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Susan Backlinie, stuntwoman and actress immortalised as the shark’s first victim in Jaws – obituary

I’m ditching my suit to create a more relaxed mood for young players at Euros : Gareth Southgate
Published Time: 14.05.2024 - 08:40:25 Modified Time: 14.05.2024 - 08:40:25

The director Spielberg told her that ‘when your scene is done, I want people under their seats on the floor with the popcorn and bubble gum’ Alamy Susan Backlinie, who has died age 77, played the shark’s first victim in the unforgettable – and much parodied – opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning blockbuster Jaws (1975)

The director Spielberg told her that ‘when your scene is done, I want people under their seats on the floor with the popcorn and bubble gum’

: Alamy

Susan Backlinie, who has died age 77, played the shark’s first victim in the unforgettable – and much parodied – opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning blockbuster Jaws (1975).

The film begins with the camera prowling the seabed to the ominous opening notes of John Williams’s two-note score – Da-Dum... Da-Dum – before cutting to a group of young people around a campfire. Two break off and run towards the moonlit water’s edge where Susan Backlinie’s Chrissie Watkins swims naked out to sea. Suddenly, as the Da-Dum theme becomes more relentless, she is tugged sharply from below and, amid much screaming and thrashing about, succumbs to the unseen predator.

Susan Backlinie was an extra with the Central Casting agency in California when the request came for a young woman for a film being shot at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Though her scene lasted little more than a minute and required a minimum of acting ability, her agent recalled that it had not been an easy part to cast: “The girl had to be willing to work in the nude, had to be a good swimmer and able to swim in the ocean.”

With no real shark available that could be trusted not to devour her, Susan Backlinie was instead fastened to a series of cables, one group of men yanking her to the left and another yanking her to the right. “I had to kick with all my strength to stay above the water,” she recalled.


Spielberg insisted on the attack being shot six or seven times until he had the requisite level of writhing. Later he re-recorded the actress’s screams in the studio: “He sat me in a chair … and he poured water down my throat.”

(Susan Backlinie was not, however, the model for the famous poster in which an outsized shark with bared teeth looms up from the watery depths towards an unsuspecting skinny-dipper – that was Allison Maher.)

Susan Backlinie recalled Spielberg telling her that “when your scene is done, I want people under their seats on the floor with the popcorn and bubblegum”. Mark Kermode reported that when he first watched “poor Susan Backlinie being dragged violently back and forth by an unseen underwater assailant, screaming blue murder, I genuinely feared that I would lose control of my bodily functions.”

The actress herself was never afraid, however:  “You’ve got to remember it’s just a movie,” she said.

Susan Jane Myers was born in Miami on September 1 1946 and educated at Forest Hill High School in West Palm Beach. As a child she was a cheerleader and a state swimming champion. In her teens she swam as a mermaid at Weeki Wachee, a local tourist attraction, and in 1966 she married Henry Backlinie, a ranch foreman.

: Alamy

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