Ian Shaw: “I never thought I’d end up playing my dad”

The actor and writer talks stepping into his father’s famous shoes for Jaws stage drama The Shark Is Broken

“My family always said I looked like my dad. Then I looked in the mirror one day and I had the same moustache…” remembers Ian Shaw. The actor and writer is talking to Discover during rehearsals for The Shark Is Broken, the play that means him now devoting six days a week to dressing, sounding and acting as much like his dad, Robert Shaw, as possible.   

As much about the infamously troubled making of Jaws as it is about fathers and sons, the play deftly balances comedy and drama to reveal the deeply personal story unfolding behind the scenes of Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 monster movie. Now the same age as Robert Shaw was when he played the formidable shark-hunter Quint, Ian’s decision to co-write the script – and to play his own father – wasn’t an easy one.

“I suppose elements of it had been in my mind, but it wasn’t something I ever thought I was going to do anything about,” says Shaw. “Then I met Richard Dreyfuss. I was auditioning for him when he was directing Hamlet and I was sort of expecting a hug, because I made it known that Robert was my dad. But when I walked in the room it was almost like I’d punched him in the stomach. After that meeting I went and I read [Carl Gottlieb’s on-set diary] The Jaws Log and I realised that Robert and Richard had had difficulties. It was interesting though because it wasn’t as if they just hated each other. It was a sort of love hate relationship, where I think Robert was trying to put him through the school of hard knocks. I found the whole thing absolutely fascinating but I didn’t want to touch it because I was trying to have my own acting career and it just seemed in poor taste to go there. But I scribbled down a few thoughts…”

Sharing those thoughts one night with a group of friends (“I’d probably had a beer too many”), Shaw started developing the idea of a script. Worried about embarrassing himself and desperate to avoid his own family taking offence, he was increasingly drawn to the story the more he learned about it – a perfect mix of farce (with long days on set spent waiting for Spielberg’s waterlogged mechanical shark to start working), conflict (between a jaded Shaw and an over-enthusiastic Dreyfuss) and personal tragedy (as Shaw dealt with his alcoholism, just three years before his death).

“I was just a kid at the time,” says Shaw, fascinated by his research. “I was just on holiday when dad shot Jaws. I was making sandcastles. I went down and I met Bruce the shark, I remember that day very clearly. And I met Steven Spielberg as well. I liked him because he seemed like a kid. He just seemed very unintimidating.”

Well aware that a lot of people seemed to have the opposite opinion of his dad, Shaw eventually wrote a line in The Shark Is Broken that had Dreyfuss asking “I don’t know where Shaw ends and Quint begins” – even if it wasn’t a side of his dad that he recognised. 

“I mean… he was a very interesting man,” says Shaw, taking his time to collect his thoughts. “Like all good actors he used aspects of his personality in his work, but that’s not who he was by any means. As a family we encountered a very funny, loving man. Obviously, he was an incredibly strong character and you wouldn’t argue with him for long, but I certainly wasn’t frightened of my father. I just adored him. And he was very affectionate too. He did a film after Jaws with James Earl Jones called Swashbuckler where he’s having tremendous fun. He’s mucking about, being naughty, and having a laugh. That’s how I remember him.”

Eventually deciding to co-write the play with Joseph Nixon, Shaw developed a perfect three-hander in The Shark Is Broken – casting Liam Murray Scott and Duncan Henderson as Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider alongside himself in a single-set 90-minute comedy. Debuting at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe to rave reviews, the play moved to the West End in 2021 (with Demetri Goritsas replacing Henderson) and has now announced an extended run at the Ambassador’s Theatre until 13 February 2022. 

Refusing to shy away from some of the tougher aspects the story, the play frames a lot of the drama around Robert Shaw’s drinking problem – with one famous altercation between him and Dreyfuss coming to a head over an intervention started by tipping a bottle of whisky into the sea. Playing his dad struggling with addiction as well as exaggerating his bullish side, Shaw has had to face a tough personal challenge every night on stage for the last few months, but he says the catharsis of getting it all down on paper in the first place helped with everything that followed.

“Stepping out on stage for the first time, dressed as my dad, it was an emotional moment,” he says. “But I felt that all of those fears I had were at the beginning, in the process of writing it. I realised that, yes, it’s about my father’s alcoholism, but my father isn’t the only alcoholic in the world. As I developed the play, I started to feel that the burden wasn’t just on me and my family. So I did feel emotional after that first show, and I still do, actually. But I also feel a sort of odd kinship with my dad now. I feel like there’s a love that exists somewhere in the air when I’m doing it. It makes it very real.”

Including a key line about how tough it is to walk in your father’s shadow, and constantly reminding us of the importance of legacy, it’s hard not to wonder what Robert would have made of The Shark Is Broken were he alive to see it. 

“It’s an impossible question to answer really,” says Shaw, turning the thought over in his mind. “The play just wouldn’t exist with him around because this whole thing is about the loss of him, for me. I mean, I know that he didn’t particularly want his children to go into showbusiness, because I think he was a little jaded by the end. But I mean… I guess that he would have thought that it was, to some degree… impressive. I hope so.”

The Shark Is Broken has extended its run at the Ambassador’s Theatre until 13 February 2022, and tickets are available here