Steven Spielberg’s Jaws has become a bonafide pop culture phenomenon since it was released back in 1975. It’s been the subject of books, documentaries, countless Internet articles, and millions of discussions held on beaches around the globe.
The film has been dissected and analyzed so thoroughly and so often that it’s hard to find new tidbits about the production that weren’t already common knowledge. Everyone knows Spielberg named the mechanical sharks Bruce after his attorney Bruce Ramer and that they rarely worked like they were supposed to. Most people know the shoot was incredibly difficult and went way over schedule and budget. That being said, there are still some interesting bits of Jaws lore out there that perhaps not everyone knows, and we’ve gathered up ten of them for your consideration.
1. Jaws’ First Victim Was a Mermaid
Actress Susan Backlinie isn’t instantly recognizable by name (unless you’re a hardcore Jaws fanatic), but she’ll always have a place in cinematic history for playing the killer great white’s first victim – skinny-dipper Chrissie Watkins.
What few people know is that Backlinie’s scene in Jaws wasn’t the first time the actress performed in the water. The future thespian honed her skills as one of the fabled mermaids at the Weeki Wachee Springs attraction in Hernando County, Florida. Backlinie donned a tail and performed up to three shows per day in the crystal-clear spring, delighting audiences with choreographed underwater gymnastics. The spring is fresh water, so there was never a mermaid vs. shark showdown, but clearly the time spent underwater helped her prepare for her biggest and most important role.
Oh, and contrary to popular belief, Backlinie did not break her ribs while being tugged back and forth in the opening scene. Despite the popularity of that rumor, the actress and director Steven Spielberg have never once mentioned her being injured during the shoot.
2. Jaws Was a Last-Minute Title
It’s hard to imagine Jaws with a different name after all these years – it’s really the perfect title for the book and the film. It’s short, it’s catchy, and it captured the terrible essence of the monster shark that serves as its antagonist.
However, author Peter Benchley talked at length about how he struggled to come up with a title for the book. He had multiple options – including The Stillness in the Water, Leviathan Rising, The Jaws of Death, and The Jaws of Leviathan – but he wisely rejected them all as being too “pretentious, melodramatic or just weird.”
The author finally settled on Jaws roughly 20 minutes before the book was scheduled to start production – and the rest is history.
3. Author Peter Benchley Has a Cameo in the Film
Speaking of Peter Benchley (who passed away in 2006), the author not only wrote the novel that inspired Spielberg’s film (and earned a screenwriter’s credit for his work on the script), but he also turns up in front of the camera.
Benchely makes his big-screen debut as a reporter covering Amity’s reopening of the beaches on the Fourth of July. He’s suitably pretentious in the sequence.
4. Robert Shaw Was not Spielberg’s First Choice to Play Quint
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw as Chief Brody, Matt Hooper and Quint – but there were other casting ideas floating around before those actors were cast in the film.
While it’s become fairly well known that Spielberg initially considered tough guy Lee Marvin to play the role of shark-hating Quint in the original Jaws, Marvin wasn’t the only actor on the shortlist for the part. Spielberg also expressed interest in casting actor Sterling Hayden as the salty fisherman.
Hayden had to decline because he reportedly had tax problems and any income from acting went to the IRS. A plan was hatched to pay the actor the guild minimum for his performance and purchase one of his written works for an exorbitant amount to circumnavigate the government, but it was eventually decided that this wouldn’t fool the IRS.
The actor didn’t get the part – and it instead went to Robert Shaw, who’d previously worked with producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown on 1973’s The Sting. We think it’s interesting to imagine Marvin and Hayden as Quint, but it’s really impossible to envision anyone topping Shaw’s masterful performance in the part. Things worked out for the best, it would seem.
5. Hooper Wasn’t Supposed to Live
Jaws is one of the rare exceptions where a movie is actually better than the book that inspired it. Peter Benchley’s novel is a pretty decent summer thriller, but it had several subplots and scenes that were wisely cut from the shooting script. One involved Hooper (who was the younger brother of an old flame of the chief’s wife) having an affair with Ellen Brody and was wisely jettisoned before the first draft was written – as was a plot strand linking Mayor Vaughn to the mafia as well.
That being said, Hooper died in Benchley’s novel after entering the cage with hopes of killing the shark once and for all. This carried over into the script and was even storyboarded, but fate had different plans for Dreyfuss’ character.
Shark experts Ron and Valerie Taylor were hired to shoot second unit footage of real Great White Sharks in Australia, but unfortunately, there were no real sharks quite as massive as the mechanical Bruce. To keep things to scale, a smaller cage and a tiny actor (4’11” Carl Rizzo) were brought in. The Taylors spent weeks trying to goad a Great White into attacking their miniature cage – and it finally happened when a 14-foot shark got stuck in the cabling.
The creature went ballistic, thrashing about in an attempt to free itself and the finished footage wound up in the film. There was just one problem – Rizzo wasn’t in the cage when the footage was shot, and the stunt performer had no intention of ever getting in the cage again once he saw it.
Without a person behind the bars, Spielberg couldn’t properly sell Hooper’s demise to audiences – so Hooper instead escaped the cage, hid on the ocean floor, and only returns to the surface in the aftermath of Jaws’ climax.
6. Some Very Famous Voices Provided Additional Dialogue in the Film
Back in the days before Jaws, whenever a filmmaker needed background chatter for his film he’d basically pull a stock library track for the sound department to use so that the audience could hear the surrounding inconsequential extras talking but not understand what they were saying. According to The Jaws Log author Carl Gottlieb, this was called “Walla” – because it was usually made by a group of people saying nonsense like “walla-walla” or “rhubarb, sassafrass” over and over and then distorted until it was unrecognizable as anything other than background noise.
However, in Jaws, Gottlieb and his wife Allison assembled a group of actors and made a track that’s original to Spielberg’s film. Even more impressive is that they got some people to record the dialogue who would go on to big careers in their own right.
Amongst the talent assembled for the ADR looping was Michael McKean (This Is Spinal Tap, Laverne & Shirley), Howard Hesseman (WKRP in Cincinatti), and Harry Shearer – who provides the voices of Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner and many other characters on The Simpsons.
Spielberg’s idea to use his own team of voice actors to record this background sound quickly caught on – and Gottlieb’s wife Allison formed the Allison Caine Group – the first postproduction ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) and looping group in film history.
Meanwhile, in another scene onboard the Orca, Ellen Brody radios to check in on the men – and the radio operator who connects Mrs. Brody with the boat is none other than Spielberg himself – a surprise vocal cameo that most people are unaware of.
7. Spielberg Wasn’t Impressed with the Jaws theme
John Williams’ music is an integral part of Jaws – and Bruce’s theme has become one of the most recognized pieces of music in modern culture, used to denote danger (either real or imagined) in films, television shows, commercials… well, pretty much anywhere.
In a strange twist, that music almost wasn’t used. Spielberg relates that the first time he heard Williams play the iconic tune on a piano, he thought it was a joke. The music, comprised of just two notes, was “too simple” in the director’s estimation. Williams kept playing it – and Spielberg kept listening and “suddenly it was right.”
We’re glad Spielberg gave Williams’ composition another shot – it’s impossible to imagine Jaws without it, particularly since that music (along with some yellow barrels) often served as a stand in to let audiences know the shark was around when the finicky animatronic beast wouldn’t work.
8. Quint Was Based on Two Real People and One Appears in the Film
Robert Shaw’s crusty old sea-dog Quint remains one of our all-time favorite film characters – but the shark-hating sailor in Benchley’s novel was inspired by Frank Mundus. Mundus was a fisherman who hunted great whites for sport in the waters off of Long Island (he holds the record for largest fish ever caught on rod and reel for a 3,400+ pound great white he caught years ago), and Benchley found the story of Mundus’ earlier encounter with a great white (reportedly 4,500 pounds, but never officially weighed) fascinating. He built Jaws around the idea of a shark that size coming into a community and not going away. Mundus served as a perfect inspiration for Quint – a man who was no stranger to hunting sharks himself.
The film’s version of Quint, meanwhile, bears more than a passing resemblance to Craig Kingsbury, a local fisherman who plays the ill-fated Ben Gardner in the film. Some of Quint’s best lines (including his statement to the town “It’s not like going down the pond chasin’ bluegills and tommycods…”) were direct quotes from Kingsbury – who also ad-libbed much of his own dialogue.
Still, perhaps his best quote was in response to the famous scene where his corpse pops out of a hole in his boat after Hooper has just pulled a giant shark tooth from the wreckage. Kingsbury would later say, “Now, how the hell that shark spit the head back in the boat after he bit it off, I’ll never know.”
Kingsbury was hired to teach Shaw how a character like Quint would speak – which led to him spending weeks with the actor regaling him with stories about killing sharks. Kingsbury’s efforts were integral in making Shaw’s Quint one of cinema’s most memorable – and quotable – characters.
9. The Film’s Most Famous Line Wasn’t in the Script
Jaws is filled with memorable dialogue – from Hooper’s infamous “well this was not a boat accident” to pretty much everything Quint says, the film is eminently quotable. However, there’s one line that stands out above all the others – a line that even people who aren’t particularly huge fans of the film know well.
When Bruce pops his head up out of the chum slick just off the stern of the Orca, Roy Scheider is stunned – so stunned that he backs up into the ship’s cabin and tells Quint “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” It’s a perfect conclusion to a great scene (we’ve just gotten our first real good look at Bruce the Shark – and we’re thinking the exact same thing as an audience), and the best part of all? Scheider improvised it on the spot.
10. Richard Dreyfuss Originally Passed on the Film
The casting of Jaws was almost as challenging as making the actual film. We’ve already talked about all the various choices for Quint before Robert Shaw landed the part, but now let’s take a second to talk about marine biologist Matt Hooper.
Spielberg’s first choice for the part was actor Jon Voight, but actors such as Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms and Joel Grey were also considered for the role. Eventually, George Lucas suggested Richard Dreyfuss. The actor had made a favorable impression on Lucas after he appeared in American Graffiti. Spielberg approached the actor, but Dreyfuss initially rejected the part, saying it sounded like a film he’d rather watch than make.
Dreyfuss soon had a change of heart, though. After attending a screening of his film The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Dreyfuss became convinced that his performance was dreadful and that no one would ever hire him again. He immediately called Spielberg to ask if the part of Hooper was still open and agreed to take the gig with the idea that he’d have at least one more chance to impress the world.
In a funny twist of events, Dreyfuss was also convinced that Jaws would bomb after they finished filming. He was completely wrong on that one.