When chasing a dream, you often hear that you’ll either sink, swim, or in some cases, get eaten alive. Jeffrey Kramer learned to fly instead.
Kramer is a man of many talents who is continuously adding to his accomplishments with an impressive nearly five-decade career. He is best known to the horror community as “Deputy Lenny Hendricks” in the Jaws franchise. He has also been in Halloween II and Clue. Not to mention, Kramer’s behind-the-scenes work has made him a three-time Emmy winner and executive producer at CBS TV Studios.
His passion for the entertainment industry shines through whether he’s in front of or behind the camera. And he’s got the glowing resume to prove it.
Kramer’s journey began when his mother took him to see Peter Pan on Broadway as a child. They were in the first row with a balcony, and his mother had to hold him because she thought he was going to fall out of the balcony.
“It seemed then [that] I wanted to be an actor. I never wanted to grow up. I never wanted to. I wanted to fly,” Kramer tells Dread Central. “Somebody once told me something about faith and believing in things…Faith is when you come to the edge of all the light, and you’re about to step off into the darkness of the unknown. One of two things will happen to you: One is you will have something solid to stand on, or two is you will be taught to fly. And I always thought that maybe I could fly.”
And Kramer didn’t just fly. He soared.
He became an actor and got involved in children’s theatre. After attending Ithaca College and receiving an acting scholarship, he went to graduate school in New York City. He stopped going after eight days to pursue acting instead.
Kramer read about Jaws in the Vineyard Gazette and learned it would be filmed in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. As fate would have it, this was the same area his mother was born and where he visited family every single summer.
Kramer called his agent in New York and set up a meeting to fly to Boston to meet a 27-year-old Steven Spielberg.
“When I walked out of there, I said to myself and a friend who was with me, ‘I’m going to get this job,’” Kramer says.
Admittedly never having felt that way before, Kramer got a call 10 days later. He officially booked the role of “Deputy Hendricks” for his debut film.
Kramer showed up on the first day of shooting and remembers it being “so professional,” “nerve-wracking” and “exciting.” The young actor had his “own little trailer” and saw boards for the camera to roll on the beach. They were going to film the scene where he discovers Chrissie’s hand.
“I was so nervous, I could have really thrown up,” Kramer says. “I then would tell people that I studied for years to throw up like that on the beach.”
Soon, Kramer got the hang of the process. He says Spielberg would even let the actors improvise a little bit.
“I always just tried to make it kind of fun. I thought that I would be the light one in there in a sense,” he says. “In a way, the audience kind of feels comfortable with that because everybody else is pushing to get the shark.”
Jaws focused more so on acting and music considering the challenges the crew encountered while filming.
The shoot was planned to last 55 days. But with “Bruce” the mechanical shark malfunctioning, needing cover scenes and trying to find new things to add to the film, production ended up being 159 days and four times the initial $3.5 million budget.
“They thought they were going to pull the plug,” Kramer says. “They were over budget, over time. Everybody thought, ‘Oh, they’re never going to finish this movie.’”
Despite these setbacks, Kramer refers to these problems as “a perfect storm” where they all seemingly fit together and worked out.
“The first one [Jaws] opened doors. It was something else. Most films don’t ever come together like that,” Kramer says. “And no one knew that it would touch that universal unconscious about the fear of that primordial ooze, the depths of the ocean and the critters that live there. No one knew that was so universal and touched everybody.”
After defining “summer blockbuster” and becoming one of the most influential films of all time with a monumental score to match, Jaws returned for a sequel.
Kramer returned as “Hendricks” (“Jeff Hendricks” if you listen closely!). But when he showed up on set, he discovered his part had been cut in two and another actor was hired. Dissatisfied, Kramer decided he no longer wanted to work on the film and left the movie.
Shortly after, director Jeannot Szwarc brought Kramer back, restoring the two parts into one character and giving him more material.
Jaws 2 had a whole other string of difficulties, however, such as Roy Schneider not wanting to be a part of the movie, harsh weather conditions and (more) mechanical shark malfunctions.
“It was unbelievable. The joke was always that if any of us ever went to prison, you got six months off of any jail term just for doing Jaws 2,” Kramer says. “We’d sit there for days. There’d be three units and not a foot of film would roll; storms, the ocean was too rough. In those days, we were in Pensacola. If you saw a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the background, you just had to wait until it passed. You couldn’t just green screen it out. It was crazy.”
Working on Jaws and Jaws 2, films that became known for their nightmarish productions, resulted in several cherishable memories for Kramer. He became lifelong friends with Richard Dreyfuss (who is actually the godfather to one of his children), Joe Alves, Murray Hamilton, Gary Springer, John Dukakis, Gigi Vorgan and Jeannot Szwarc. He also got his family and friends in the films as well.
“I loved the crew. It really was a family,” Kramer says.
After Jaws 2, Kramer went on to do a lot of episodic television, such as Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, M*A*S*H and Struck by Lightning.
Although, after feeling like an itinerant salesman, Kramer realized he wanted more control over his career. He realized he couldn’t risk pursuing acting in a make-it-or-break-it world with three young children.
That was when he was approached with the opportunity to be a creative executive at Fox.
“I thought, ‘I didn’t want to do this,’” Kramer says. “Richard Dreyfuss came to the house. He was set up by my wife and said, ‘If you don’t do this, I will kill you.’”
Kramer was hired and ran development with Fox within a year. He helped develop The X-Files, worked on The Simpsons and became David E. Kelley’s producing partner to create The Practice and Ally McBeal.
Kramer is now keeping busy at CBS TV Studios. He thrives on helping writers and producers bring ideas to fruition to develop new shows and investing viewers in characters. He uses his experience as an actor to lead by example in showing proper etiquette, kindness and support to other actors — all of which he says are the touchstone in his career as a producer.
Kramer considers his work on the Jaws franchise to be a “lovely experience” and momentous since it brought him to California, where he built his life. Still, after 45 years since its release, it’s evident just how Jaws impacted cinema and viewers, who to this day, may think twice about going into the water.
“The thing about this [Jaws] is who knew? Nobody knew…” Kramer says. “How blessed was I to be part of that. Be in it. Make friends from it. It’s the beginning of the film and video age in the sense that once you do something, it’s always present. You can’t erase that kind of interesting.”
Want to keep up with Jeffrey Kramer? Follow him on his new Instagram page @jeffreykramerofficial to stay up-to-date on his latest posts!