Although Roy Scheider got his start in the theater and won an Obie Award in 1968 for
Stephen D, his aquiline profile is most familiar from slicing its way across the screen in films like
The French Connection and All That Jazz, both of which earned him Oscar nominations. When we met, he had most recently finished shooting
The Men's Club and was about to begin rehearsals for 52
PickUp, directed by John Frankenheimer, with Ann-Margret and John Glover.
What made you want to be an actor?
When I was in grammar school and high school, I was short and fat, the last guy chosen on every team. That's a pain in the ass, always being last. Acting was something I could be always first at. I was a pre-law student at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. They happened to have a theater with a hell of a good artistic director who had been an actor and play reader for the Theater Guild in the Depression. I went to see a production of
Billy Budd there, and it knocked me out. I tried out for the next play, which was
Coriolanus. I played an eighty-year-old senator in that. I liked the atmosphere, I liked being there at night. I found a home. Everything in my life changed. All of a sudden, my grades were better, my relationships with everybody were better. By the time I graduated, I said, "Who am I kidding?" I didn't even say I want to be an actor. I had a feeling I was an actor.
By that time, I had won a couple of acting awards, like the Theresa Helburn-John Opdike Memorial Award. Theresa Helburn was one of the founders of the Theater Guild. I was brought to her apartment in New York, where she would serve these awful martinis. Then when I was in the Air Force, I used to get letters from her saying things like, "I know it rains a lot up there, be sure and wear your rubbers" -- like from my mother! I thought, hell, when I go back to New York, I'll walk right into the Theater Guild, and I'll be on Broadway in two weeks. Well, she died six months before I came back to New York.
At that time, the Theater Guild had just had a very successful tour in Europe with Helen Hayes and Mary Martin in
Skin of Our Teeth, Glass Menagerie, and Miracle
Worker. Now they were planning a tour of South America. Lawrence Langner, Theresa Helburn's partner, was holding auditions, and I couldn't get anyplace. One day I went storming into his office and said, "You mean to tell me that, if Theresa Helburn was alive, the two-time winner of the Theresa Helburn Award couldn't get a goddam job?" They handed me the tiny part of the telegraph boy in
Skin of Our Teeth, made me stage manager and understudy for about twelve parts, and I was off to a three-month tour. I was twenty-six.
After that, I went back to F&M to do a production of Richard
III. This English actor in a touring show nearby came to see it and came back raving about how it was the best Richard III he'd ever seen. He wrote a letter to Sam Zolotow, who was doing the theater column for the
New York Times. Sam Zolotow printed the whole goddam letter. Joe Papp read it, called me up in New Jersey, and had me come over to audition. I did my Richard III and wound up playing Mercutio in a production of
Romeo and Juliet with Kathleen Widdoes and Richard Jordan. That was my first professional job in New York. My understudy was James Earl Jones. After that, I went out to almost every repertory theater on the eastern seaboard, playing the biggest and toughest classical roles I could find.
Were you always good?
I was good and I was very adaptable. I could play young, I could play old. I could play Irish, I could play Russian, I could play Jewish. Some guys with blond hair and blue eyes are limited. But there was always a job for me.
When you went into acting, did you think you would also do movies?
Come on! I was a serious actor, not a movie actor. The group of guys who
were my contemporaries, we were serious. Movies?
Who was your group of guys?
The guys who used to hang around Jimmie Ray's bar on Eighth Avenue, like Pacino and Billy Devane. De Niro, he was younger. Dustin. I did a play Off-Broadway with Dustin called
Serjeant Musgrave's Dance, and Dustin got fired after two weeks because his North Country accent was lousy. He was devastated. He did
Eh? a couple of months later. Mike Nichols saw him in that, and a year later he's a fuckin' movie star. Bam! Like that.
Did that make movies okay for your gang?
By then, we were all starting to say, "Well, I suppose I could give it a shot..." While I was doing theater in New York, I did a lot of little pieces in things like
Paper Lions, and I played a summer-stock director in Star! with Julie Andrews. The first part that got me anywhere was playing the pimp in
Klute with Jane Fonda. That same year I did The French Connection.
Did acting in movies feel different from what you were used to?
All acting, whether it's television, screen, or stage, is a lie. It's an amplification, an enlargement of life, really. Harold Clurman used to say, "The theater lies like truth." In other words, you create a theatrical conflict, even on film, because it's scripted, directed, and photographed for a purpose. It's not real. You look at your favorite film performances, and you can see where the actors make deliberate, dramatic choices to get your attention or to scare the shit out of you. Those are all theatrical devices. You learn them by being onstage in front of an audience and making them work.
It must have been weird to do All That Jazz and have Bob Fosse there to do firsthand research.
It was weird. The movie started off being sixty percent Fosse, forty percent Scheider. Then it went to fifty percent Scheider, fifty percent Fosse. But after a while, it became seventy percent the character of Joe Gideon, which was a creation of both of us. That usually happens about the second week of shooting a film. The actor starts to click in to the character. Then the director starts asking the actor, "What do you think your guy would do here?" and you say, "I would do this, but he would do that." You start to talk about the character in the third person. You don't want to be yourself in every film. You want to create something. . . something more interesting than yourself. Which is one of the reasons why you become an actor, right? You want to create something more interesting than what you've got.
What do your parents think about your being an actor?
When they were alive, my father was not delighted by the choice at all. He
ran a service station in New Jersey, so he wanted his son to be a lawyer, of course. When I decided to be an actor, he thought I was out of my head. It wasn't until after I had enjoyed some success on the stage and won an Obie Award and done some films that he got over it. After the Academy Award nomination for
The French Connection, I started making some money. Parents worry about security. As soon as you start to make some money, they feel better. They know you're not going to starve to death and nobody'll push you around and you'll have life insurance like real people.
in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face, 1987