Bruce. (Ironically, Richards and Winner would later both direct Robert Mitchum in films about Philip Marlowe)
And so it reached Spielberg, who had just completed The Sugarland Express as his feature debut for the same producers, Richard D Zanuck and David Brown, after various TV episodes and his tele-film breakthrough, Duel. “I wasn’t given Jaws. I asked for Jaws. I stole the galley-proofs off Dick Zanuck’s desk! I said: I can make something of this. It’ll be fun.”
Polishing the shooting script with Carl Gottlieb while in the heavenly suites and manicured surrounds of the Eden Rock Hotel in Cap Antibes, as Sugarland was competing in the Cannes festival a short boat ride away (oh no!) - and winning the Best Script award with his two other wrters, that was fun. Having to start Jaws when ill-prepared, due to an impending actors’ strike before script or sharks were ready, then shooting in foul sea conditions, with colossal mechanical 24ft sharks - named Bruce, after his lawyer - that rarely, if ever, performed as required, was an epic-sized migraine - as the 52 day schedule stretched to the 155 Spielberg stayed put on Martha’s Vineyard with nary a break… in case he’d never return.
“Frustration ws at fever-pitch. We’d go out filming in boats from 7.30am to 7pm, four miles out in rough weather. All we saw were the same 50 faces for five months. Brave men were reduced to tears and quiet men made big speeches to the sky. Man was not made to go out on the ocean 12 hours a day for five months!”
Or not with a polyurethane covered animatronic shark with hydraulics going pish-boo, pish-boo, pish-boo… The director really didn’t give much of a damn if the sun was in front, at the side or way back of any of the $150,000 Bruces, just so long as the damn thing pish-booed on-cue and correctly.
A visiting pal, director Brian De Palma, remembered some early footage. “Bruce’s eyes crossed and his jaws wouldn’t close right.” Little wonder that many of the crew called the film Flaws.
Martin Brody . Spielberg could never land Gene Hackman. Not for Jaws. Not for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Not for Raiders of the Lost Ark. “If I start to become a star,” explained Hackman, “I’ll lose contact with the normal guys I play best.”
Robert Duvall agreed. “No thanks - it might make me too famous!” (Anyway, he preferred Robert Shaw’s role). Spielberg always said that Duvall had encouraged him to make the movie that made him. Which is exactly why the young film-maker offered him the Amityville PD chief.
Oliver Reed, obviously on Michael Winner’s cast list, passed on Brody -somewhat sanitized from the novel.
Spielberg decided against Charlton Heston because of what actor Roddy McDowall called his Charlie Hero image in other Universal thrillers. Heston had swopped Moses’ bullrushess for bullshit at the time, saving the world - or LA, at least – in Airport 1975, Earthquake, Midway, Two Minute Warning. “It didn’t seem right for him to be wasting his time,” said Carl Gottlieb, “with a little New England resort community.”
Therefore, the director felt from the public’s point of view, Heston v the shark would be seen as no contest! (Rather like poor Vanessa Redgrave v Heston in what he did instead - Macbeth, on the LA stage. Heston swore he’d never work for the smart aleck director. As if Spielberg needed him! Well, he offered him 1941. Forever badmouthing Spielberg, Heston refused the war comedy, using the same excuse as John Wayne - that General Stilwell was unpatriotic, an insult to WWII veterans. Except the farce had nothing to do with WWII veterans... just the hysterical folks at home. Worse, in LA!
Finally, when impressed by him in The French Connection - and yet, worried he’d get just another tough cop guy - Spielberg offered Scheider the role. And Roy came up with the ad-lib of the year. All together now… “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”
“Since I was anxious to do that Jaws part and work for Spielberg, I said OK, fine, when Universal said they’d want me for two more,” Scheider told me in Cannes. “I ran away and did Marathon Man and Sorcerer. Finally, my time was up. I owed them two movies... At the time, Cimino and I were preparing The Deer Hunter. I was growing the beard you saw on Robert De Niro! Universal said: ‘You’re either going to do Jaws II or you’re not going to work.’ Legally, they had me. I’m just sorry that I didn’t get a chance to participate. De Niro was just fabulous. I’d have liked to have been as good.” Final irony: Universal released Deer Hunter.
Quint . Spielberg wanted the maverick director John Milius as the shark-hunting Ahab figure. Or… Robert Mitchum. Then, although allegedly quite scared of him, Spielberg offered Quint to Lee Marvin. He replied: “I’d rather go fishing!”
Universal preferred another maverick: Sterling Hayden, The blowhard thought the Jaws book was shit. Apart from booze, he had another problem. The taxman… All his acting salaries were subject to an IRS levy. As he was also writer, one suit suggested paying him union scale for his acting - but buying a story from him for a heftier fee. A brighter (or legal) suit said the IRS was not that dumb.
Paul Newman had easily refused the role, paying Spielberg back for rejecting him for Lucky Lady, the year before. (He should have thanked the youngster; Lady sunk with all hands). “He was 24 and he rejected Paul Newman like you’d crush a fly!” said the then Fox chief Richard Zanuck - now one of the two Jaws producers. Well, obviously… Spielberg was (a) anti-stars - when out to make his name, not bolster theirs - and (b) felt Newman was unsuitable for such farce as Lucky Lady. Spielberg next rejected the film, as well. If he had made it, he would never have agreed to repeat the boats and sea headaches on Jaws.
Enter: Robert Shaw, coincidentally, another actor and (better known) writer. (And, for that matter, alcoholic). He came highly recommended by the producers Zanuck and Brown… as if Spielberg had never seen Shaw stung by Paul Newman in The Sting. Or, his work in From Russia With Love and as Henry VIII and Martin Luther.
“They want me to do a movie about this big fish,” Shaw told his actor buddy Hector Elizondo. “I don't know if I should do it or not.” He wasn’t keen on the script, the director was unknown to him, he disliked the title (not every title is Hamlet) and loathed the book. “It’s written by committee, a piece of shit.”
Shaw then acted upon the advice of the favourite women in his life - his wife, actress Mary Ure, and his secretary. Virginia Janson. who he married a few months after Ure’s accidental OD death in 1975. (Shaw, himself, was dead by 1978). “The last time they were that enthusiastic,” he said, “was From Russia with Love. And they were right. So I took the part.”
As per usual money settled it. Instead of $50,000 offered to re-make Brief Encounter with Sophia Loren, Shaw was promised $100,000 for four weeks. Given the vagaries of the weather, the ocean and what Spielberg often called Bruce, “the great white turd,” the shoot lasted from May to September… an exceedingly long month.
Matt Hooper . The third and youngest rolerepresented the director. In the book, Hooper had an affair with Ellen Brody. Not on planet Spielberg. Because Hooper was the Spielberg-signature Common Man… even with the uncommon profession of ichthyologist.
The director’s first target proved, by his own admission, too picky. “I have a perfectionist mentality,” explained Jon Voght. “I want things to be right. But I’ve had a little duel over the years with that mentality. Because it can inhibit you.”
Dustin Hoffman, Voight’s Midnight Cowboy co-star, claimed he was also offered Hooper. He refused. Of course. (He rejected Fellini three times!). Hoffman and the eventual Hooper, Richard Dreyfuss, would be rivals for about six other films including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goodbye Girl, The Graduate, Kramer v Kramer.
Like Jan-Michael Vincent, Kevin Kline was a more Universal than universal choice. The way Kline remembered it, he said that he knew someone who was an oceanographer and thought he could play one. Spielberg was not impressed. He didn’t want someone who knew someone who is an oceanographer, he wanted someone who was (or could be) an oceanographer. (Or, indeed, ichthyologist). Then again, Kline hadn’t made a film, nor his name, as yet.
Also discarded by Spielberg, Don Scardino became another bespectacled hero in New York auteur Jeff Lieberman’s el cheapo horror, Squirm, 1975, trying to do for earthworms what Jaws did for sharks. D’oh! Scardino won a better reaction from Spielberg - about 20 years later! Don was then artistic director of the off-Broadway Playwrights' Horizon theatre, and suggested a partnership with the director’s Amblin company to fund five plays a year while developing properties for stage and screen.
Charles Grodin did no better. He was out of town helping a friend’s troubled play. As he said some time later, “It’s been 19 years and I just stopped thinking about it last Tuesday!" But Spielberg’s triumph had Grodin thinking success was guaranteed for King Kong, 1976, and learning a lesson that Hollywood was slow in taking on board. A ten ton gorilla in front of the camera is no substitute for a Spielberg behind it.
Even Erland Josephson was on the director’s wish list. Now that’s chutzpah! Offering the lowly ichthyologist to the great Swedish star (of 14 Ingmar Bergman films during 1946-2003). Josephson’s reply was inevitable. “I rather have intellectual battles with Liv Ullman than fighting with some shark.”
Finally, Richard Dreyfuss was suggested by George Lucas, after they made American Graffiti together in ’72. (Harrison Ford, Spielberg’s Indiana Jones, came from the same film). Like many other closed minds, Dreyfuss spurned the offer not thrice, as per legend - twice was enough. “I was an idiot!” He told Spielberg: “It’s going to be a bitch to shoot and I’d rather watch this movie than shoot it.”
Except when he felt he’d never work again after The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, 1974, he called Spielberg back “and I begged him” for the role. He became the director’s alter-ego, they wrote much of Jaws together and went on to make Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977. Sergio Leone thought Dreyfuss was “remarkable in Jaws and Duddy Kravitz.” Tom Stoppard added: “I’d rather see Jaws without the shark than without Richard.” Dreyfuss was Spielberg’s Tracy… until they re-hashed a Tracy hit, A Guy Named Joe, as Always, 1989, and then he sure wasn’t.
Ellen Brody . When production director at Fox, Richard Zanuck was greatly impressed by the young Spielberg refusing Paul Newman for Lucky Lady. Now Zanuck was co-producing Jaws and he was not quite so delighted when Spielberg rejected Mrs Z, Linda Harrison, for police chief Brody’s wife. (He had used the Zanucks’ son, Harrison, as Goldie Hawn and William Atherton’s Baby Langston in Sugarland Express). Instead he gave Ellen to a far more important wife. For more important to him… Lorraine Gary was wed to his discoverer and mentor, Universal studio chief Sid Sheinberg. In 1982, he would secure the rights to what became Schindler’s List for Spielberg - winning his first Oscar on March 21, 1994. (Ever the gent, Sheinberg made it up to Mrs Z. He elbowed Linda into the studio’s Airport 1975).
After her Earthquake stint at the studio, another Heston leading lady, Victoria Principal was apparently - allegedly - momentarily – IMDBly! - considered for Mrs B. A rather doubtful claim as Gary had no competition and was the first actor signed for the movie. Three years later, Principal became our guide into the festering world of Dallas.
Selectman Denherder and Charlie . Spielberg had wanted horror star Joe Spinelli and actor-producer Frank Pesce as the fishermen trying to hook Bruce at night. However, Pesce could not make the trip to Martha’s Vinegyard. Two locals, Edward Chalmers Jr and Robert Chambers, subbed as the buddies.
“I still have dreams that I’m trying to finish that picture,” said Spielbertg eight years on. “It was a joy to watch unfold and become successful, but it was a film that swallowed everybody that got near it. It really did! It was the worst experience of my life.”
The summer release changed his life - and that of Hollywood. He proved summer films had legs - even fins. The tumultuous box-office in 1975 - making Jaws the #1 film in history at the time - vaulted him way ahead of his peers old and new: Godfather Coppola and Gone With The Wind’s Victor Fleming. Hollywood had a new hero. And unlike so many inspired to try and emulate him, he’s still there. Cock o’ the walk. Undefeated champion.
[This page owes much to The Story of Steven Spielberg, published in London
by Zomba Book in 1983, and written by some guy named…. Crawley]