The Many Men Who Inspired Quint In Jaws

The Many Men Who Inspired Quint In Jaws

Jun 21, 2022 12:31 AM
narrative and ideologyJawsproduction contextsharks

When a monstrous great white shark stakes a claim in your quaint seaside town and starts munching on the locals, there's only one person you can turn to, and that's Captain Sam Quint, the larger-than-life cantankerous old bastard fisherman who has a personal grudge against all maneaters. He's tough as nails, has absolutely zero filters, and feels like he hates just about everybody on Earth, especially those damn sharks.

When Steven Spielberg was tasked to bring this character to life on the big screen, he cast one of the best "tough guy" actors ever in the role: the great Robert Shaw. Thus, Quint was born, one of the most entertaining characters ever to grace the silver screen.

Turns out there's a surprisingly long and complicated history behind the character, To start breaking that down, we'll have to go back to Peter Benchley's original novel.

Quint is, in fact, the reason for the shark-hunting season. The novel "Jaws" wasn't written because Benchley was fascinated by shark attacks, although the New Jersey shark attacks of 1916 did end up forming the basis for what would eventually unfold on the fictional Amity Island. No, the acorn that grew into the best-selling novel was not the sharks, but rather a particularly interesting — and slightly problematic by 2022 standards — human named Frank Mundus.

Peter Benchley and Frank Mundus


Mundus was a local legend in his home port of Montauk, Long Island, famous as a "Monster Fisher" and the (self-proclaimed) first fisherman to see dollar signs in taking charters out to catch big, scary sharks, not just the usual gaming fish found in the area. The man was old school even in the '50s and '60s, preferring to harpoon his targets. His harpoons had a line with barrels attached to them that would pull the fish close to the surface and not let it escape once tagged.

Sounds a little familiar, doesn't it?

In 1964, Mundus harpooned and killed a massive great white, believed to have weighed around 4,500 pounds. This world record fish got a lot of media attention which put Mundus on the radar of a young writer named Peter Benchley.

To hear Mundus say it, Benchley went out with him multiple times and based the entire character of Quint in the book around him. In interviews with the man later in life, he seemed to get a little confused between the book and the movie "Jaws," but the sentiment was the same either way. His point of view boils down to Quint = Frank Mundus. "Every scene in the movie 'Jaws' came right off the boat because every fish you catch over 1,000 pounds you catch different; they have a different story," Mundus told Nancy Atlas in an interview conducted shortly before his death in 2008. "So he put those stories together and made the movie 'Jaws.' That's all."

The author disagrees


Benchley himself gave Mundus at least partial credit but insisted there wasn't one singular fisherman who inspired the character of Quint. In a rare public appearance at JawsFest in 2005, Benchley was answering questions with the other credited screenwriter of "Jaws," Carl Gottlieb, when he was asked about Mundus. "He and about six other guys were the inspiration," Benchley said. "As all characters, especially colorful characters, they're composites of other people, and I went out with many fishing captains in my youth, all of whom had pieces of Quint in them. [...] He was a big, colorful shark fisherman at that time and he benefited hugely from the publicity that he generated for himself."

If Benchley seems to be a tad catty, that's not your imagination. Mundus believed wholeheartedly he was the one, true Quint and was publicly sour that he was never officially acknowledged by Benchley beyond a passing admission that there's some of Mundus in the character. Benchley has stood firm over the years that Mundus never deserved sole credit.

It should be noted that Ballantine Books released a 40th-anniversary edition of "Jaws" in 2013 that included some of Benchley's original work materials, not the least of which is a list of alternate title ideas he'd jotted down during the writing of the novel. Some are obvious, like "Great White," while others are head-scratchers, like "Shimmo Cove." But one potential title does stand out: "Letter on Mundus."

It certainly seems that Frank Mundus was on Benchley's mind. All other parallels aside, and for the purposes of this discussion, it's pretty clear that Mundus was at least a significant spark for what would eventually become Quint.

Benchley's first draft of the screenplay fell flat

It's common knowledge now that "Jaws" was a troubled film production, and those troubles didn't begin on Martha's Vineyard. They started early on in the process when Benchley was hired to write an adaptation of his own book and flubbed it, as the author himself would wholeheartedly admit. Producer David Brown hired Benchley to adapt his own work, claiming that his deep knowledge of not just the source material but about sharks as well would only benefit the picture. The author would later realize Brown hired him because a writer's strike was looming and Benchley wasn't a member of the writers guild, having never penned a screenplay before.

That early draft, which Benchley called "garbage," was at least a foundation for the screenwriters who would come after him. More importantly, it removed a lot of the cheesier elements from the book, like the love affair between Hooper and Chief Brody's wife and the corrupt Mayor Vaughn's mafia connection. "What I did was basically transliterate the novel into a screenplay that I think, and to be kind to it, was dead," Benchley said. "It laid flat on the page because it had no 'movie business' business in it."

By "'movie business' business," Benchley means the little cinematic flourishes that give "Jaws" a sense of grounded personality, like the moment at the dinner table when Chief Brody's son mimics his father's movements and expressions.

The small details that built a blockbuster

Recognizing Benchley's script wasn't ready for prime time, David Brown, Richard Zanuck, and Steven Spielberg brought in a few more writers before cameras started rolling in New England. One was Howard Sackler, the writer of "The Great White Hope," and the other was Carl Gottlieb, a writer known mostly for his comic chops. Sackler did a draft based on Benchley's script, and it was Sackler that first came up with Quint's famous Indianapolis speech. This scene is a standout and one of the only times Quint gets to be vulnerable as he tells his shipmates his thrilling WWII survival story that gives us all the reason we need to understand why he hates sharks.

This monologue is central to Quint as a character, at least as he's portrayed in the movie. In the novel, he works as an echo of Ahab, the Captain in "Moby Dick," obsessed with a great white shark instead of a white whale, but the movie gives him a deeper motivation for his unlimited drive to dominate the ocean and all its creatures.

Back in 2011, I had the opportunity to interview Spielberg about "Jaws," and he used this chat as a means to put the record straight on who has authorship over this scene in particular and also "Jaws" on the whole. "There's a lot of apocryphal reporting about who did what on 'Jaws' and I've heard it for the last three decades," Spielberg told me, "but the fact is the speech was conceived by Howard Sackler, who was an uncredited writer, didn't want a credit and didn't arbitrate for one, but he's the guy that broke the back of the script before we ever got to Martha's Vineyard to shoot the movie."

Gottlieb handled script duties on Martha's Vineyard, primarily responsible for character punch-ups and on-set rewrites. He also played a small role in the film as Meadows, who runs Amity's local newspaper.

Famously, the cast and creative team would gather together every night for dinner and go over their characters and upcoming scenes, and just bond in general. Gottlieb wrote about these evenings in his book about the making of the movie called "The Jaws Log," a must-read for any fan of the film. These raucous off-hours meetups were responsible for a lot of those "'movie business' business" moments Benchley spoke about.

Robert Shaw got the final rewrite

Robert Shaw's contribution to the Quint we know and love is the most important, but not just because of his powerhouse performance. Shaw also happened to be a novelist and playwright himself, having penned the acclaimed novels "The Flag," "The Man in the Glass Booth," and "A Card From Morocco," so Spielberg let him take a crack at the Indianapolis speech before they rolled film.

As the director laid out the evolution of this speech, Howard Sackler introduced the idea for the backstory, and Spielberg says he then turned it over to his friend John Milius ("Apocalypse Now," "Conan the Barbarian") who transformed a single page monologue into an unfilmable 10-page behemoth. Knowing it was gold, but also too long, the final step in this chain was Robert Shaw, whose rewrite brought the 10-page Milius draft of the speech down to 5 pages that ultimately ended up in the movie.

When casting Quint, Spielberg definitely had a type he was going for, which made the casting process surprisingly difficult for the young director. "Casting sometimes is fate and destiny more than skill and talent, from a director's point of view," Spielberg told me in 2011. "First I went to Lee Marvin and he said no. Then I went to Sterling Hayden and he said no. Then finally David Brown, who had just worked with Robert Shaw on 'The Sting,' said 'What about Robert Shaw?' I said, 'David, you're a genius!' And Robert said yes. That was a simple story, although it took six months to cast Quint."

There was still the tricky matter of transforming this intimidating, very Irish man into a true New Englander. Hair, makeup, and costuming would help, as would Shaw's decades of experience on stage and screen, but if the name of the game was authenticity at all costs, Shaw would need a little local help.

Enter Craig Kingsbury

Craig Kingsbury was a colorful Martha's Vineyard islander whose drunken antics became the stuff of legend in the small community. There was one time he drove a team of oxen into Vineyard Haven and was arrested for causing traffic accidents. The funny part is that the only person who could actually remove the animals from town was Kingsbury himself, and the cops had to let him go if they wanted the oxen off their clogged streets.

Sarcastic, filthy, and about as deeply rooted in New England swagger as one can get, Kingsbury ended up being the basis for a lot of Quint's on-screen personality. Every time Kingsbury opened his mouth, a new colorful colloquialism would spring out, and a fair amount of those sparks of character made their way into Robert Shaw's performance.

The movie crew noticed this and decided it'd be a shame to keep this guy off-camera. So, not only did Kingsbury work with Shaw to build an authentic, crusty fisherman character but he was cast in the small but important role of Ben Gardner, a character who pops up a few times early on in the story and who would eventually scare the crap out of every member of the audience. Ben Gardner's head pops out of the hole in the hull of his boat, scaring Richard Dreyfuss' Hooper so badly that he drops a tooth he'd just found, the evidence that proves a great white shark is the culprit behind the attacks off the coast of Amity Island.

The jump scare that helped break $100 million at the box office

Most people know this scene — it's one of the best jump scares of all time — but what a lot of folks don't realize is that Ben Gardner was around before. In fact, he's the guy that first welcomes Hooper to the island. "Gee, I hope you're not going out with those nuts, are ya?" We also see Ben Gardner shortly before his off-screen demise as all the fishermen are going out to hunt the shark and claim the $3,000 bounty put out by the grieving Mrs. Kintner. He's the experienced fisherman making fun of all the amateurs. "When we get them silly bastards down in that rock pile, it'll be some fun. They'll wish their fathers had never met their mothers!"

Knowing that Shaw took a lot of Kingsbury's mannerisms and sayings for his interpretation of Quint, it's really fun to look back at those glimpses we get at Kingsbury in the movie. It's the closest thing we had to a real-life Quint.

So, Robert Shaw's performance and Spielberg's direction are huge pieces of that iconic character, but like just about every famous movie character there are a lot of people that can claim a piece of the success. In this case, we have Frank Mundus, Peter Benchley, Howard Sackler, John Milius, Carl Gottlieb, Craig Kingsbury, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Shaw, along with probably a dozen other small contributions from the makeup, wardrobe, and hair departments.

It takes a village to make a Quint, and the village that produced this character is just as wild and memorable as the salty fisherman we've known and loved since 1975.