How Martha’s Vineyard became the most important character in Jaws

An oral history of the most New England movie in history.

Forty-one years ago, a summer blockbuster about a big shark put a small New England island on the international stage. Jaws became one of the most successful films of all time, but it almost never hit the silver screen at all. Steven Spielberg may have been at the helm, and talented actors to the degree of Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw may have become the faces of the movie, but Jaws would never have made it to the summer of 1975 had it not been for the island natives of Martha’s Vineyard. Boston.com was able to catch up with some of the people involved in the film to hear their stories:

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Joe Alves: Jaws Production Designer and the man responsible for scouting Martha’s Vineyard for the film.

Kevin Pike: A Martha’s Vineyard newcomer who was hired as a laborer. He proceeded to become a career special effects designer for films such as Back to the Future and Fight Club.

Lynn Murphy and his wife, Susan Murphy: Local boat mechanics who were hired to work on the special effects team.

Tom Dunlop: Originally a summer resident who became an extra in the film. Now writes for the Vineyard Gazette and published The Chappy Ferry Book.

Rene BenDavid: A local islander cast as one of the friends of Chief Martin Brody’s son, Michael. He, along with the other boys, gets attacked by the shark in the estuary.

Kristen Kingsbury Henshaw: Daughter of Craig Kingsbury, who was hired for Robert Shaw to shadow. He became the model for the Quint character. Henshaw wrote and published a book about her father; Craig Kingsbury Talkin’.

Edith Blake: Local photographer who was an extra and wrote columns for the Vineyard Gazette. Blake wrote the book The Making of the Movie Jaws.

Part I: Finding the Vineyard

A year before Jaws began filming, Joe Alves was brought onto the project by Universal Studios to find a location. Simultaneously, Kevin Pike had a personal journey that took him up the East Coast to Martha’s Vineyard. The two would eventually meet as Martha’s Vineyard became the location that would serve as the film’s backdrop, but as so much more.

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Alves: In mid July or August of 1973, Marshall Green, the head of production [at Universal] calls me, and he said, “Do you think you can get the shark made?’’ I said, “I’ll try,’’ so he said we should take it off the lot. That gave me tremendous latitude to do a lot of things. I found [Head of Special Effects] Bob Mattey, I put a group together, I made a sculpture of the shark, then I decided to go scout the locations.

Pike: In 1973, I went to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and got a job as a waiter in a train station restaurant. During that year, Richard Nixon was president and put a price freeze on everything. There was a line at every station to fill up your car, so the season was pretty slow down there. I got a reference from the bartender: “Why don’t you come up to Martha’s Vineyard? I’m a bartender at the Harbor View restaurant, and you’d get along just fine.’’ It seemed like a good idea at the time. I left Florida a little early. I went up to my home in Connecticut and decided to drive out to Martha’s Vineyard, and see the bartender.

Alves: I met [Jaws author] Peter Benchley in New York, and I had a map of the East Coast. After we had designed the shark, it had a platform and a crane arm on a track. That would be floated out to an area to shoot. Basically, I was looking for the waters that were like 25 feet deep, I needed a bay with a clear view, 180- or 200-degree view, and I wanted a small tide change. With a big tide change, the tide comes down too low, you can see the crane, and if it came up too high, you wouldn’t be able to see the shark. So as you go north, you get to Maine, you have a 14- to 15-foot tide change. As you go down, it was more medium. I was also looking for a village.

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The Amity Gazette building in Edgartown, both in the film (top), and on Martha’s Vineyard in 2015 (bottom).

Alves: I had this map laid out, and I was talking to Peter [Benchley], and I said, “Well when you would write, did you have something in mind?’’ And he said, “Well, there’s Montauk with the fisherman, there’s Sag Harbor, there’s Stonington…’’ And so I’m looking out and running my hand up the map, and I said, “OK, well what about down here, the Cape Cod stuff?’’ “Yeah,’’ he says. “Go to Nantucket, my parents live there’’ —Nathaniel Benchley, who is quite a successful writer—and he says, “Have lunch with my mother, she’ll make you cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches.’’ So I said “OK, what about this island, Martha’s Vineyard?’’ He said, “I don’t think there’s really anything there.’’

Alves: I go up to Maine, come back down, go down to the Cape and go to Woods Hole, and I take the ferry boat to Nantucket. The weather is so bad the first time that we get halfway there, and the captain turns around. So I go back to Woods Hole, and I find out there’s a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, and it’s only five miles away. I said I might as well go to Martha’s Vineyard. So I get off at Vineyard Haven, and it’s really cold, and there’s one hotel open. I remember coming into the hotel, and there was a football game on the television. O.J. Simpson, who I used to like because he was a [University of Southern California guy] and I was a big USC supporter, and he was running for 200 yards to break the record for yards in a season. That was December 16, so that was the day I landed on Martha’s Vineyard.

I start driving, I go to Oak Bluffs, and it’s cute, but it has a little too much character, it’s a little too gingerbread. Then I go to Edgartown, and it is perfect. It’s just so pristine: the Georgian architecture and the picket fences.

I wasn’t thinking about two different villages, but then I went off to Gay Head, and I found Menemsha. Menemsha just knocked me out. It was perfect, there was an empty lot, perfect for where I could put Quint’s shack and make it outstanding. As I’m driving back to Edgartown, in between Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, there’s this big bay. I check my marine charts and noticed that it’s a bay, and it’s got a 25-foot depth and only a 2-foot tide.

The Amity Hardware building in Edgartown, both in the film (top), and on Martha’s Vineyard in 2015 (bottom).

Pike: I wasn’t making a lot of money. I really wasn’t making enough to pay for my room. And it was on a Saturday evening between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and I was bussing tables when this party came in, six men, and they were having a good time. There was nobody else in the restaurant but them, and to me that was very exciting. I could tell right away something was planned, I didn’t know what. They talked amongst themselves, completely devoid of anything else around them in the restaurant. Everyone else was finely sipping their lobster bisque and looking at the harbor lights, and these guys were ignorant of everything around them except their table. So when they left, one of the fellas left a bag at the table. I ran out to the parking lot, and they’re still out there laughing and talking.

Alves: I left my briefcase in the Harbor View Restaurant, right on the harbor in Edgartown, and I walked out without it, and he comes running out with my briefcase and says, “Mr. Alves, Mr. Alves, your briefcase!’’

Pike: He said, “You don’t realize you saved my life. You know what’s in there?’’ I said no. He said, “Inside there, there’s storyboards, do you know what those are?’’ I said, “No sir, I didn’t look in the bag.’’ “They’re like comic books. When you do a movie, you map it all out first, so you can tell what to do next.’’ I said, “Oh, are you going to make a movie?’’ and he said yes. I said, “Well what’s it about?’’ And he said, “It’s about a shark that’s going to eat your whole island.’’

Alves: I said thank you, and he said “You think there’s any jobs?’’ and I said, “What do you do? Can you paint?’’

Pike: Three days later I got a job on Jaws.

Susan Murphy: It was early 1974, and there had been a recession, and this is a seasonal community. A Hollywood studio, a name we all recognized, showing up talking about making a movie, was pretty exciting. So I think there was a lot of very keen interest by the year-round population.

Part II: Incorporating the island

As Jaws began filming in the spring of 1974, Steven Spielberg and casting director Sheri Rhodes made it a priority to inject as much local personality as possible into the film. They used islanders as extras and filmed in signature Martha’s Vineyard locations.

Dunlop: It has been said of Spielberg that he is about the best caster of local talent. Wherever he goes, he finds indigenous people to play parts in which they don’t really have to act. He did that all over the place: selectmen, boathandlers, the medical examiner was a real-life physician, and all that. On one hand, you have the landscape, which is utterly unique. It looks like no place else quite on Earth, and then you have the people on screen who make it.

Alves: Steven sort of got them involved as characters. He hired a lot of the locals. Sheri Rhodes was casting, and she hired a lot of the people you see in the office and the town meeting when Quint scratches the chalkboard.

Pike: This hot-dog Hollywood construction coordinator named Jim Wood had everyone outside line up, and we all went outside. He said, “A lot of you guys are carpenters and big slate roofers and boatwrights, but we’re not building the Vanderbilt mansion. All we’re going to do is build these sets, shoot them, and dump them. It’s not like we’re hanging around waiting for paint to dry here. When I look out there, you guys better be busy. I wanna see nothing but assholes or elbows. Any questions?’’ I raised my hand. He says, “What?’’ I said, “Can I be one of the elbows?’’ He says, “You’re with me.’’

BenDavid: I was 14 years old, and my dad was the harbormaster at the time, and when they came here to do the filming, they had three different sharks, and they were leaving them in the harbor, so [the production crew] got to know my dad quite well. My dad also owned a car dealership right out near the harbor, and he had cut a deal with Universal. They had used the back shop area to build a lot of their props, and then we got talking, and I had met Barbara Bass, who hired me.

 

Henshaw: They had repeatedly run short articles in the Gazette asking for people to come down to a casting call. People had encouraged [my dad] to go down there, and of course, he had no use for these people from Hollywood. Basically from the time I was very young, there were movie stars that came around down there. Most of them knew enough to take off their city clothes and sort of blend in. But over recent years, some of the celebrities who came down there liked to announce their presence and make themselves be known. They were generally pains in the butt. And so my father, I can recall him saying, “Well they’re pretty nice to look at. They’re like Angora cats, but most of the fur is on the inside of their heads.’’

Dunlop: They were getting underway here when my family arrived for the summer. I had seen that there were people who were pitching themselves to be extras, and they were casting roles all over here. The first thing I did after I got out of the car was scamper down to wherever the casting office was and had my picture taken and all that. And then, shockingly, they did not want me. Well, it simply meant that the Earth was suddenly rotating backwards. It was simply impossible.

Henshaw: So when [my dad] showed up for this cattle call or whatever, the woman who was the casting person, she said “I want you to spend time with Robert Shaw.’’ So I think over time, Steven Spielberg really liked the old man. They asked him to read all the lines that they had into a tape recorder, and I think Robert Shaw was able to emulate my father right down to the finest nuances of his speech. And my father did not talk like other people. You couldn’t figure out whether it was a New York accent or a wharf rat, or where he picked up this weird accent.

In addition to training Robert Shaw, Craig Kingsbury (left) also had a smal on-screen role in ‘Jaws’ as a shark hunter.

Somebody asked Robert Shaw in an interview, “Nobody can figure out where you’re supposed to be from,’’ and he says, “I don’t know I was emulating this Craig Kingsbury, who coached me. I’d just ask him all these questions about sharking and this, that, and the other thing.’’ And then [Jaws screenwriter] Carl Gottlieb would spend time with dad. Some of the language that was used in the movie came right out of my dad’s mouth, because he really did speak a very distinct and very different kind of language.

Dunlop: Within a few days, I sussed out where they were filming, out on the long stretch of beach. I got on my Raleigh 3-speed and rode out there, and in ways that are unimaginable today, that set was completely open. There wasn’t a guard to be seen.

At the end of that day, they told all the legitimate extras that they were expected back the next day and to remember which group you were with, where you were and all of that. I just started to wander off. They said, “Where are you goin’?’’ I said, “I’m not really an extra, I just showed up here.’’ And the guy gave me a look that was chilling, it was as if I had sort of stopped Hollywood for the year. He just shook his head and said, “What’s your name?’’ He wrote it down, and all the sudden I was being paid. I was rewarded for this hideous behavior, and for the next two days. So I was this renegade extra.

BenDavid: I was in the group of kids originally on the beach that had a sailfish. Chief Brody wanted his son to go sailing on the inside (of the estuary) because of everything that was going on. So we all walked across the beach to the inside, and we put the boat in the water and just three of us were out on the sailboat: myself, Chief Brody’s son, Michael [Chris Rebello], and then another friend, Tommy. We were out there sailing around, and that’s when the shark came from under the bridge and bit off the stuntman’s leg. As soon as it hit him, the shark came at us and knocked us over. I was sitting in the back of the sailboat, and it flipped us over. It actually didn’t even come near us, I actually had to push some lead off the side of the boat.

Chief Brody’s son got caught up by the shark and the stuntman because originally—and it isn’t in the movie—the stuntman was in the mouth of the shark. And it came right by us, and he grabs ahold of Chris when he comes by. He has Chris in his arms, and me and Tommy were crawling up on the boat. And I think it was too violent, they cut that part out of it. So what they showed was Chris floating in the water and then they showed Tommy and I pulling him up on the beach, because we grabbed hold of him and swam him to the beach and delivered him to Chief Brody.

Henshaw: People who saw the movie, they couldn’t believe it, they thought he was Quint. Here was this guy with sideburns, and he talked just like him. Somebody asked him, “Say Mr. Kingsbury, you must have made a lot of money on that movie,’’ and he says, “I’ll say—70 plunks a day.’’ They said, “Well you must have gotten more than that.’’ He said, “No that’s actually quite a bit of money for not doing much.’’

Blake: The beach scenes. Those dreadful beach scenes where we all froze to death. I have a feeling it was March or early April. It was much too cold to be in swimming. Our bathing suits would be all caked in sand and bitter cold the next morning to go back and do the shoot.

Pike: We [the set crew] were all relegated to the barn—we were the guys in the barn on Fuller Street. It was a boathouse they used to store in the winter. We had the Orca upstairs and the shark upstairs. We would throw really good ‘Impeach Nixon’ parties every Friday night. We’d hang out there and on the lawn next door and just kick back, and there was great camaraderie.

Henshaw: Shaw once said to him, “Jeez Craig, what’s this place like in the wintertime?’’ And he says, “Well it’s pretty deserted, and it’s pretty quiet.’’ And he says, “Well what do you do?’’ And he says, “[There’s] not too much you can do on an island anyway, you can either fish or you can fuck, and in the wintertime you can’t fish.’’ [Shaw] says, “Oh my.’’ And [my dad] says, “Yeah, the only virgins left on the island are second graders who can outrun their fathers and brothers.’’

So of course, Robert Shaw actually repeated this, about the incest, when he talked to Tom Ellis and this lovely blonde woman who was on the Channel 4 news. We were all laughing, we thought it was so funny. But one day, when they were on Main Street in Edgartown and they were filming, dad was just standing there talking to Shaw, looking up on the steps of the courthouse and there’s a judge, there’s a police chief, and then there’s one of the local lawyer types. Three of them are up there sort of watching all this activity below, and Shaw says to my father, “You know Craig, I think a lot of the times what you’re telling me just isn’t right on, I think you’re pulling my leg. But that trio up there looks incestuously derived!’’ He says, “Oh my god, that’s our judge!’’ They had a lot of fun together, the two of them.

The Chapaquiddick Ferry, both in the film (top), and on Martha’s Vineyard in 2015 (bottom).

Dunlop: In Jaws, [Brody and the Mayor’s Chappaquiddick Ferry conversation] is really the pivotal scene in the movie. Symbolically, it’s terrific that it’s really a journey from one side to the other. The police chief gets on with the goal of stopping the swimmers and shutting down the beaches. If he does that, the rest of the story does not occur. Just before they leave, someone else drives onto the ferry. The mayor, he gets on and he says, “No you don’t.’’ And because he gives in, another person dies who should not have died, and he takes on a personal responsibility to get rid of this problem on a journey from here to there that, by the time he gets to the other side, his life is forever altered.

They had to film it while they had to run the ferry. Carl Gottlieb, I think, saw the possibility of doing this scene that moved. Steven Spielberg always liked for the camera to be moving, whenever possible. But they faced a tremendous challenge in that they had to do it in one take, and while they were running the service for everybody else to use. Apparently they rehearsed it in the parking lot, they pretended and drove the car up and all of that. And then on the ferry, they’d say go, and the whole scene would be played out, timed perfectly, and they’d be doing perfectly, and someone would blow a line, and they’d have to do it all over again because there was no stopping. That scene was just indispensible to the film, and ingeniously, they decided to do it there rather than in an office or something.

Part III: Problems with the filming

While the land locations for Jaws were a perfect match, the beach and ocean scenes presented great difficulty. As a result, production went more than 100 days over schedule, and the film was in danger of never being completed at all.

Alves: When I scouted the location in January, the beach was empty, but come June or July, it was just loaded with sailboats. Steven was very firm that he didn’t want to see any other boats, because he wanted them to be isolated. That’s why in the movie, Quint breaks the radio—he wants to solve the problem without any interference. That gave us a bit of a difficult time, moving the boats out of the way. Some people cooperated, and others were a bit more stubborn.

The Amity Marina in Chillmark where Quint’s shack was built, both in the film (top), and on Martha’s Vineyard in 2015 (bottom).

Blake: There were a hell of a lot of struggles, struggles from A to Z. They didn’t know anything about the island, they had two people cast for every part, because some were union and some were not. They didn’t know how to sail boats. It was ridiculous.

Lynn Murphy: I’m a marine mechanic, a boat mechanic around the waterfront. They kept bugging me about going to work for them, but I couldn’t let my customers go and just jump on the bandwagon. So it was quite a while, they waited a while before I came aboard. But when I started working, they realized that they were really getting something because they didn’t know one end of a boat from another.

Alves: The second biggest problem I had was with the Boston Teamsters. Billy Bratton was [a] head Teamster, in fact he was indicted later. But they were very, very rough, and you had to be very very careful to mess with him. I remember I asked, can I use your driver? He was just a driver who took people to the boat, and he sat there all day until they came back. But I found to go to the beach when we were shooting, it was easier to use a bicycle, so I bought this nice 10-speed bicycle from the bicycle store in Edgartown. I would bicycle to the location, and Billy says, “What are you doing?’’ I said, “I’m bicycling.’’ He said “You have a driver, you have to use your driver.’’ I said, “Yeah but all of the traffic, I can do it with a bike much quicker.’’ He said “You have to use your driver.’’ I said, “OK I’ll tell you what. My driver can follow me in my bicycle.’’ He said, “You’re kidding.’’ So I literally got on my bike, and he followed me, and all the traffic would build up behind.

That went on for a while, and it got to be a huge thing. Later, when we did Jaws 2, we were only there for a couple of weeks and Billy Bratton comes up to me and says, “How come you’re only here for a couple of weeks, why aren’t you shooting the whole movie here?’’ And I said, “Well Billy, it’s because of you.’’ Of course I was joking, but I just wanted to give him a hard time.

Susan Murphy: We worked primarily with the shark, towing the sea sled and the fins. And then because the equipment was designed with the thought that it would be in the water for a couple of days, they’d get all the shots, and they’d be done with it. But weather was a factor, the tides were a factor, all those things. And the equipment ended up submerged for longer than they had planned. Of course, the minute it went into salt water, it started to corrode, and it led to all of the problems.

Blake: It was a wonderful summer for those of us who were involved. Those of us who weren’t involved hated it. They were blocking traffic like mad. Moving houses to different locations, and they had honey wagons sitting around and big huge trucks that carried all of the electrical equipment.

Part IV: How the locals stepped in to save it

Just as hope was fading, and the fall was fast approaching, the Martha’s Vineyard natives stepped in to help, working specifically on the ocean scenes. For the Hollywood film crew, it was one disaster after another, but for the locals, the temperamental Atlantic Ocean was second nature.

Lynn Murphy: [The film crew] used the island people, and they stuck right with them. They got integrated and fell right in line with the way we did things. We pulled them in right with us, “Just do this, or do that.’’ We had Joe Alves jump in most of the time, and he’d go right into it, he didn’t care.

BenDavid: My dad owned the harpoon gun that Robert Shaw used in the movie, the one they used to shoot the shark. I think he just let them borrow it, he didn’t charge them for it or anything.

Dunlop: I was here all summer long, and it was clear to me and clear to everyone that things had officially spun out of control. They couldn’t make the shark work, the weather was bad, it was far more ambitious in terms of their vision, the technical aspects. Just simply making things work on the Atlantic Ocean—the winds, the tides, the corrosion—this is just an enemy. The great fortune that they had, and what saved the film by all account, were the island tradesmen here who knew how to make this work. They were the ones who knew the tides, they knew the corrosive power of the ocean, they knew the winds, they made things go. It was those guys who, in helping and assisting the creative team from Hollywood, saved the day.

The Amity Police Station in Edgartown, both in the film (top), and on Martha’s Vineyard in 2015 (bottom).

Part V: The legacy of Jaws on the Vineyard

Forty years later, Jaws remains a summer classic, and Martha’s Vineyard continues to stand out as the setting for vacationland Amity. The New England personality of the island is unmatched, leading many to remark that Martha’s Vineyard itself is a character in Jaws.

Susan Murphy: Who would’ve ever thought, 40 years later, we’re still taking about Jaws?

Alves: Walter Cronkite had a boat in Martha’s Vineyard, and he had his boat in Edgartown harbor, and I remember we were testing the shark, and I almost hit his boat. So when I met him, I was just talking about Jaws, and he said, “We used to sneak around to watch you guys shoot’’— because he didn’t want to be recognized. I thought that it was funny because we were so concerned about the important people that lived there, and they were all fascinated by the shooting.

BenDavid: I can remember the times when Steven would come say to us, “Hey I need some quahogs’’ So all us kids would go out quahogging, bring him back some, and talk with him.

Henshaw: Steven Spielberg said to him one time, “You know Craig, I’m thinking of remaking The Old Man and the Sea, what would you think about playing the old man?’’ And he says, “Jesus Christ, what kind of an idiot goes out, catches a fish, and gets dragged through the water, and then [the fish] gets eaten [by sharks]?’’ He says, “Hell no, I’m not going on that fishing trip, forget it. I’m not losing a fish, no way.’’

Unclear of the concept is probably an understatement for my father. Maybe if he had said, “You can keep the fish, and sell it for 10 cents a pound,’’ maybe my old man would’ve said, “OK, Steven, let’s do it.’’

The Amity Town Hall in Edgartown, seen only in the television edit of the film (top), and on Martha’s Vineyard in 2015 (bottom).

Pike: Martha’s Vineyard unto itself has its own character and its own people and its own architecture. It’s quaint, it’s beautiful, it’s comfortable, and I enjoyed every minute I spent there.

Dunlop: So many extraordinary things have happened here. It’s not just one president who decided to make this his vacation spot, it was two. When you have a car accident over on the Dike Bridge, it’s not any old car accident, it’s that car accident, it’s a world-changing event. I think one of the things that gets lost is that jaws became Jaws, but nobody forecast going into it that it was going to turn out to be what it was. Some summertime B-movie thriller shows up with some outsized ambitions: Nobody knew that it was going to become the most successful movie of all time.

Susan Murphy: It worked just enough to make a great movie.

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