'The Shark Is Broken': Playing my father Robert Shaw 'was like putting on a glove' (exclusive)

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·7-min read
Like father, like son: Robert Shaw (l) in Jaws and Ian Shaw (r) in The Shark Is Broken (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images/Nick Driftwood)
Like father, like son: Robert Shaw (l) in Jaws and Ian Shaw in The Shark Is Broken. (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images/Nick Driftwood)

Playing an iconic actor in his most iconic movie role may have been daunting for some actors, but for Ian Shaw it was fate.

In The Shark Is Broken (in London's West End from October) Ian portrays the late, great Robert Shaw – his father – during the making of Steven Spielberg's movie Jaws.

"I felt that it was like putting on a glove to some extent, you know," Ian, who co-wrote the play with Joseph Nixon, tells Yahoo about playing his father on stage. 

"I felt like I looked like him. I sounded like him. I felt I knew him very well. 

"Our family adores Robert. Still. So there's a lot of talk about him. There's a lot of sharing of stories. Even though I was young when he died, I still have very strong memories of his personality."

Ian's take on salty sea captain Quint is uncannily like his father's and a clip of his performance – shared from the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 – attracted thousands of views.

Ian Shaw plays his father Robert Shaw in The Shark Is Broken (Photo: Nick Driftwood)
Ian Shaw plays his father Robert Shaw in The Shark Is Broken. (Nick Driftwood)

Like most people, Ian has strong memories of the first time he saw Jaws. Despite having visited the set of the 1975 blockbuster and seeing the huge, lifeless shark prop (named Bruce after Spielberg's lawyer) in person, the primeval terror of the film still gave him nightmares.

"I remember being in my bedroom, and feeling scared in the dark that there was water all around the bed," Ian recalls. 

"And there were sharks looming. And I was crying out for my dad to come and you know, give me a cuddle. 

Read more: The Jaws boat will sail again to save sharks

"Even though obviously, I'd seen in the movie that it didn't end so well for him."

And that's an understatement and a half. The irascible Quint exits the film in memorable fashion, being munched to bloody death by the shark. Ian: "I was able to sort of suspend my disbelief, but at the same time still be scared of sharks."

British actor Robert Shaw on the set of Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Robert Shaw on the set of Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg. (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Born in London, but raised wherever his father found work – first in England, then Spain, and later America – Ian largely grew up in Ireland, but the lure of Martha's Vineyard, the picturesque New England island where Jaws was primarily shot, was too much for his mother Mary. The family decamped to the set to keep Robert company while he toiled away on the film's notoriously difficult shoot.

Set on board Quint's boat the Orca, the play – which enjoyed a critically acclaimed and sold out run at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe – is a three-hander between Ian, Liam Murray Scott as Richard Dreyfuss (reprising the role from the Fringe), and Demetri Goritsas as Roy Scheider as they go through a gruelling day at sea. Robert Shaw was battling alcoholism, an ongoing tussle with the IRS, a clash of personalities, and extreme boredom.

"It was a headache for them. A real slog. And it was painful," says Ian. 

Ian Shaw plays his father Robert Shaw in The Shark Is Broken (Photo: Nick Driftwood)
Ian Shaw plays his father Robert in The Shark Is Broken. (Nick Driftwood)

Striving for verisimilitude, director Spielberg (just 26 at the time) insisted the film be shot at sea, rather than on a sound stage, leaving the film at the mercy of the ever-changing tides, the weather, the local crew, and an animatronic shark that wouldn't work. Days would often go by without an inch of film being shot.

In close proximity, in challenging circumstances, Roy Scheider often rubbed up against Dreyfuss, a hip young actor at the time. 

Read more: Classic movies that will never be remade

Ian told the Guardian that Dreyfuss "went a little pale: when they met at an audition years later in the mid-90s, adding that the Close Encounters Of The Third Kind star 'looked as if he was replaying a slightly traumatic event'.

1975, British actor Robert Shaw, American actor Roy Scheider, American director Steven Spielberg, and American actor Richard Dreyfuss laugh together on a boat during the filming of Spielberg's 'Jaws'. (Photo by Universal Studios/Getty Images)
Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss laugh together on a boat during the filming of Jaws. (Universal Studios/Getty Images)

Ian consulted with his siblings (he's one of 10 children) before exploring the darker side of his father's character, including his addiction to alcohol, admitting that writing the script was 'a delicate procedure'. 

He credits the input of his family, co-writer Nixon and director Guy Masterson for keeping the play "true to the spirit of what happened". They've continued evolving the script – which draws heavily on screenwriter Carl Gottelieb's book The Jaws Log – adding a whole new scene after the West End transfer was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Read more: Character that had the biggest impact in a short time

"I know that as we rehearse, in the next three weeks, there will be [more] changes," Ian says. 

"It's a very live thing. Because the tone is very important, as with everything, but obviously, this is so deeply personal. You know, I have to I have to get it. We have to get it, right.

Ian Shaw plays his father Robert Shaw in The Shark Is Broken (Photo: Nick Driftwood)
Ian Shaw plays his father Robert in The Shark Is Broken. (Nick Driftwood)

"I wouldn't have done it if it hadn't been for other people. I thought it was too risky, really. What made it easier for me was that some of the themes in the play, like the darker themes, like the alcoholism, like the relationships between fathers and sons... it starts to become a more universal experience. 

"It's less sort of about me and my father and my family. It's about everybody's experience in that area."

Daniela Bianchi ,Sean Connery and Robert Shaw sitting at a dining table together in a scene from the film 'James Bond: From Russia With Love', 1963. (Photo by United Artist/Getty Images)
Daniela Bianchi, Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in a scene from James Bond: From Russia With Love, 1963. (United Artists/Getty Images)

Ian was just eight years old when Robert died from a heart attack in 1978 at the age of 51. He knew his dad's films (From Russia With Love, The Sting, The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three are notable highlights) but it wasn't until he got into acting that he truly became aware of Robert's legacy.

Read more: Bruce from Jaws has been fully restored

"It was quite interesting to note that a lot... and it tended to be men, male actors... that [my father] was quite often cited as a favourite actor," he says of his time at acting school.

"And I was always pleased and impressed that he was still remembered."

Robert Shaw stands over Jaws in a scene from the film 'Jaws', 1975. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)
Robert Shaw stands over the shark in a scene from Jaws, 1975. (Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

Thinking back to his time at Martha's Vineyard in 1974, Ian recalls being shown Bruce the shark by the crew. 

"It was very secretive. The shark was kept under wraps. They didn't want the world to know what they had. But I do remember going in and one of the crew showed me the face of the shark, which I found quite scary. 

"People have written about the shark not necessarily being the most realistic-looking thing. But it was. It was very convincing to me."

Two of Ian's sisters flew in from America to watch the play at Edinburgh, and he says: "I got the seal of approval from those two. The other [siblings] have read it and have given it a thumbs-up."

Stage producer Sonia Friedman was convinced too. She picked it for a West End transfer from Edinburgh, and Ian says there has also been talk of the show being adapted for the screen. 

L-R: American actors Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw on board a boat in a still from the film, 'Jaws,' directed by Steven Spielberg, 1975. (Photo by Universal Studios/Courtesy of Getty Images)
Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw on board in a still from Jaws, 1975. (Universal Studios/Courtesy of Getty Images)

"Screen wise we have to be careful though, because, once you're starting to get on to the screen, you're getting ever closer to the actual movie," Shaw says. 

"And the movie is so iconic and sacrosanct, that you have to make sure that you're not going to cheapen it."

Directed by Guy Masterson, The Shark Is Broken will run in the West End at the Ambassadors Theatre from 9 October – 15 January. Tickets are on sale now.

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