Director Steven Spielberg wanted to cast a New York City actress in the role of the doomed skinny-dipper killed in the opening minutes of “Jaws,” which is getting a 40th anniversary re-release at theaters nationwide on June 21 and 25. His producers had another performer in mind: a stunt woman named Susan Backlinie, a member of Forest Hill High School’s Class of 1964.
Backlinie was tall, blonde, curvaceous and more at home in the water, Spielberg would find out, than a mechanical shark.
A Washington, D.C., native, Backlinie had moved to West Palm Beach when she was 10 years old and grew up swimming at Palm Beach County beaches. At Forest Hill, she was a nationally ranked swimmer, voted “Most Athletic” by her classmates.
When she met Spielberg in the spring of 1974, she made a sales pitch: “I sold myself to him, saying that I could do both parts — I could do the acting, and I could do the stunt.
“I said, ‘If you use me, you could get close-ups during the stunt itself. If you use an actress, she’ll have to hide her face. If you use me, you’re going to be able to see a difference in how the stunt comes off’.”
And so, it was into the water off of Martha’s Vineyard, and a year later, into movie theaters…and millions of viewers’ worst nightmares.
“He said to me, ‘When your scene is done, I want everyone under the seats with the popcorn and bubblegum.’
“So I think we did that.”
This Sunday in the Palm Beach Post’s Accent section, we’ll share more from our interview with Backlinie, including how she, Spielberg and a team of men on the beach achieved the violent throes that are the hallmark of her on-screen death.