‘Jaws’ star dies at 77

"Bruce’s" first victim remembered by co-star.


Susan Backlinie, an actress and stuntwoman best known for her role as the first shark attack victim in “Jaws” and her subsequent depiction on the film’s poster, died Saturday at 77.

Backlinie opened the 1975 summer blockbuster with her premature and violent death, and set a terrifying precedent for the rest of the film with the epic scene.

On set at Edgartown’s South Beach, Backlinie’s character, Chrissie Watkins, leaves the group at the bonfire and encourages 19-year-old Jonathan Filley, who played Tom Cassidy, to skinny-dip with her.

She enjoys the ecstasy of a midnight swim for a few moments before she’s thrown back and forth through the water by an unseen predator, which viewers eventually learn is supposed to be a great white shark, played by the 25-foot mechanical shark nicknamed “Bruce.” Her arm later washes ashore, and instigates an Island-wide panic right before Fourth of July weekend.

“Susan was really something in the movie; a standout, and the work between Steven Spielberg and her was a phenomenal exploitation of a swimmer,” said Michael Haydn, actor and guitarist in the bonfire scene. “She really takes over, because she’s the first victim.”

Haydn, who’s lived on the Island for 39 years, and frequently plays guitar at Bad Martha Farmer’s Brewery in Edgartown, said that the bonfire scene took seven hours to film, shortly after Labor Day in 1974.

What “Jaws” meant to the country in the ’70s and ’80s gave Haydn “a level of subtle recognition” for his source music, which continued to play as Backlinie’s and Filley’s characters ran towards the ocean.

“She deserves the recognition,” he said.

The scene and her role in it scared people enough to keep them out of the water. “One of the main comments I get from everybody is, ‘You know you kept me out of the water,’” she told the Palm Beach Post in 2017.

The Daily Jaws, a blog dedicated to the novel and film adaptation, and shark conservation efforts, said the scene took three days to film.

“To create the effect of being pulled through the water, Susan was tethered to a line anchored to the ocean floor beneath her, and deliberately left unaware of when she would be submerged initially, aiming to elicit a more authentic surprise from her,” Daily Jaws reported.

“She was actually being tugged left and right, by 10 men on one rope and 10 men on the other, back to the shore, and that’s what caused her to move like that,” Spielberg said in “Jaws: The Inside Story” documentary. He added that Backlinie’s stunt was “one of the most dangerous” he’s directed.

She also told the Post that her screams were recorded at a studio later. Spielberg sat her down and poured water down her throat.

The scene was later spoofed in Spielberg’s film “1941,” a World War II comedy, where her character goes for another nighttime swim, and meets a Japanese submarine instead of a shark. The “Jaws” theme music even plays as the submarine emerges from the water to mirror her infamous scene.

Backlinie also acted in “Day of the Animals” (1977), “The Great Muppet Caper” (1982), and guest-starred in one episode of “The Fall Guy,” a stunt television show, in 1982.

Backlinie eventually retired as an actor and stuntwoman, and lived in a 42-foot houseboat in Ventura, Calif., called the Mary Frances, with her husband, said the Post. 

“I just spoke to her on Tuesday. It’s crazy how quickly life can change,” said Sean Clark, Backlinie’s agent and Convention All Stars owner, in a Facebook post Sunday. “I worked with her for about 15 years, and she was one of the nicest, most easygoing people I’ve ever dealt with. She will be missed.” Clark told reporters Backlinie died of a heart attack.

In 2005, Backlinie came back to the Island and attended the celebration of the film’s 30th anniversary, signed autographs, and posed for photos with fans. A three-day festival, Jaws Fest, was sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce and Universal Studios. 

Next summer marks the 50th anniversary of the film.


  1. and still, there is no date set for a 50th anniversary party…. whats the hold-up???

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