‘I could have been a straight leading man but that struck me as a boring life…’
He’s a strange one Robert Shaw. That occurred to me recently watching him in the Second World War film ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ where he played a blond, blue-eyed German Panzer commander, a part in which he looked completely different to that of his later role of the shark killer ‘Quint’ in the film ‘Jaws.’ So different in fact, they could have been different actors. The mark of a true professional I guess?
It got me thinking of him as one of those ‘faces’ who pops up in various films, but somehow manages to appear different each time, be it in an historical drama or Hollywood blockbuster, but still coming in with great work ranging from ‘From Russia with Love’ to ‘The Sting.’
Robert Archibald Shaw was born in the August of 1927 in Lancashire, to Thomas a doctor and Doreen a former nurse. His alcoholic father committed suicide by overdosing on opium whilst suffering from depression when Shaw was 12 with the family living in Scotland. He was an athletic boy at school with a keen interest in track and field and rugby.
He had a brief stint as a teacher for a period, before getting into RADA, in London, gaining entry with money left to him by his grandmother. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford as well as acting in regional theatre up and down England as well making appearances in the early days of TV and began picking up small roles in film as well as beginning work on the West End stage.
He starred in the TV show ‘The Buccaneers’ from 1956 and appeared on Broadway in ‘The Caretaker by Harold Pinter in 1961, before reprising the role in the film version of 1963.
He was also a writer and published his first novel ‘The Hiding Place’ in 1960, followed by ‘The Sun Doctor’ in 1961.
His fourth novel The Man in the Glass Booth was developed into a successful play in 1967, which performed on Broadway and in the West End and which became a film in 1975.
Shaw himself, became very well known through his role as Donald Grant AKA ‘Red’, the blond assassin in the second James Bond film ‘From Russia with Love’ from 1963, which starred Sean Connery as 007.
By 1964, Shaw was twice married and the father of six children, with actress Mary Ure being his second wife. He would go on to be married three times and had 10 children in total.
1965 saw him as the aforementioned Colonel Hessler in ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ and he played a young Henry VIII in ‘A Man For All Seasons’ a role that earnt him many nominations in the award season.
He appeared among a plethora of other well know faces in ‘The Battle of Britain’ released in 1969 and three more of novels followed from 1970. A big hit for him in 1973, was as mobster Doyle Lonnegan, alongside Paul Newman and Robert Redford in ‘The Sting’ and he was also memorable as ‘Mr Blue’ in ‘The Taking of The Pelham One Two Three’
He then achieved world wide fame as shark hunter ‘Quint’ in the seminal ‘Jaws’ in 1975, even though the didn’t really want the part. ‘They want me to do a movie about this big fish. I don’t know if I should do it or not.’ He said to anyone who would listen.
He turned his back on the film world after Ure died. He remarried and moved to Ireland due to tax issues and there continued to struggle with his alcoholism.
He died there in Toormakeady from the effects of a heart attack aged just 51 in 1978.
The Mumper of SE5