A great generation of actors begins to fall

Allan Lamb

This past Sunday actor Roy Scheider passed away of cancer. He is best known for playing Martin Brody in Jaws (1975) and Captain Nathan Bridger on the very underrated television series “SeaQuest: DSV.”

Scheider, along with Robert Duvall, Harvey Keitel, Warren Beatty, Gene Hackman, Donald Sutherland, Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Gene Wilder, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, James Caan, Jack Nicholson, Christopher Walken, Jon Voight, Elliott Gould, Dennis Hopper, David Carradine, Michael Douglas, Tom Skerritt and John Cazale comprise what might be the greatest generation of screen actors American cinema has seen.

Scheider was the second of this generation to pass away, preceded only by John Cazale (Fredo in The Godfather) in 1978.

What distinguishes this generation of actors from others, particularly those of “the golden age” of cinema (the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s), is that they are the first generation of actors whose careers began completely apart from theater and silent film roots. Their acting styles and methods were shaped especially for film. Also, they are probably the first generation of actors to be cast for their talent and not just, and even in spite of, their looks.

The 1970s was also a time of great advances in cinematograhy and film style and by then 1980s teenagers had become the target audience of mainstream films. This meant special effects and dramatic high school-oriented plots dominated the screen and a new generation of baby-faced youngsters like John Cusack, Matthew Broderick and “The Brat Pack” became the big names in Hollywood.

As was Scheider’s, many of these actors’ careers are not over, but nowhere near the height they once were at 25, or even 15, years ago.

Most of them have sunk to B-rate comedies, television cameos and retirement plan commercials. The only exceptions are Robert Duvall, who has not lost his edge at all, and Elliott Gould, whose performances in the Ocean’s trilogy have gone mostly unnoticed. Meanwhile, Gene Wilder and Warren Beatty have dropped off the face of the earth. Likewise, many of the directors they acted for — Steven Spielberg, Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and William Friedkin — have also fallen into a general slump with the quality of their work.

Unfortunately, after “SeaQuest,” Scheider never really had the opportunity to give another memorable performance. Although I’m unsure of any collective unity these guys might feel, other than having starred in many films together, I think they should heed Sheider’s death as a reminder that their days are numbered. Perhaps, they should use the time they have left to use their talents, which they haven’t lost, for more worthwhile projects than the likes of Meet the Fockers or the Hallmark Channel’s unintentionally hilarious adaptation of The Five People You Meet in Heaven.

Contact all editor Allan Lamb at [email protected].