WEEKI WACHEE –
There was no orchestra music playing in her head as she waited for the assistant director to call “action.”
Susan Backlinie, who was in the opening sequence of “Jaws,” meets with mermaid Rebecca Webster, 19, Thursday morning at Weeki Wachee Springs. Backlinie returned to the springs where she worked for thr
Steven Spielberg was not yet known by the general movie public.
She had hooks on her cut off blue jeans with ropes looping through them. Men were on either side of her pulling on the ropes to simulate the violent jerking associated with a shark attack.
For all she knew she had been cast in a B movie.
Susan Backlinie, a former Weeki Wachee mermaid, didn’t think she was taking part in something that would cause a sea change in the movie industry.
She just needed a job.
Backlinie acted in one of the most memorably suspenseful scenes in the past 40 years of American cinema.
Her character was the first one killed in “Jaws.”
There is the stunned Roy Scheider – who had just seen the great white shark for the first time – mutter to his crew, “I think we need a bigger boat.”
Then there’s Backlinie, who was pulled in multiple directions by an underwater predator no one in the audience could see.
Those are the two scenes singed into the memories of moviegoers during the summer of 1975.
Adjusted for inflation, “Jaws” remains the seventh-biggest blockbuster of all-time, ranking one notch behind “Titanic” and one ahead of “Doctor Zhivago.”
Backlinie, 64, who is now retired and living on a boat off the California coast with her husband, maintains a cult following. She attends conventions. She hears the same questions over and over, but she never grows tired of them.
She recalled having to twist Spielberg’s arm to let her do the part.
“He wanted an actress to do it,” said Backlinie, who signed on because she knew she had the swimming strength pull it off effectively.
She told Spielberg during their first meeting he should hire her.
“You need someone who can do the stunt work,” she said, recalling the conversation. “If you got someone who could do the acting and the stunts, you could film closer. You can sell it better.”
In retrospect, she laughs at the thought of telling the maker of “ET” and “Schindler’s List” how to do his job.
He listened. It radically changed both of their lives.
Spielberg, in a recent television documentary that also featured comments from Backlinie, said he didn’t realize until late in the film-making process that fewer scenes involving the shark actually ratcheted the suspense.
Backlinie, however, remembered a confident, competent director taking the reins of a daunting film.
“He had everything pretty well planned out,” she said.
Her part of the filming lasted nearly two weeks. She went out in the water at Martha’s Vineyard each morning for the first three or four hours of sunlight.
She usually made it back to her hotel room by 9 a.m.
“No one knew it was going to be a hit,” said Backlinie of the film. “It could’ve been a bomb.”
Being a Weeki Wachee mermaid
Backlinie’s daughter and grandson live in Brooksville.
She visited them this week and the family took in a mermaid show Thursday morning at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
The park’s marketing director, John Athanason, introduced her to the crowd of more than 400. He asked whether any of them could recognize a certain famous scene from a movie.
In less than two seconds, three people already had called out “Jaws.”
Following the show, several former and current mermaids shook Backlinie’s hand. She’s one of the most famous members of the 64-year-old sorority.
“I never thought I’d get to meet you,” said a jubilant 19-year-old Rebecca Webster.
Backlinie swam at the park from 1965 to 1967.
At the time they mostly wore masks when they performed in front of an audience. Today, mermaids breathe into skinny, hand-held tubes.
The veteran diver and swimmer was in awe of what she was seeing.
“They are absolutely wonderful,” she said of the current mermaids. “To be able to do it without the masks … It’s amazing.”
The West Palm Beach native feels indebted to the park.
“If it weren’t for Weeki Wachee, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job,” she said. “I remember doing a ballet leg in the movie, which of course I learned here.”
Even though Backlinie went on to act in more movies and serve as a water and animal stunt woman during the next two decades after “Jaws,” she still considers being a mermaid her favorite job.
“You know when you come out of school and you’re at that age and you don’t know what to do? That’s where I was,” she said.
She submitted an application at the park without her mother knowing. When her mother found out, she took it better than expected, but she still gave her a stern warning.
“You need to be out of this house,” Backlinie said, recalling the speech. “You need to be on your own.”
The hiring manager told her mother to tell Backlinie to bring a suitcase with her. He already knew the collegiate swimmer was good enough.
Working with Spielberg again
Four years after Spielberg’s breakthrough, Backlinie reunited with him.
She spoofed her scene in “Jaws” in another film, “1941,” starring John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd.
Backlinie spent a lot of time in the water during her young adult life. She’s lived mostly in Florida and California. That meant she was comfortable not having to wear a lot of clothes.
A Google search still brings up photos of her in scanty swimwear.
In “Jaws,” she wore cut-off jeans, wet suit bottoms and fins.
From the waist up, she wore nothing. Her character, after all, was attacked by a shark while skinny dipping.
Before Spielberg started filming the “1941” scene with Backlinie, he pulled her aside and gave her a warning.
“Be sure to watch how you turn,” the director joked. “You almost gave me an R rating last time.”