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Roy Scheider: Actor best known as Police Chief Brody in the blockbuster 'Jaws'

Lean faced and sinewy, the versatile actor Roy Scheider reached his career peak in the Seventies, when he received two Oscar nominations, as best supporting actor for his role as police partner to "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) in The French Connection (1971), and as best actor for his uncompromising performance in Bob Fosse's autobiographical All That Jazz (1979).

In 1975 he starred in the film for which he will be best remembered, Steven Spielberg's blockbusting saga of a rampaging shark, Jaws (1975), the first film to make over $100m at the box-office. Scheider's line in the film, "You're gonna need a bigger boat", after the shark's immense head surfaces only feet away from him, was recently judged the 35th best quote from American movies by the American Film Institute. Playing oceanographer to Scheider's police chief was Richard Dreyfuss, who said of Scheider, "He was a wonderful guy. He was what I call a knockaround actor – that means a professional that lives the life of a professional actor and doesn't yell and scream at the fates and does his job and does it as well as he can."

Of German-Irish descent, Scheider was born in New Jersey in 1932 and educated at Rutgers University, where he majored in history, then at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. Though a keen boxer as a boy – he acquired his distinctive broken nose during a New Jersey Diamond Gloves competition – his initial intention was to follow a legal career, but after becoming involved in college dramatics he determined to be an actor.

After serving three years with the US Air Force, he returned to Franklin and Marshall, where his performance in a production of Richard III was spotted by the producer Joe Papp, who asked him to join the New York Shakespeare Festival company. Scheider made his début with the group in 1961, playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. He spent several years in repertory, mainly playing classical roles, and made his film début in a low-budget horror movie, The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964). His second wife, Brenda Seimer, recalled that "he had to bend his knees to die in a moat full of quicksand."

In 1968 he won the Obie award for best off-Broadway performance, for his role in Stephen D, adapted by Hugh Leonard from James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In 1971 he had the distinction of playing supporting parts to both the main Oscar winners – Jane Fonda in Klute, in which he played call-girl Fonda's pimp husband, and Gene Hackman in The French Connection. Nominated as best supporting actor for his role as Hackman's long-suffering partner, Buddy "Cloudy" Russo, Scheider lost to Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show.

Though he was now a star, his next handful of films were unmemorable, but in 1975 he was cast in Jaws as Police Chief Martin Brody, with Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw. The tale of a New England seaside resort, the beaches of which are being plagued by a killer shark, Jaws was a brilliantly handled shocker, and the three leading men played off each other to splendid effect. The following year Scheider played the secret agent brother of Dustin Hoffman in John Schlesinger's taut thriller Marathon Man (1976), although he disappeared from the film fairly early, stabbed to death by a former Nazi (Laurence Olivier).

He made a serious career blunder when he turned down the leading role in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1977), considering the part implausible – it was then offered to Robert De Niro, who made it one of his greatest successes. Scheider instead appeared in William Friedkin's Sorcerer (1977), an unimpressive remake of the Clouzot classic The Wages of Fear, then became the only one of the three stars of Jaws to reprise his role in the woeful sequel, Jaws 2 (1978).

He ended the decade with two of his finest roles – as a government agent who becomes involved in a murder in Jonathan Demme's Hitchcockian homage The Last Embrace, and the womanising, drug-addicted choreographer-director in Bob Fosse's unflinching autobiographical musical drama, All That Jazz, though, unlike Fosse, Scheider was not a dancer. Sporting a Fosse-like beard, he gave a powerfully anguished performance that gained him an Oscar nomination, though he lost to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer.

After this highpoint, Scheider's career was disappointingly undistinguished, though Still of the Night (1982) was an efficient thriller co-starring Meryl Streep, and Blue Thunder (1983), about a lethal prototype helicopter, pleased action fans. He returned to the stage in 1980 to give an acclaimed performance in the initial Broadway production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, directed by Sir Peter Hall, and he provided the voice of the narrator in Paul Schrader's Mishima (1985). Moving into character roles, he played the dastardly Doctor Benway in David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991), a spy in Russia House (1990) and a Mafia don in Romeo is Bleeding (1993).

In 1993 he starred in Spielberg's television series Seaquest DSV, in which he played a submarine captain, but he received some media criticism when he made some highly publicised comments expressing his dissatisfaction with the direction the series was taking. He had become increasingly politically active in recent years, and was a vehement critic of the US involvement in Iraq.

Recently, he played the hero's cranky father in The Punisher (2004). He appeared in two films due for release this year, Dark Honeymoon and Iron Cross.

Tom Vallance

Roy Richard Scheider, actor: born Orange, New Jersey 10 November 1932; married 1962 Cynthia Bebout (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1989), 1989 Brenda Siemer (one son, one daughter); died Little Rock, Arkansas 10 February 2008.