As the first victim of Bruce the Great White Shark in Steven Spielberg’s seminal 1975 blockbuster, Susan Backlinie made an entire generation fear the ocean and what lurked beneath the water. Where is she now, on the 40th anniversary of Jaws’ release?
Breakfast is the the most important meal of the day, but if morning swimmer Chrissie Watkins knew she’d be on the menu, she probably would have stayed on dry land. With alcohol and adrenaline running through her veins after a late night Amity Island beach party, the youngster stripped out of her clothes and dove into the gray, sparkling water. As her drunken partner dozed obliviously in the sand, Chrissie was about to die one of the most horrible, visceral deaths in the history of cinema — and you never even see her killer.
Watch a portion of Backlinie’s scene:
The actress who played Chrissie, Susan Backlinie, was no stranger to the briny deep. The then-28-year-old was a stuntwoman who specialized in animal training when she accepted the pivotal role in Jaws, although sharks were clearly not in her repertoire. Backlinie gave Steven Spielberg advice in her audition, telling him he needed to cast a professional so he could shoot close up. She recalled their conversation while talking to a local Florida website in 2011. “If you got someone who could do the acting and the stunts,” she remembered saying, “you could film closer. You can sell it better,”
Related: Read our complete 'Jaws' coverage
Despite her talent for drowning, acting was not to be Backlinie’s future, but she did make a few more movies during in her time in the Hollywood spotlight. Her animal magnetism scored her a role in Leslie Nielsen’s 1977 drama Day Of The Animals, about jungle creatures running amok, and she appeared in Charlton Heston’s sniper movie Two-Minute Warning, credited as ‘Pretty Blonde Woman In Crowd’ (even as chum in Jaws she had a full name).
Backlinie’s death in Jaws quickly became iconic. First she reprised her watery end in Spielberg’s own 1941, playing a swimmer picked up by the periscope of a Japanese submarine (“Be careful how you turn to the camera in this one,” she remembered Spielberg saying, referring to her topless Jaws scene, “You almost gave me an R rating last time!”). Later in 1981, Susan played a water ballet instructor in The Great Muppet Caper, a clever cameo which surely would have gone over the heads of most of the kids watching (although given that Jaws was rated PG on release, perhaps not).
Susan Backlinie, now 68, eventually became an accountant in California. But she regularly attends movie conventions and still enjoys her place as the most famous of Jaws’ victims.
You’d think Backlinie would be quite within her rights to never go back in the water after what she went through, but that would be underestimating one of Hollywood’s true scream queens: She and her husband currently live on a houseboat outside Los Angeles.
Watch a look back at the 40 biggest summer movies of the last 40 years below:
Image credits: Rex Features/Getty Images