Susan Backlinie, ‘first shark victim’ in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, dies aged 77

Actor and stuntwoman played the shark’s first victim, Chrissie Watkins, in 1975 classic horror

Nicole Vassell
Monday 13 May 2024 11:16 BST
Jaws re-released trailer

Susan Backlinie, an actor known for playing the first victim in Steven Spielberg classic Jaws, has died aged 77.

Backlinie had performed on screen throughout the Seventies and Eighties, with her most notable role being Christine “Chrissie” Watkins in Spielberg’s 1975 shark horror – the first person in the film to succumb to the marine animal’s terrifying bite.

On Saturday (11 May), her convention agent Matthew Templeton announced the news of her death at her home in California. Another agent, Sean Clark, announced the following day that Backlinie had died of a heart attack.

Speaking to TMZ, Backlinie’s husband Harvey Swindall remembered her as “the most amazing person he’d ever met” and added that he will “miss her very much”.

Backlinie was born in Miami, Florida in September 1946 and was a cheerleader and swimmer in her school years, before eventually moving to California to pursue a screen career.

Her scene in Jaws was infamously tricky to film, taking three days to complete as the crew figured out how to get the desired effect.

The scene shows Backlinie as Chrissie, a skinny dipper who runs along the beach before getting into the water for a swim.

Susan Backlinie as Chrissie Watkins in Jaws
Susan Backlinie as Chrissie Watkins in Jaws (Shutterstock)

However, her carefree water splashing is interrupted when she is suddenly pulled down below by an unseen creature – a great white shark. Chrissie thrashes around in fear before she disappears under the water for the final time.

Backlinie was placed in a harness for the scene. According to The Palm Beach Post, the actor was wearing a pair of jeans with metal plates stitched into the sides with cables attached.

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Interestingly, the actor’s screams and fearful facial expressions may have been a combination of talent and real terror.

The Daily Jaws, a site dedicated to the film’s legacy, reported: “To create the effect of being pulled through the water, Susan was tethered to a line anchored to the ocean floor beneath her and deliberately left unaware of when she would be submerged initially, aiming to elicit a more authentic surprise from her,”

In 2017, Backlinie shared some insight into Spielberg’s vision for the scene. Speaking to The Post, she recalled the director saying: “When your scene is done, I want everyone under the seats with the popcorn and bubble gum.”

Backlinie added: “I think we did that.”

Other appearances from Backlinie include roles in the 1977 natural horror film Day of the Animals, 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper and two episodes of the 1978 sci-fi sitcom Quark.

She also satirised her Jaws role in Spielberg’s 1979 film 1941, with her character being picked up by a Japanese periscope instead of meeting a bloody, shark-imposed end.

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