Ian Shaw Steps Into His Father’s Shoes In ‘The Shark Is Broken’

In 1974, four-year-old Ian Shaw visited his father Robert on the set of 'Jaws' and was scared by Bruce, the mechanical shark. Forty-nine years later he's playing his father on Broadway in 'The Shark Is Broken.'

At left, Ian Shaw; at right, Ian as his father, Robert (himself pictured on a magazine cover). Courtesy of Ian Shaw/Nick Driftwood

Were it not for Robert Shaw, I might not be a writer today.

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In the mid-70s, The New York Daily News took me on as an editor. Eventually—inevitably, I suppose—my bosses wanted me to do a test-run as a writer. When I looked around for a likely subject, I saw Robert Shaw was in town, beating the drums vigorously for his new movie, Jaws

He did such a good job of it, in fact, that he began a parade of blockbusters for novice director Steven Spielberg, then 26 and learning on the job. Sticking to that watery motif, I called Shaw “cinema’s first drip-dry superstar,” and, from then on, I have been a writer the rest of my life.

Seen by 67 million patrons its first 78 days of release, that film became the first to reach the $100-million mark in theatrical rentals and was the highest-grosser of all time in the U.S.—until Star Wars sauntered along two years later and laid claim to that title.

Jaws is a movie that leaves a lot of memories, many of which are creatively corralled into The Shark Is Broken. This affable play about the chaotic filming of Jaws is co-written by Joseph Nixon and Shaw’s eighth-born, Ian Shaw, who visited the movie set as a four-year-old and was scared by Bruce, one of three mechanical sharks (each costing $250,000) with specialized functions.

Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, Steven Spielberg, and Richard Dreyfuss (from left) during the filming of Jaws. Universal Studios/Getty Images

Bruce was named after Spielberg’s lawyer, Bruce Ramer, but, mostly, the director referred  to these pneumatic props as “the great white turd” and labored mightily to get a decent showing from them. For what they cost, you’d expect them to work. They didn’t. The major oversight: They functioned perfectly in the studio’s fresh-water testing but came a cropper with salt water on location at Martha’s Vineyard, sending the whole schedule and budget wildly out of control. 

What’s left is what The Shark Is Broken addresses: the comical incompatibility of three desperately trapped actors making the most of it while Bruce, the true star of their film, recovered and got camera-ready. In the film, this trio is local sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider), the scholarly but easily excitable ichthyologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and crazed shark-hunter-for-hire Quint (Robert Shaw); in the current play, these roles are handled by Colin Donnell (as Scheider), Alex Brightman (as Dreyfuss) and Ian Shaw, who’s a dead ringer for his dad both visually and vocally.

Colin Donnell as Roy Scheider, Ian Shaw as his father Robert Shaw, and Alex Brightman as Richard Dreyfuss (from left) in The Shark Is Broken. Matthew Murphy

Donnell’s Scheider comes across as fairly flawless, a peacekeeper who stays arm’s-length from the substance-abusing duo of Shaw and Dreyfuss, who each pick different poisons. More than an alcohol-versus-drugs standoff, Ian believes his dad and Dreyfuss were locked in a personality clash: “Richard wasn’t famous at the time but was expecting to be shortly via a Canadian film called The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” Ian Shaw tells Observer. “Instead, he hated his acting, went to Steven and begged to come aboard Quint’s good-but-small tugboat, Orca.”

(Scheider’s most memorable contribution to the movie—aside from his formidable, rock-solid presence—was in ad-libbing Jaws‘ most famous line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”)

Duddy Kravitz or not, Dreyfuss’ star-swagger remained, says Ian. “I think Robert thought Richard was a bit too big for his boots and wanted to take him down a peg. He was trying to school Richard a bit—to concentrate on the work instead of the fame. The other theory is that Robert wanted to get a good performance out of Richard. That certainly translated into one.”

In recent times, Ian crossed paths with Richard Dreyfuss when he auditioned for Horatio in a Hamlet that Dreyfuss was directing for Birmingham Rep. “I’d met my dad’s colleagues before,” he says. “I met James Earl Jones when he was doing Fences on Broadway, and, when I introduced myself, I disappeared into a bear hug. I was expecting a similar reaction from Dreyfuss and was taken aback by his reaction. He walked away as if he’d seen a ghost and had to sit down. I thought, ‘Oh, Christ. What a stupid thing for me to say!’ Later, I read screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s book, The Jaws Log, and realized how bad it’d been. It was still a bad memory for him 20 years later.”

The idea of portraying your own father—honestly, flaws and all—is a rarity in the theater. That notion came to Ian one morning when he looked in the mirror. He was growing a mustache at the time, and he had to admit, “My God! I do look like Quint!” 

Ian Shaw peeking at Bruce on the set of Jaws. Courtesy of Ian Shaw

The sight inspired him “to sketch an idea that I thought was sort of a whimsical thing, but I really didn’t take it seriously until my wife and my friends were all saying, ‘This is really interesting. You should think about pursuing this.’’’ So, enlisting the aid of Joseph Nixon, he pressed on, hobbling over the rough spots where drink thoroughly dominated his dad’s life.

“He admitted it himself, certainly to the family,” Ian says of those rough spots. “Attitudes have changed so much since then. It was almost expected of you to be a heavy drinker if you were a British actor of that generation. Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris—they all felt like they had to play that role off-stage. I wonder whether it was partly that they were quite masculine men, and they felt that being an actor wasn’t the most masculine profession. If they were a hard-drinking person who could handle a drink and be the last one standing in the pub—then that proved something or other. I don’t know what, or whether they were just in that culture where it was expected.

“In my hometown Brighton, in England, there’s still a bar backstage in the theater. I think all the theaters were like that. Ralph Richardson said when he was playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, the hardest thing about that role was that you die before it’s halfway through and you can’t fall into the orchestra pit because you were so drunk. It was culturally endemic.”

Robert Shaw and his son Ian Shaw. Courtesy of Ian Shaw

Nowadays, Ian finds himself in the Golden, the same theater his mother, Mary Ure, occupied in the late ‘50s, doing John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger with Kenneth Haigh. He wonders if he could be in her dressing room. “I’ve no idea which dressing room she was in or if they remodeled the theater,” he confesses. “But it’s quite a romantic notion if I have been assigned her dressing room.”

Ure did the 1959 movie version of Look Back in Anger with Richard Burton, directed by Tony Richardson. “It was a pretty ground-breaking work,” Ian says. “At the time, it was considered to be almost punk in its attitude. It was really rejecting the post-war generation’s status quo. Kenneth Tynan, the great theater critic, said if he talked about Look Back in Anger and somebody hadn’t seen it or didn’t like it, he couldn’t be friends with them.”

His mother died when Ian was five, and his father when he was eight. His stepmother, Virginia, raised him among a total of ten Shaw siblings—but he’s the only one to go into “the family business.” 

“I’ve had a modest career,” Ian admits. “I was expecting to work in England for the rest of my life, so it’s such an enormous pleasure to be on Broadway. I’m pinching myself. It’s a real thrill.”

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Ian Shaw Steps Into His Father’s Shoes In ‘The Shark Is Broken’