Actor Ian Shaw sinks his teeth into the story surrounding one of his father’s most famous roles

Words MARK FISHER

For four-year-old Ian Shaw, it seemed normal. Like any kid, he was just visiting his dad at work. No big deal. But looking back, it was a very big deal indeed.
That’s because his dad was Robert Shaw,
his dad’s workmates were Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, his dad’s boss was Steven Spielberg and his dad’s place of work was Martha’s Vineyard on the set of Jaws. What felt to a small boy like a routine holiday to a Massachusetts island was Hollywood history in the making.
     

“I got to see the shark, which was a closely guarded secret,” says Shaw today. “I didn’t see the film at the time, but I did see it before my father died in 1978. I remember that very distinctly because I woke up in the middle of the night thinking there were sharks trying to get me. I called out for my dad to save me. Obviously, he got eaten in the film, but that wasn’t the problem – I knew the film wasn’t real – but what it did do was give me a real terror of sharks.”

In Spielberg’s blockbuster, Shaw’s father plays Quint, the irascible old sea-dog. A hard-drinking outsider, he’s a man any sane person would leave alone – if he weren’t the best hope of ridding the ocean of a bloodthirsty shark. Against their better judgement, Scheider’s landlubbing police chief and Dreyfuss’s geeky aquatic expert climb aboard. Only by setting aside their differences will they have any chance of defeating their ferocious enemy. 

“I wasn’t aware of the real-life tensions between the actors until after my dad died and I read Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log,” says Shaw. “It was antagonistic between Dreyfuss and my dad. Nobody is quite sure how serious that was; there’s conjecture about whether my dad was winding him up in order to get a better performance out of him. Dreyfuss was brash, neurotic and egotistical and my dad was very egotistical. A lot of good things happen in the film as a result of the people they cast.”

Shaw became an actor himself – taking pride in not exploiting his family connections to get a leg up – and built an extensive catalogue of stage roles, including War Horse at the National Theatre, as well as appearances in EastEnders, Watership Down and on film. It was only when he looked in the mirror and saw how like his father he had become, especially having grown a moustache, that he wondered whether he could play him. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know what they are – they’re just your dad,”
he says. “To me, it was perfectly normal to be going round visiting film sets, staying in different countries. When he died I was devastated. From an early age I decided
I wanted to be an actor, but not to compete with him in anyway.”

 Going from noticing a family resemblance to portraying his dad on stage was a big leap, however. “I became completely terrified that it was not only going to offend my family but look exploitative because all of a sudden I’m playing my father.” Chatting to friends, including his
co-writer, Joseph Nixon, he convinced himself
the idea was too good to sit on. The result is
The Shark Is Broken, a true-life drama that gives the inside gen on this classic three-men-in-a-boat tale as Shaw, Dreyfuss and Scheider kill time waiting for the mechanical shark to be fixed.

“We’re trying to fill in the blanks,” he says, having drawn on his father’s diaries, interviews and letters. “I thought I’d finished grieving many years ago, but in the research I was able to feel I’d completed an emotional journey. I think we’ve got something that’s funny, moving and truthful.”

WHERE & WHEN

The Shark Is Broken, Assembly George
Square Studios, 2–25 August
(alternate days), 11am, £13–£15 (£11–£13)assemblyfestival.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Skip to toolbar