Back in 1975, Martha’s Vineyard was still something of a sleepy backwater, where kids ran free and people left their doors unlocked at night. While the island has always had its fair share of celebrity residents, it was all very low-key – famed writers, movie stars and other cultural icons still had to wait in line to get a cup of coffee at the Art Cliff Diner or to pick up their summer reading list at the Bunch of Grapes bookshop. In that respect, nothing much has changed.
But, when in 1975 a then little-known director named Steven Spielberg took the 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland, to start making the movie Jaws, Martha’s Vineyard was about to gain a new international profile. And the life of a young boy who had just moved to the island, was about to significantly change.
“I was 12 years old and hadn’t been living here long when a casting call was put out for film extras,” says Jeff Voorhees. “They were paying $40 a day, so I went down to the hotel with my new friends, filled out some papers, and read a few lines. I figured I’d be in a beach scene or something and make a little extra cash.”
A few weeks later, Voorhees got a call asking him to come film at the beach. When he arrived, he was told he had a speaking part – but he had little idea what was to come.
“I was pretty excited because having a speaking part meant I was going to get $140 dollars a day, not the $40 everyone else was getting,” he says. “We were filming in May though, and the water was freezing cold, so when I heard I had to go into the ocean I wasn’t too happy.”
Almost by accident Voorhees had won the role of Alex Kintner, the little boy who paddled out into the ocean on his inflatable yellow raft… and never came back.
That film, Jaws, went on to become the first-ever true summer blockbuster and it put Martha’s Vineyard on the international map. It’s said that the film is playing somewhere in the world on any given day, even today. And that long, cold week spent in the water, not only gave Voorhees entry to the Screen Actor’s Guild and a lifetime of royalty checks, it also gained him legions of obsessive fans.
“I manage the Wharf Pub in Edgartown and people come in all the time asking for me. They know where I work, where I live, what I do,” says Voorhees.
There are numerous Facebook pages and blogs devoted to Jaws – and to Voorhees – with everything from Voorhees’ old royalty check stubs, to original Jaws movie posters, becoming hot collectors’ items. Voorhees takes it all in stride.
“We get all the big celebrities and politicians visiting and living on the island, so I’m not much of a big deal around here. Plus, Will Coogan, who’s been in a ton of Farrelly Brothers films, owns the Wharf – although he doesn’t have many fans,” laughs Voorhees.
“Who knew I’d be signing bottles of Cape Cod rum for fans at the age of 52? Basically, I’m just a regular guy who’s been living my life in one of the most beautiful spots on earth.”
Voorhees, who has lived on the island for most of his life, says there’s always something new to discover here.
The bustling “down island” towns of Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and Edgartown are where you’ll find restaurants, bars and shops. Head “up island” though, and it’s lush serenity, where Jeff strolls along the Gay Head Cliffs with his dogs, visits the fishing town of Menemsha for lobster, or admires the old-fashioned stone fences around the farms of Chilmark.
“South Beach is great for waves and it’s where I take my dogs for an early morning run,” he says. “It’s a bit rowdy, though, whereas State Beach is perfect for families. Tashmoo, a freshwater pond on the north shore, is one of my favorite spots.” As Voorhees talks and drives, he points out the bike paths that connect the three main towns, as well as the many golf courses scattered across the island. In the distance, we see sailboats and yachts, some for pleasure, some for sport.
It’s apparent that no matter what kind of holiday you’re looking for, you’ll find it on the Vineyard – sporty, family, party, chilled – or a mixture of all of the above. There’s something for everyone, and it’s immediately apparent why the island is often referred to as “God’s own country.”
Voorhees never made another film after Jaws, but even his family is regularly reminded of his brief moment in the spotlight.
“My brother lives in Europe and he calls me every so often to say, ‘Yep, saw you die again today,’” he laughs. “I was only in the film for a minute or two, but it’s a part of my life and always will be. Kind of like the Vineyard.”