Susan Backlinie, the First Victim of the Shark in ‘Jaws,’ Dies at 77

by 24britishtvMay 12, 2024, 7 p.m. 22
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Susan Backlinie, the stuntperson and actress who as a young skinny-dipper out for a nighttime swim off the coast of Amity Island became the shark’s first victim in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, has died. She was 77.

Backlinie died Saturday at her home in Ventura, California, her convention agent, Matthew Templeton, told The Daily Jaws website.

Backlinie was a nationally ranked swimmer and professional diver who had performed as a mermaid and worked as an animal trainer when she was hired at age 28 to play the skinny-dipping Chrissie in Universal’s Jaws (1975).

“I didn’t want an actor to do it. I wanted a stuntperson because I needed somebody who was great in the water, who knew water ballet and knew how to endure what I imagined was going to be a whole lot of violent shaking,” Spielberg said in Laurent Bouzereau’s 2023 book, Spielberg: The First Ten Years. “So, I went to stunts to find her, and Susan was up to the challenge.”

“The first thing [Spielberg] said to me was, ‘When your scene is done, I want everyone under the seats with the popcorn and bubblegum,’” Backlinie told The Palm Beach Post in a 2017 interview.

As the director described it in Bouzereau’s book: “She had a harness on. There were two eye rings in it and wires that led to two stakes on the beach [about 50 yards away]. Five crew were on one side and five crew on the other, and they basically pulled Susan. There was a ribbon hanging from the wire, and when it got to one of the stakes, they had to stop pulling and the other team took over and pulled the other way.

“What you didn’t want to have happen was for both teams to pull at the same time. For extra safety, she had the ability to quickly release the wire if something went wrong. It had to be perfectly choreographed to give the impression the shark was pulling her violently to the right and then immediately violently to the left.”

Backlinie worked on the scene for three days in Martha’s Vineyard. “We would film anywhere from 6 or 7 in the morning until 9, because of the light,” she said in an interview last year. “I’ll tell you, I was exhausted at the end of the day.”

Because of her, people never went swimming in the ocean again.

Born on Sept. 1, 1946, Backlinie and her family moved from Washington to West Palm Beach, Florida, when she was 10. She was a cheerleader and state swimming champion at Forest Hill High School; after graduating in 1964, she attended nursing school for a year.

According to the Post, she swam as a mermaid at the Weeki Wachee Springs tourist attraction in Florida and worked with wild animals in Miami at Ivan Tors Studios, home of Flipper on NBC. On a national tour with Tors, she shared a stage with Gentle Ben, the bear who would star on the 1967-69 CBS series with Dennis Weaver and Clint Howard.

Backlinie was shooting on location with a tiger in Canada when the Jaws staff found her. She told Spielberg: “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.’”

In the 2010 TV documentary Jaws: The Inside Story, she said that during her scene, “as I would feel my hips go to one side, I would just throw my arms in the opposite direction as hard as I could.

“I also had a pair of fins on because when they would pull me to one side, I would go under, so I had to kick with all my strength to stay above the water. It took a lot of energy, but I was in pretty good shape back then.” Between takes, Spielberg was in an inner tube beside her.

Jaws would mark her first movie appearance. Backlinie went back into the water naked and in the dark for Spielberg in 1941 (1979) — there was that ominous music again — only this time she encountered a Japanese submarine.

Backlinie also appeared in Two-Minute Warning (1976), A Stranger in the Forest (1976), Day of the Animals (1977) — she was an animal trainer on that as well — The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and a 1982 episode of The Fall Guy before retiring from stunt work.

She and her husband, Harvey, lived on a houseboat in Ventura.

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