Fishermen cherish pictures of their prized catches. J.W. Albritton has doozies of a tiger shark he caught in May 1974.
Steven Spielberg was behind the camera.
Albritton, 74 and living in Ocala, is an unsung hero of Spielberg's classic thriller Jaws, set during a Fourth of July weekend when a seaside village is terrorized by a killer shark.
Millions of fans know that Spielberg used balky mechanical sharks for the attack scenes. Fewer recall that Jaws featured one genuine shark, a tiger initially mistaken for the great white shark chomping on villagers and tourists. It hangs on the Amity Island docks, and later gets a Louisiana license plate pulled from its belly.
That is Albritton's shark, a 12-foot, 9-inch monster caught in Sarasota's Midnight Pass during a Venice Shark Club tournament.
"He took the bait, I got up the chair, put my seat belt on, set the hook line good, and I mean that booger put up a good fight," Albritton said in a telephone interview. He sold it to the production for $1,000, including packing and shipping to Martha's Vineyard, where it became a cameo star.
Newspaper accounts at the time reported Albritton was paid $300. Albritton, who modestly describes himself as "a dumb ol' country boy," is smarter than he claims.
"I didn't want to pay taxes on it," Albritton said. "If I claimed over $600 I'd have to pay taxes."
Like all fish tales, details change over the years. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported the shark's weight at 713 pounds. Albritton now says it was 813 or 913 pounds. The reporter described a "grueling two-hour tug of war" that Albritton today remembers lasting around 45 minutes. No matter: He won the tournament, and has caught larger tiger sharks since then.
Meanwhile, Jaws producers were looking for a large shark, first paying New England anglers $100 per day without success, then calling expert fishermen around Florida, including Venice Shark Club president Robert Hughes.
"(Hughes) came out (to the dock) and asked me what I was going to do with the shark," Albritton said. "I said I was going to cut the jaw out of it.
"He said: 'Do you want to sell it?' I said no, not really. We hem-hawed back and forth, round and around. I'm just a dumb ol' country boy, so they took advantage of me.
"Anyway, they offered me a thousand bucks, and they promised to give me the jaw back. So, all of us made a big box to put it in, took it over to the fish house overnight, then took it to the Sarasota-Bradenton airport. They put it on a Learjet, and that's the last I ever heard about it until this guy came down, writing a book about the movie, and he told me the whole story.
"It had just laid up on the dock there; I don't know how long. Then some idiot poured alcohol on it, and that helped it decompose even quicker. (The writer) said all the teeth fell out and people were grabbing them and running. So, I never got the jawbone back."
Albritton later saw an actor pose next to the shark in Spielberg's movie, which he also regretted.
"If I would've known who it was I was dealing with, I would've asked what kind of deal they could cut me," he said. "I'd have been standing up there on the dock beside the shark with my rod and reel, getting an eighth of a percent (of the grosses) or something like that."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.
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Today on Encore: All the 'Jaws' you want
The Encore channel is dedicated to a Jaws marathon today, with triple showings of all four shark thrillers. The original Jaws plays at 4:45 a.m., 12:40 p.m. and 8. Albritton's shark appears at the 32:35 minute mark, and 11 minutes later when Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider inspect its innards.