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Lee Marvin as Quint? Jon Voight as Hooper? Exploring 3 Alternate Currents of Steven Spielberg's Jaws
Let's apply the classic game of Hollywood "What If...?" to Jaws, the OG summer blockbuster!
As the title of George Hang's 1994 Tinseltown satire Swimming with Sharks implies, the world of Hollywood is nothing more than a collection of treacherous waters full of hungry predators ready to chomp a filmmaker to bits if they're not careful.
Steven Spielberg learned this lesson the hard way at the age of 27 when he got his big break in the form of a little maritime thriller called Jaws (based on the bestselling novel by Peter Benchley). You might have heard of it before. Once the arduous production got underway, however, the excited young director must have felt more like a desperate man adrift at sea, waiting for that terrible moment when the unforgiving waves of the studio system would swallow his career whole before it even began.
There were so many variables at play, so much at stake. Nearly everything that could have gone wrong did, and Spielberg enumerates all of it in Laurent Bouzereau's upcoming book, Spielberg: The First Ten Years (on sale this October). Vanity Fair recently got ahold of the book's lengthy Jaws conversation, which also delves into several of the "What If...?" scenarios — from a different director to alternate casting choices — that nearly made the first summer blockbuster unrecognizable from the form it eventually took.
Universal Pictures wanted to hire a different director for Jaws
The idea of a major Hollywood studio picking another director ahead of Steven Spielberg is almost impossible to entertain all these years later. But back in the early 1970s, the ambitious young storyteller wholeheartedly determined to carve out a career in cinema was something of an unknown quantity, with several television productions (and just one feature) under his belt.
As such, Universal Pictures — and, by extension, producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown — was understandably hesitant to place a multi-million dollar project into the hands of a kid barely pushing 30. The offer first went out to Dick Richards, 38-year-old director of The Culpepper Cattle Co., who ultimately did not get the job for one simple reason: he kept mistaking his maritime creatures.
"They [Zanuck and Brown] sat me down and announced, 'We want you to direct Jaws,'" Spielberg recalled. "I said, 'Whatever happened to the director?' And they explained, 'We had the meeting with him, but he kept referring to the shark in front of Peter Benchley as ‘the white whale.’ And Peter became very disinterested in having his shark called a whale.' And that’s how the project finally came to me."
Spielberg wanted Lee Marvin for Quint & Jon Voight for Hooper
We'll never know if Tom Selleck would've made for a better Indiana Jones over Harrison Ford, and the same goes for Spielberg's original casting choices for Captain Quint and Matt Hooper (ultimately played to perfection by Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss).
Like a zealous sailor scouring the seas for the catch of a lifetime, the director hoped to net Academy Award-winner Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen) as Quint. The only problem? "He wasn't interested," Spielberg said. "What I heard was that he wanted to go fishing for real! He took his fishing very seriously and didn’t want to do it from a 'movie' boat."
He then went after Sterling Hayden (The Godfather), who "had an Ahab quality about him," especially after playing a harpoon-toting whaler in 1958's Terror in a Texas Town. "I don’t remember why, but he wasn’t able to do the role [of Quint]," Spielberg added.
Zanuck and Brown eventually suggested Shaw, who had recently worked with the producers on The Sting. Spielberg was sold on the basis of Shaw's performances in From Russia with Love and A Man for All Seasons. "I said, 'Wow ... I wish I had thought of him! It’s a great idea!' He fortunately said yes."
As for Hooper, Spielberg initially wanted Jon Voight, fresh off the success of Midnight Cowboy several years earlier, but the actor declined to role of the bearded marine biologist. "I think we interviewed Timothy Bottoms as well as several other actors, including Jeff Bridges," the director recalled. "I was a big fan of The Last Picture Show  — I was going after everyone in the cast from that film, including Bottoms and Bridges. We got turned down or they weren’t available. These things happen all the time."
A pre-Star Wars George Lucas then recommended Dreyfuss for the part, having been impressed by his work on American Graffiti. As a great admirer of Lucas's coming-of-age odyssey, Spielberg sought a meeting with the young actor. Dreyfuss also didn't have much interest, though he was finally persuaded to board the film by his friend, Jaws co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb.
The alternates seriously considered for the role of Amity Island Police Chief Martin Brody are not as clear (at least within the context of Bouzereau's interview), though Charlton Heston, Robert Duvall, and Paul Newman have all been reported over the years. Spielberg would only divulge that he was looking into an actor featured in Serpico ("it was not Al Pacino," he stressed) and someone else whom he had seen in an off-Broadway play. However, the studio and producers wanted a bigger name for the part.
"I was having trouble finding someone I liked," he continued. "Then, I remember going to a party one night, and Roy Scheider, whom I loved from The French Connection, came and sat down next to me and said, 'You look awfully depressed.' I told him, 'Oh no, I’m not depressed. I’m just having trouble casting my movie.' He asked what the film was — I explained it was based on a novel called Jaws and told him the entire plot. At the end of it, Roy said, 'Wow, that’s a great story! What about me?' I looked at him and said, 'Yeah, what about you? You’d make a great Chief Brody!'"
Spielberg wanted to start the movie in the shark's throat
Despite his status as one of the most important storytellers of the last century, Spielberg is still humble enough to own up to the few less-than-perfect ideas he's thrown out over the years. One of his earliest fumbles revolved around the opening of Jaws.
"One of my bad ideas was to start the movie with the camera inside the gullet of the shark, shooting out toward the teeth with the mouth open," he admitted. "And I shot a sample of that and decided that this was a terrible and gimmicky idea that belonged in a B-movie. I did think it could work for the trailer — I tried it out, and again, it just seemed cheap, and I threw it out."
In the end, he opted for a much simpler creeping shot from the shark's underwater POV just before it snacks on poor Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie).
Nevertheless, Spielberg still got to fulfill that original wish — at least partly — for the scene where the Orca pulls out of the dock. As our three heroes set out on their grand adventure to hunt down the beast terrorizing Amity, Bill Butler's camera slowly zooms in on the vessel through the tooth-lined maw of a preserved shark jaw framing the top window of Quint's shack. The genius shot perfectly denotes just one thing: these characters are heading into the proverbial (and in Quint's case, literal) belly of the beast.
Published by Insight Editions and distributed by Simon & Schuster, Spielberg: The First Ten Years goes on sale Tuesday, October 24. Pre-order a copy for yourself right here!
Jaws (and its three sequels) are available to purchase via Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.
Want even more creature-based thrills? Head over to Peacock for Cocaine Bear, Q: The Winged Serpent, Van Helsing, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Golem, Piranha, The Void, and more!