When recasting JAWS there were some really obvious choices we didn’t take. JAWS is an iconic movie and its characters have gone on to become action film stock types. You’ve got a cop, a fisherman, and a scientist, battling against an inhumane killing machine. The natural Simpsons lineup you’re probably thinking of includes Chief Wiggum, The Sea Captain, and Professor Frink vs Homer (… or maybe Santa’s Little Helper).
At Flim Springfield though, our choices only match half those roles. Once you add adjectives to JAWS’ lead roles the obvious choices just don’t hold up. Brody isn’t just a cop, he’s a quiet dad, with a real streak of fear in him. Quint isn’t just a skipper’s hat and a squint, but a haunted man invoking his death wish. Frink and Homer are probably as close to a bullseye for their roles as we’re likely to find in Springfield, but we need to put on some jug-band hoedown music and really think those other two out…
Looking back into the history of JAWS it is shocking to discover that the movie wasn’t really expected to amount to anything special. It was based on a pretty obscure book, the director was untested having worked mostly in television, and the cast were at best dependable also-rans or not-quite up-and-comers. The production went over time and over budget, thanks to a haphazard mechanical shark that barely held together. Nor did it have a complete script to shoot from. JAWS could have been a big wiff, or just another seat filler for the often empty mid-70s movie houses. Instead it became the template for the Summer blockbuster phenomena!
What JAWS the motion picture had going for it was a determined director with tireless energy who needed to prove himself. That little seen robo-shark became one of the movies biggest assets, guaranteeing slasher-movie tension and screams when paired with John Williams two note E/F tuba beat and orchestra sting. What really made JAWS though, was a cast that jelled to perfection, working out their parts on the fly with the an on-set rewrite man who helped the leads ad-lib their characters to life.
We agree the Homer makes the best fit for JAWS’ unnamed killer Great White shark. One only need recall his assault on Marge’s blueberry pie in “Lisa on Ice” to see him typecast as “remorseless eating machine”.
Richard Dryness is full of youthful energy and sass that feels effortless and just a bit too amped up compared to the rest of the cast; his Hooper is excitable, proud, smart, and too big for his britches. Professor Frink, modeled on Jerry Lewis’ mugging Nutty Professor, is the prefect mix of smarts and jittery ticks to play the role of Matt Hooper the moneyed scientist.
Roy Scheider gives a wonderful almost easy to miss performance as a tired small time civil servant. The obvious choice of Police Chief Wiggum just doesn’t measure up to even that basic level of adequacy. Wiggum is a grossly incompetent, corrupt, lazy, hack who’d have sided with Amity’s sleazy mayor and kept the beaches open, just so he wouldn’t have to paint the signs declaring them closed. Even in a normally peaceful town like Amity, Clancy wouldn’t cut the mustard. Digging deep into The Simpsons later years, its landmark 200 episode, we settled on single appearance character Ray Patterson to take Scheider’s role. Martin Brody’s defining character trait is being a competent public servant who just wants to do his job in peace. Had Homer not pushed Patterson so far, it is likely Springfield’s Sanitation Commissioner would never have relocated to Massachusetts and taken up the badge as seaside protector.
Toping every other role in the movie Robert Shaw delivered the performance of a lifetime and gave JAWS an emotional anchor. All of Quint’s scenes, even at first when he’s just in the background, are notable. Each time JAWS wants to up the ante Spielberg leaves Quint to mark the moment. When he first drags his hands down that chalkboard cutting through the chaos of idiots at the town hall meeting; the belittling sarcasm and threats as the Orca preps to leave Amity for the big hunt; his revealing story about the Indianapolis and the fate of its crew poignantly transforms a movie about a big fish into a story about people by making this crude ass ship’s captain relatable and humble. As much as JAWS is about a shark terrorizing a small town, it’s also about a man who has lived his life taking revenge on the ocean, realizing too late that this is the last battle and he won’t win.
Do you imagine The Sea Captain in that role? A man who still laments the loss of his Gameboy and can’t handle the destruction wrought by one customer at his all you can eat seafood restaurant? No, The Sea Captain isn’t up to the challenge of leading the Orca.
Groundskeeper Willie though has been wrestling wolves since childhood, and practically grew up in a soccer riot. He’s by no means a “Cheese eating surrender monkey.” Lets also not forget the steely resolve it takes to do cult deprogramming … well, maybe we should forget that, along with his inability to rescue baby turtles. Suffice to say, despite some character flaws, Willie is still Springfield’s most natural adventure hero. If you’re a fan of comic books, Quint and Willy are the equivalent of Wolverine or Snake-Eyes, the character you’re drawn to just because you just know they’re going to get sh*t done in the most awesome way possible—Importantly, JAWS even subverts that expectation.
JAWS isn’t necessarily a deep film, but it is well made. Speilberg and Benchley knew well enough when constructing their story that the characters needed have some inner life, least it just become a horror flick set in the water. Changes were made from the novel to make the characters people you’d want to spend time with and feel sympathy for. Rather than give the shark any character or an excuse to root for it, Jaws is nothing more than a force of nature—the inevitability of death. Without their attention to details like this, JAWS might still have been fun, but it wouldn’t have wound up so embedded in our consciousness.