In advance of the North American premiere of The Shark is Broken, the play’s co-writer and co-star Ian Shaw spoke to The Globe and Mail about the new comedy inspired by the 1975 summer blockbuster Jaws. The Steven Spielberg-directed classic featured his late father, the British actor Robert Shaw, as the crusty shark-hunter Quint.
Ian Shaw was only five years old when he saw the bloody thriller about a Great White that terrorized a beachy New England tourist town. “It was quite early in my life, possibly too early,” said Shaw, speaking in an office within Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. “After I saw it, I went to bed and imagined water all around me infested with sharks.”
All sparkling eyes and imposing Quint-y sideburns, Shaw is his father’s son. The likeness is part hereditary, part show business: Playing his dad, he shares the stage with actors portraying Jaws co-stars Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. The Shark is Broken, which focuses on the behind-the-scenes drama between the three, is being staged at the Royal Alex by Mirvish Productions.
One might call the play a Shaw-shark redemption. Shaw, who co-wrote the Olivier Award-nominated comedy with Joseph Nixon, calls it an “affectionate appreciation of the man with all his flaws – not that it’s all about him.” Forty-four years after the death of his hard-living father (who died of a heart attack at the age of 51), and 47 years after being first frightened by Jaws, Shaw feels it’s safe enough to get back into deep waters.
You were only eight years old when your father died. What do you remember about him?
I had a pretty amazing relationship with him, I think. He had 10 children. Thankfully he loved children, because I’m ninth in the pecking order.
He would have been away from home often, though, wouldn’t he have been?
He was absent to some degree because of his work, but a lot of the time we went with him. I went to Martha’s Vineyard for Jaws. We travelled a lot and lost a lot of suitcases. I remember him being incredibly cheeky and funny, and an affectionate dad.
But didn’t he have a public image of being a drinking man, not a family man?
Someone with a temper?
Exactly. And I’m sure all of that is part of who he was. But what people didn’t see was the humour and affection.
As a British stage actor, did he have contempt for Hollywood?
I think he did. He wrestled with the concept of being an artist or doing work for money. It’s one of the themes of the play. But I think he felt he was a little bit trapped – that with all his children he had to earn a healthy amount of money. There was a struggle to be an artist and poor, or to be this movie star working with scripts he didn’t think were terribly good.
But Jaws and The Sting were top-shelf films. He wasn’t making schlock.
Initially, I think he thought Jaws was schlock. But as it went on, he recognized that Spielberg was special. But even when the film was released, the producers felt the shark might cause laughter. They were nervous.
What we’ve read is that the dynamic Scheider, Dreyfuss and your father showed onscreen was similar to their relationship on set. Was that the case?
It’s true. It’s a dysfunctional family in a way. My dad as the father, Dreyfuss as the son and, to some degree, Scheider as the mother. They were well cast. Robert was recognized by the other two as a genuine British star. He had an intellectual manner and a distinguished theatre background. I think Richard and my dad had mutual respect but, to some extent, my father felt he had to school Dreyfuss in the old-fashioned way.
What about Dreyfuss throwing your father’s drink overboard during the boat scenes?
He was drinking the whole time. He was bored. But it was a curious relationship, because Robert didn’t hate Dreyfuss. I think he had a lot of affection for him.
Has there been any feedback on the play from Spielberg or Dreyfuss?
Not that I’m aware of. I believe Dreyfuss knows that the play exists and may have joked about it at a convention. I do hope they get to see it. I’d love to talk to them.
You’ve never met them?
I auditioned for Richard once. He was directing Hamlet at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and I believe he knew who I was. He didn’t give me the role.
The Shark is Broken runs to Nov. 6 at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. Info at Mirvish.com.
This interview has been condensed and edited.