Interview: Ian Shaw Channels His Daddy Shark in Jaws Comedy The Shark Is Broken

Shaw plays his father in this new comedy at the Golden Theatre.

Looking at Ian Shaw in costume in the new Broadway play The Shark Is Broken, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was his father. In this comedy (co-written with Joseph Nixon) at the Golden Theatre, Shaw not only appears as his dad — the actor Robert Shaw — but practically channels him as he, Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman), and Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell) pause from filming Jaws because, well, the shark is broken.

As the younger Shaw set out to create the stage work, he was afraid that playing Robert would lead to various accusations of nepotism among audience members. But really, who better to play the man who created one of Hollywood’s landmark moments? And he’s got the spitting image resemblance to prove it.

Ian Shaw as Robert Shaw in THE SHARK IS BROKEN Photo by Oliver Rosser
Ian Shaw as Robert Shaw
(© Oliver Rosser)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How are the mustache and sideburns treating you?
Well, it’s fine when you’re walking near the theater. But in my little village in England, the people who don’t know who I am or what I’m doing think I’m an oddball.

When you started creating this play, what was it about your father and his Jaws experience that you connected to most?
I loved the film when I was little. I would be a Jaws fan without any connection to it. But I suppose my father’s involvement in the USS Indianapolis speech is a very romantic connection — the fact that he rewrote it. And also the drama behind it, having read about his drunkenness, not being able to perform the speech, and then ultimately delivering this iconic scene, only later on finding out how difficult the shoot had been. I’m a cinephile, so I love to know what’s going on behind the scenes. The complexity of the relationship with Richard Dreyfuss and my dad, and his drinking, and the shark being broken, and the fact that the film was spiraling over budget. Everyone thought it was going to be a disaster. So that’s one thing.

And then, I played Colonel Tibbets, who was the pilot of the Enola Gay [the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima], in a documentary. That’s a harrowing story that leaves a deep impression on you. But there was a bizarre notion that I would be playing a character who would help with the atomic bomb in some way, because that’s also what Quint’s Indianapolis story is. I remember writing to the Guardian about this peculiarity and they were not interested at all, and that really annoyed me, because if I was just a punter, I would be interested in it. [laughs]

There are other things as well. I had a mustache for something and when I looked in the mirror, I looked like Quint. And then I was out of work thinking about what I was going to do, so I sketched out an idea for a play about the making of Jaws, and I shoved it in a drawer for year.

Because I thought that it was a preposterous notion for me to write about my father and maybe even play my father. It was a nonstarter because it’s too full of complexity and potential embarrassment. Apart from risking humiliating my family, people would think, “Who does this guy think he is playing Robert Shaw?” I almost thought the public would be offended. I spent my whole career trying to avoid a direct connection to him, because you’re always trying to do the right thing and not get involved in any sort of nepotism.

What swayed you?
It grabbed me during the process of writing and researching it. Reading about my father and finding out more things about his past and his views. It became bigger and deeper than I thought.

Has this process changed the way you look at your father and his work and his legacy?
Yes, it has. When I was younger, I worshipped him, as any child tends to do, and he died when I was quite young. I didn’t perceive him to have any flaws; he was a hero to me. Then you read more about him and see the flaws and other things that I didn’t realize, including how outspoken he was. I tend to agree with a lot of his views, and I was very impressed by the fearlessness that he had, which I don’t have. It’s an enjoyable part of pretending to be him, having that fearlessness. It’s very un-English, in a strange way.

What do you think he would think about your portrayal of him?
Well, that’s a quantum physics question, isn’t it? Because obviously, I wouldn’t be doing it if he hadn’t died, right? But I don’t know. I think he would understand that it was meant in the right way. That it was done with affection and hopefully truthfully in spirit. At the same time, I think he would be sort of shocked that people would still be interested in Jaws in 2023!

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Performances begin: November 10, 2023

The Shark Is Broken

Final performance: November 19, 2023

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