Ian Shaw sinks his teeth into his father's legacy in 'The Shark Is Broken'

Shaw, the son of Jaws star Robert Shaw, co-wrote and plays his father in the new Broadway comedy play about the behind-the-scenes feuding on the film's set.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

When English actor and author Ian Shaw was five, in the summer of 1974, he visited the Martha’s Vineyard set of Jaws. There, his father, Robert Shaw, was making movie history. Every film buff knows he was playing a shark hunter with co-stars Richard Dreyfuss, as a marine biologist, and Roy Scheider, as a local sheriff, under the direction of Steven Spielberg.

Nearly five decades later, The Shark Is Broken, a comedy that Shaw co-wrote with Joseph Nixon about making the blockbuster, has docked at Broadway's Golden Theatre. Shaw plays his father, who’s trapped on a small boat with Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman of Beetlejuice) and Scheider (Colin Donnell of Anything Goes). The play dramatizes how the film set became a real-life, frustration-riddled battleground thanks to shooting delays, a problematic man-eating prop, and great-white-sized egos.

Seeing himself with a mustache and realizing his resemblance to his dad, who died in 1978, helped spark the play. “It’s funny how little things can change your life,” he said. “It was one of the elements that led me to think about writing it.”

Shaw talked with New York Theatre Guide about playing his father and creating the play seen previously at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in London’s West End.

Besides facial hair, what inspired you to write the play?

Meeting Richard Dreyfuss and auditioning for him and realizing when I told him that I was Robert Shaw's son that he was still processing the [Jaws] experience. It was in the ’90s. He was directing Hamlet in England. I thought Richard was gonna give me a hug or shake my hand or something. But instead he looked as if he’d eaten some bad seafood. I didn't get the role.

Any other inspirations?

I did a drama documentary where I played Colonel Tibbets, who was the pilot of the Enola Gay. I found it quite odd that I was playing a character who was dropping the Hiroshima bomb. Robert’s character in Jaws was the one delivering [material for the bomb], so it seemed to be a sort of bizarre connection there that stuck in my mind.

Robert Shaw was an acclaimed stage and screen actor known for A Man for All Seasons and The Sting. What is the key to playing him?

I think of him as being fierce. He had a lot of presence — just sheer physical presence. He was fearless, which I’m not. So I put myself into a fearless place where I’m not worried about offending somebody.

You’ve said you were reluctant to write The Shark Is Broken. Why?

When I sketched out the idea for it, I thought that I shouldn't be doing it. ‘Who does he think he is, playing his father?’ I thought it was too silly, so it stayed in a drawer for about a year.

Then I met up with a friend and had a drink with him and talked about it. And then I was talking to other people in my family and my wife. They were all saying that I should pursue this.

How did you prepare to write the play?

There’s a lot of material about Jaws, including books by Joe Alves and Carl Gottlieb. Our family has an archive of interviews and clippings about my dad, and there was his own drinking diary. Virginia Shaw, who was his third wife, has a lot of information as do the older children in the family who visited the set. And there are documentaries. We could probably have written a four-hour play rather than a 90-minute play.

You went into this project as a fan of Jaws, yes?

I love Jaws so much. The performances. The music. The editing. The photography. I love the tone of Jaws in the sense that you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next. It veers from being quite amusing to, all of a sudden, the temperature drops. We tried to put that in the play. I felt that if we can get people laughing, then we can put in a few more emotional bits.

Jaws became a huge hit, and your play has made it to Broadway. Does it feel like fate?

We did it first in Brighton and just before I came on stage, I thought it could easily be a car crash. I know that there are many people who love Jaws and like seeing things behind the scenes. I thought we'd written something funny and interesting. I thought that the life of the play would be touring around English village halls, not Broadway.

You’ve worked on stage and screen before. Was being on Broadway a dream of yours?

Oh yes, of course, though I never thought I would do it. I'm in the theatre, where my mother [Mary Ure] was doing Look Back in Anger in 1957. I feel extremely blessed and lucky to find myself in that situation.

The Jaws film set was toxic. What’s the vibe at the Golden Theatre?

It's incredible, actually; I'm not just saying this. I feel extremely lucky to be working with Alex Brightman and Colin Donnell. I can feel that the chemistry is growing.

What do you want audiences to know about the play?

It might be deeper than you think. You do get to see under the hood with these three men in their battles. We do get to understand a little bit more about them and what made them who they are.

Do you swim in the ocean?

Not when it's too deep.

Photo credit: Ian Shaw as Robert Shaw for The Shark Is Broken. (Photo by Nick Driftwood)

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