As the first victim of Bruce the Great White Shark in Steven Spielberg’s seminal 1975 blockbuster, Susan Backlinie (above) made an entire generation fear the ocean and what lurked beneath the water. Where is she now, on the 40th anniversary of ‘Jaws’?
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 dived into the grey, 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.
Her real name is Susan Backlinie, and although she was obviously not dragged to a watery death by a killer shark, the reaction you see on her face as she’s pulled under was real. After a few takes, Steven Spielberg decided Susan’s reaction wasn’t realistic enough, so he instructed the diver beneath the water not to tell the actress when he was going to pull her under – that desperate gulp for air is real, and it sells Chrissie’s death perfectly. It’s the reason so many of us still don’t think it’s safe to go back into the water.
Backlinie was no stranger to the briny deep. The 28-year-old was a stuntwoman who specialised in animal training when she accepted the pivotal role in 'Jaws’, although sharks were clearly not in her remit. Nudity, however, was – she posted nude, draped seductively over a real lion, in a 1973 edition of Mayfair.
Perhaps that’s what attracted Spielberg to her for the role – the idea of a beautiful lady being a hot meal. Backlinie herself gave the fledgling director advice in her audition, telling him he needed to cast a professional so he could shoot close up. “If you got someone who could do the acting and the stunts,” she told him, “you could film closer. You can sell it better.” Pretty solid advice, as it turned out.
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’ (tsk – even as chum in 'Jaws’ she had a full name). See below.
Backlinie’s death in 'Jaws’ quickly became iconic, and she was able to trade off her infamy. 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 camera in this one,” advised Spielberg, referring to her topless beach antics, “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 is now 69 (see her last year, above) and works as an accountant in her native California, but she still regularly attends movie conventions, is frequently recognised as Bruce’s breakfast and still enjoys infamy 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 – heck, we’d understand if she never so much as set foot in a puddle again – but that would be underestimating one of Hollywood’s true scream queens: she currently lives on a boat.
Image credits: Rex Features/Getty Images