Now Playing:

Arts & Life

Arts | Entertainment

'Jaws' Shark Gets His Bite Back: A Love Story


The first time I stuck my head into the mouth of a great white shark, I did not flinch. In fairness to the shark, named Bruce, he was old. And made of fiberglass, with chipped wooden teeth. That was nine years ago.

I found him in a Sun Valley, Calif., junk yard.

A few weeks ago, I did it all again. Same shark. Only this time, I broke a sweat and closed my eyes. Bruce had gotten a makeover. He now has row after row of razor-sharp teeth and a hauntingly deep, fleshy gullet.

This isn’t just any fake shark. Bruce is a star: the last of his kind from the 1975 classic, Jaws, with a devoted fanbase and a Facebook page. And, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opens its much-anticipated movie museum in Los Angeles next year, Bruce will hang in a place of honor.

Just when you thought it was safe to go near a museum.

The story of this fearsome 25-foot shark, his restoration, and how he made his way from movie royalty to a junkyard and, finally, to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is quite a fish tale. Only it’s all true.

‘I hope it works’

When Jaws opened in the summer of 1975, audiences weren’t just terrified by its star shark. They were fascinated. Because the shark was, in reality, a remarkable feat of human engineering. A mechanical, man-made man-eater.

With Bruce’s help, the movie chewed through box office records. It became the highest-grossing film of all time and created the tentpole template — releasing big, high-concept films in hundreds of theaters during the summer — that studios use to this day. Jaws was also a critical hit, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and winning Oscars for its score, editing and sound. It’s difficult to overstate the movie’s stamp on 1975 America.

Greg Nicotero, now a movie effects and make-up icon, remembers seeing Jaws as a 12-year-old, with his mother.

“My mom tried to cover my eyes,” he says of the climactic scene when the shark devours the shark-hunter Quint, played by Robert Shaw. “She didn’t want me to see it because she was afraid it would traumatize me, and it did. In a good way.”

For young Nicotero, Jaws was a revelation.

“[It] was the movie that made me want to do special effects, because I was fascinated that there was a bunch of dudes hanging out that built this.”

“This” wasn’t just one shark but three, collectively nicknamed Bruce, after director Steven Spielberg’s lawyer, Bruce Ramer. And these “dudes” were a small crew of special effects craftsmen that began with production designer Joe Alves.

Spielberg and Alves had agreed: To shock audiences, the movie needed a full-size, monster shark that could swim, eat (people, of course) and survive filming in the saltwater off Martha’s Vineyard. But how to build it?

Remember, there were no digital effects in 1975. Scares didn’t come from a computer; they were built in a warehouse, out of rubber, plastic and wood. And, it turns out, lots of pneumatic hoses. Alves first took the job to Universal’s in-house effects team. But, he remembers, “when we talked to the effects people, they said, ‘We can’t do that. It’ll take a year, year-and-a-half.’ “

Alves didn’t have that kind of time and turned to a special effects legend: the man behind the giant squid from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Bob Mattey. Alves and Mattey had no time to waste. When Jaws, the novel, became a best-seller, the studio rushed the film into production.

“When we went to Martha’s Vineyard, it was like, ‘I hope it works,’ ” remembers Roy Arbogast, who worked on the shark team and developed the sharks’ skin.

The film’s trio of man-made sharks worked well enough to terrify generations and break box office records. But they also broke down so often that the film spiraled over schedule and over budget. Studio executives were furious and feared the movie would flop.

“We were in deep trouble,” Alves told me. “The studio was reluctant to make the movie; they had no confidence in it.”

And so, when filming finally ended, with no sign of the film’s future success, the Bruces were abandoned, Alves said. “When we came back, they just dumped the sharks in the back lot, and they just rotted away.”

The last Bruce

As a boy, Greg Nicotero was one of many fans who clamored to see the Jaws sharks. But, even by the film’s release, the three original Bruces were beyond repair.

The studio had not, however, thrown away the mold that Alves, Mattey and their effects team had used to create the Bruces. So the studio quickly made an identical fourth shark, out of fiberglass, and hung him by his tail for visitors to see at Universal Studios. The next year, 1976, Nicotero was one of countless tourists who posed for a photo next to this last Bruce. Little did he know their paths would cross again.

Bruce hung there at Universal Studios for 15 years, until he, like the film franchise he started, had begun to show his age. Around 1990, just a few years after Universal released the fourth installment, the forgettable Jaws: The Revenge, the studio cut Bruce down, bundled him with a pile of wrecked stunt cars, and shipped him off to a nearby junkyard.

Junkyard owner, Sam Adlen, did not consider the shark junk. He knew immediately what he had, and mounted Bruce onto two tall, metal poles, in the middle of a small clutch of palm trees. And there Bruce would stay, for more than two decades, menacing a sea of scrap metal. One man’s private shark.

Like Greg Nicotero, I too was enthralled with the Jaws sharks as a kid. I spent summers in the library, looking for old newspaper and magazine clippings about the Bruces. As a journalist, in 2010, I set out to find them, or what was left.

I went straight to director Steven Spielberg.

“The original Bruce — or Bruces — were all destroyed,” Spielberg’s spokesman, Marvin Levy, told me back then. “So there is no Bruce existing anywhere, nor any parts thereof.”

He didn’t hesitate. The Bruces, all of them, were gone.

It turns out, hardly anyone, including Spielberg, knew the story of Sam Adlen and that one last, fiberglass Bruce. But word had spread among the film’s most devoted fans, that a fourth shark was out there, somewhere.

In a junkyard, legend had it.

After scouring the San Fernando Valley, that’s where I finally found him. With the help of Sam’s son, Nathan, I climbed a ladder and first stuck my head inside Bruce’s mouth. He was in terrible shape after 35 years in the California sun. His gills were chipped, his skin cracked, his wooden teeth rotting.

But he was still, undoubtedly, Bruce. The massive dorsal. The tail as tall as a person.

When I reported all of this in the summer of 2010, some Jaws fans began making pilgrimages to the junkyard, hoping to catch a glimpse of the shark. Then, in 2016, when Nathan Adlen decided to close the business, he donated his father’s shark to the forthcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

There was just one problem: Bruce was in desperate need of repair.

Bruce, meet Greg Nicotero

In the years since Greg Nicotero’s mother covered his eyes during the terrifying climax of Jaws, her son has become one of Hollywood’s go-to special effects and make-up artists and co-founded the award-winning KNB EFX Group. He is perhaps best known for his work breathing life into the dead on the hit television show, The Walking Dead.

When Nicotero heard that the last Bruce was being donated, he eagerly reached out to the Academy Museum and volunteered to restore the shark.

“I think I was kind of born to do this,” Nicotero says of the restoration.

Bruce was driven on a flat-bed to Nicotero’s sprawling workshop in Chatsworth, Calif. For six months, Nicotero and his team worked tirelessly.

While hanging at Universal, Bruce had been painted repeatedly. “So we peeled all that [paint] off,” Nicotero says. “But then there were a billion little stress fractures in the whole thing. So we had to Dremel all the stress fractures out and then patch everything. It was a mess.”

To recreate Bruce’s spine-tingling jaws, Nicotero and his team taped huge photos of the original sharks to the workshop’s walls and used them for reference. Nicotero sculpted new gums and a gullet while studying a blown-up still of the originals. New teeth were created using the original molds. Even their placement is faithful to the earlier sharks.

“I mocked up where all the teeth went using all the reference photos,” Nicotero says. “How the teeth are angled — it’s very specific in terms of the ones that are laying back, the ones that are pointing straight up, the ones that are out.”

And, day by day, he says, “it would get closer and closer to looking like the shark that I remember.”

Once finished, Greg Nicotero and the Academy Museum invited me to the workshop for a look, before Bruce heads to the museum. Joining us were some of Bruce’s oldest friends, Joe Alves, the film’s production designer, and Roy Arbogast, the now-retired effects artist who created the original sharks’ skin.

“I got goosebumps. I’m not kidding,” Arbogast says after going eye-to-eye with the newly restored Bruce.

“Where’s Roger? Did he hear that?” Nicotero says, practically giddy. He cranes his head, looking for the leader of his restoration team, Roger Baena. “Roy Arbogast has goosebumps!”

This project, Nicotero admits, was “a labor of love.”

Before I peer into Bruce’s mouth, and close my eyes, Arbogast and I study the old photos on the wall. In one, I point to a young man who appears to be using a heater on the shark’s gums. They’re wet with glue. Or saltwater. Or both.

“Is that you?” I ask.

“That’s me,” Arbogast says, shaking his head. “I’ll be darned. That’s me. I was such a young, handsome guy then.” He laughs.

Actor Jeffrey Kramer also drops by. He played the deputy to Roy Scheider’s police chief in Jaws and Jaws 2. Kramer remembers production began with him discovering the remains of the shark’s first victim on the beach.

“I was so nervous I could have thrown up on the beach,” Kramer says. “But what an experience. I mean, who knew, Joe?”

Kramer looks at Alves, then Arbogast. They all stare quietly at the shark that, after more than four decades, suddenly — once again — looks like those sharks of 1974, when these men were all much younger, their careers still ahead of them.

Before production fell behind schedule and the budget doubled.

Before the famous music.

Before the blockbuster.

“Who knew?” Kramer says, wistfully. “Who knew?”

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.