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

“When your scene is done, I want everyone under the seats,” Steven Spielberg told the stuntwoman

An older woman stands in a covered area next to a poster for Jaws on DVD. She has light-toned skin and blond hair.
"Jaws" actress/stuntwoman Susan Backlinie at "Jaws" Fest celebrating the Jaws 30th Anniversary Edition DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment. (Photo by Chris Polk/FilmMagic for Universal Studio Home Video/Getty Images)

Susan Backlinie, the stuntwoman who played the first person to be devoured by the shark in “Jaws,” has died at 77 years old, her agent told fan site “The Daily Jaws.”

Her passing comes 50 years to the month after she worked with director Steven Spielberg on what would become one of the most infamous and terrifying death scenes in movie history. In the opening scene of “Jaws,” Backlinie played a young woman who goes for a late-night swim in the waters of Amity Island, only to be pulled underwater to her death by the unseen shark as John Williams’ harrowing score plays.

“The first thing (Spielberg) said to me was, ‘When your scene is done, I want everyone under the seats with the popcorn and bubblegum.’ I think we did that,” Backlinie told The Palm Beach Post in 2017.

Born in Washington D.C., Backlinie was a professional diver and animal trainer who worked on a live show produced by Ivan Tors Studios, the studio that produced “Flipper” and shot the underwater scenes for the James Bond film “Thunderball.” She was 28 when Spielberg came calling looking for a stuntwoman to do the physically rigorous opening scene for “Jaws.”

“I said, ‘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’,” Backlinie said.

To properly show her being thrashed around as if in the jaws of a shark, Backlinie was strapped into a harness made from cut-off jeans with metal plates attached. The plates were attached to cables held by 10 men on each side, who violently tugged Backlinie side to side as she flailed in the water.

“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,” she said. “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.”

Backlinie worked with Spielberg again in 1979 on the WWII film parody “1941.” Satirizing her own scene in “Jaws,” Backlinie once again played a woman going out for a swim, but instead of a shark, she encounters a Japanese submarine.

Backlinie continued to do stunt and animal training work through the 1980s, including on the film “The Great Muppet Caper” and an episode of “The Fall Guy.” Following her retirement, she made frequent appearances at pop culture conventions and at screenings of “Jaws” where she discussed her famous scene, one that became the bane of marine biologists as “Jaws” spawned a widespread fear and misunderstanding of sharks.

Ironic, considering that Backlinie told The Palm Beach Post that she went swimming with sharks off the coast of Australia after shooting “Jaws.”

“One of the main comments I get from everybody is, ‘You know you kept me out of the water’,” she said.

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