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‘Jaws’ actress beloved by Vineyard dies

by Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll, Cape Cod Times

A beloved leader in the Martha’s Vineyard arts community who was known to the rest of the world for an iconic slap in “Jaws” died Sunday of complications related to COVID-19.

Lee Fierro, who taught an estimated 3,000-plus children over more than four decades for Island Theatre Workshop, died at age 91 at an assisted-living facility in Ohio, according to Kevin Ryan, workshop artistic director and board president.

“She’s probably one of the most popularly known people the island has seen in many, many years,” he said Monday. Praising her dedication to the community, her family, teaching and the theater, he noted: “Her effects on the island were very far-reaching, well past the stage.”

“Lee’s mark on the island is indelible, she touched many lives over many years,” agreed MJ Munafo, artistic director at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, also in Vineyard Haven. “We will mourn her and miss her,” she said in an email.

To the wider world, Fierro was best known as the grieving mother who slapped actor Roy Scheider’s character in the blockbuster movie “Jaws,” filmed on the island in 1974 — the year Ryan said Fierro moved there full time. She reprised the role in 1987 for “Jaws: The Revenge.”

The movie made her a celebrity, and Fierro was indulgent to fans, including other actors. “She’d get a kick out of being introduced to her adoring fans after the play,” Munafo said.

But while Fierro always had admiration and affection for “Jaws,” Ryan said, there was more to her life, and she often said she “didn’t want to be defined by one slap and a few lines.”

Fierro played the mother of young Alex Kintner, the second victim of the movie’s great white shark. In her scene, Fierro walked up to Scheider, playing Police Chief Martin Brody, lifted her mourning veil and berated him for not warning the town that a shark had already killed once.

“You knew there was a shark out there, you knew it was dangerous, but you let people go swimming anyway,” Fierro said as part of Mrs. Kintner’s speech. “You knew all those things, and still my boy is dead now.”

Fierro talked about her role at a 2012 JawsFest in Edgartown and recalled how people through the years since had asked her to slap them. Ryan said fans actually would knock on her front door and say, “Please slap my husband,” to create a memorable photo.

Fierro was a public figure to Vineyarders, though, for the many families she affected with her teaching and community theater shows, and for her active participation at church, in the island chorus and elsewhere in the arts and community, according to Ryan and Munafo.

Munafo called Fierro a true lady, a terrific actress and a dear friend, including to both Munafo’s and Ryan’s families. A farewell party for Fierro when she moved to Ohio three years ago drew a couple of hundred people, Ryan said.

Ryan said he considers his family blessed to have been close to her, and recalled Fierro’s final island performance in a solo show at age 83; how she crawled on the floor to teach children well into her 80s; and how, when she was 84, he helped to fulfill her wish to “fly” on stage with a harness and special insurance as the company rehearsed “Peter Pan.”

Ryan continued to call Fierro, sometimes even consulting on shows, while she was in Ohio. She had been ill before testing positive for COVID-19, he said.

Workshop officials are talking to her family about hosting a memorial service for Fierro in coming months on the island she loved.

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