When Roy Scheider died on Feb. 10, EW called up William Friedkin, who worked with the actor on two movies. In 1971’s Best Picture, The French Connection (for which Friedkin won the Best Director Oscar), Scheider played Gene Hackman’s police-detective partner. The small role was his big-screen breakthrough and netted him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Then, in Friedkin’s 1977 thriller Sorcerer, Scheider moved up to leading man, portraying a guy who drives nitroglycerin across the mountains. Here, Friedkin reminisces about the sometimes strained but ultimately successful time he spent with the star more than three decades ago. — Gregory Kirschling
On The French Connection, the casting director was Bob Weiner, who knew every actor around. One day he brought me Roy Scheider, who was playing a cigar-smoking nun in an off-Broadway production of a Jean Genet play — I don’t think Klute had come out yet. Bob Weiner brought him into my office and within five minutes I knew he was the guy. Roy said, ”Don’t you want me to read?” And I said, ”No, you’re the guy. I can’t imagine there’s anyone more right than you.” That’s very rare, by the way.
With Sorcerer a couple of years later, I had tried to cast someone else: Steve McQueen. Steve wanted me to change the script and write in a role for Ali MacGraw, who he was going with at the time, and he didn’t want to shoot in South America, he wanted to find some locations here and do it. I was very arrogant at the time, and I didn’t realize then what I realize now: that a close-up of Steve McQueen’s face is more powerful than the biggest landscape you could put on screen. So I told Steve to go f— himself, and then I sent the script to Roy. It wasn’t that I didn’t think of Roy right away, but Steve McQueen was my idol, and I wanted to work with him. But that didn’t work, so Roy got the script and he liked it, and we did it.
Roy was not easy to work with on Sorcerer. Now, that’s no criterion of anything — do you want somebody who’s easy to work with, or do you want somebody who’s gonna throw it on the line for a performance? Roy was a creature of mood. He would often go into these dark moods, and it was tough to get him out. He wasn’t like that on French Connection. But after French Connection, he did Jaws, he’d achieved some prominence. I really don’t know how to put this, but he became difficult. The French Connection, he would’ve lied down in front of an elevated train for me. Sorcerer was like pulling teeth with him. He’d go into a sulk and he’d be almost impossible to talk to, and a lot of it related to personal things that are too small to go into. But I’d go over and explain what we were going to do and he’d turn me off. Wasn’t even listening. Then we’d go do a take, and I’d have to keep correcting it and correcting it, and that would just sharpen the edge. It was a difficult picture to make, anyway, and people on the crew and in the cast were getting sick, gangrene, and having to go home. The thing was stretching out endlessly, and I think it finally got to Roy.
One of the other things that it might’ve related to was how he wanted to play Father Karras in [Friedkin’s 1973 film] The Exorcist, the role that went to Jason Miller. I actually thought he could do it, and I suggested him to Bill Blatty, who wrote the novel and the screenplay and was a producer. And he said, ”Oh no, Roy’s not right for that. If you want to do it, go ahead, but I can’t support it.” So I moved away from Roy, and I think he took that personally for a good many years.
But I don’t blame him for anything in our relationship, and my memory of the two performances he gave couldn’t be any better. I haven’t seen him for 31 years; I never thought of him for anything else and then our lives just drifted apart. But he’s underappreciated. He didn’t get the kind of attention he should’ve gotten for French Connection — and [1979’s] All That Jazz [for which Scheider got a Best Actor nomination] will stand the test of time. It really is one of the finest performances by an American actor in a movie.
For more on Roy Scheider, check out Gary Susman’s PopWatch appreciation of the actor and Chris Nashawaty’s analysis of Scheider’s film roles