Robert Shaw’s son revisits Jaws’ stormy shoot in The Shark Is Broken

13 October 2021

Robert Shaw’s son revisits Jaws’ stormy shoot in The Shark Is Broken

Ian Shaw plays his actor father in West End play about the troubled production of Spielberg’s first blockbuster

When Robert Shaw was filming the blockbuster Jaws, the actor’s young son came to visit with the hope of seeing the famous mechanical shark named Bruce. “He was strictly under wraps,” recalls Ian Shaw. “I was let in and someone pulled off the dust cover.” How did he feel when he came face to face with the sharp-toothed Bruce? “It scared me,” he admits. “It was certainly frightening, even out of the water.”

Forty-five years later, he is portraying his father in a play about the famously beleaguered Jaws shoot. The Shark Is Broken, co-written by Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon, was a hit at the Edinburgh festival last summer and will open in London’s West End in May, directed by Guy Masterson and presented by Sonia Friedman Productions. It is a three-hander following Robert Shaw and his fellow actors Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, who are “stuck together on a boat waiting to film” as Steven Spielberg’s movie goes wildly over budget and over schedule on location in Martha’s Vineyard.

Shaw has drawn on first-hand accounts – such as the book The Jaws Log by the film’s screenwriter Carl Gottlieb – in writing the script for The Shark Is Broken. The production’s main problem was Bruce, whose name was borrowed from Spielberg’s lawyer, Bruce Ramer, and was given to a total of three different full-size, pneumatic sharks. These models functioned in the workshop, but became temperamental in the seawater and were unable to “withstand the elements” says Shaw. “Spielberg could have shot the film in a tank in California under controlled circumstances but he wanted it to look as realistic as possible. Shooting in the sea was an unusual choice and made it very difficult.”

As the technicians wrestled with Bruce, relationships soured between the actors, in particular Shaw, who was cast as the shark hunter Quint, and Dreyfuss, who played an ichthyologist forming an uneasy alliance with Quint. “The chemistry was tricky between Richard and Robert,” explains Shaw. “I think Richard wound my father up at times, and my father was quite ready to express himself.” Shaw says his father, who struggled with alcohol abuse, “was drinking because of all the hold-ups. It was quite a lively atmosphere.”

Shaw was eight years old when his father died in 1978. Revisiting his father’s alcoholism was one of the reasons that he found the play hard to write. “I was daunted. When I originally sketched out the idea for the play, I shoved it in a drawer quite quickly. I felt it was something I shouldn’t go near because it was so personal. After discussing it with friends and family, I felt able to go back to it.” He believes the lead trio of Jaws actors – including Scheider as police chief Brody – were playing characters who in some ways matched their own personalities. “Our family tends to view my father’s performance as being in some ways the most like him in real life, especially when he’s being cheeky or funny.”

One story has it that Robert Shaw was goading Dreyfuss to get a better performance out of him. Shaw, who says he is a “big admirer of Dreyfuss”, met him in the mid-90s when auditioning for a role in a production of Hamlet that Dreyfuss was directing at Birmingham Rep. “I introduced myself as Robert Shaw’s son, and he went a little pale, I thought. I’d forgotten that they didn’t always hit it off … He looked as if he was replaying a slightly traumatic event.”

Portraying his own father on stage is “a curious task for an actor” admits Shaw. “He died when I was quite young, but I adored him and have obviously watched his performances and interviews. It never felt as if it was an enormous challenge because I look like him and I sound like him. It’s not a huge stretch for me to believe that I am him.”

Chris Wiegand, The Guardian