Born in Orange, New Jersey, was an athlete as a child, participating in organized baseball and boxing competitions. While in college (he studied at both Rutgers University and the College of William and Mary), he studied drama. After three years in the United States Air Force, he appeared with the New York Shakespeare Festival, and won an Obie Award in 1968.
Scheider's first film role was in a forgettable horror film in 1963 called Curse of the Living Corpse (he was billed as "Roy R. Sheider"). In 1971 he appeared in two highly popular movies, Klute and The French Connection, the latter garnering him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
In 1975, Scheider starred in the first of the Jaws movies, and in 1979 broke the tough-guy stereotype he had found himself in by starring as musical theater director Bob Fosse in Fosse's authobiographical All That Jazz, for which he was nominated for Best Actor.