Robert Shaw liked to drink. Indeed, the actor, author and playwright liked to drink a lot. And it often led to some disastrous consequences.
During the making of Jaws, Robert Shaw had an alcohol-induced blackout during the filming of that famous S.S. Indianapolis speech. Shaw had convinced director Steven Spielberg that as the three characters in the scene (played by Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss) had been drinking, it might be an idea to have a wee chaser before filming, just to get him in the mood. Spielberg agreed. It was an unwise decision as Shaw drank so much he had to be carried back onto the set. Hardly any filming took place that day, and Spielberg wrapped the crew at eleven in the morning.
Later that night, in the wee small hours, a panicked Shaw ‘phoned Spielberg to ask if he had done anything embarrassing as he could not remember what had happened. And would the director let him film the scene again?
The next day, a sober and contrite Shaw turned up early for work and delivered one of cinema’s most memorable speeches.
“Drink?” Shaw once famously said in 1977, “Can you imagine being a movie star and having to take it seriously without a drink?”
“I agree with Richard Burton that drink gives poetry to life. Drink for actors is an occupational hazard born largely out of fear.”
The stories of Shaw’s alcoholic excesses, often abusive behavior, and on-set pranks can sometimes overshadow his quality as an actor and his talent as a writer. The academic John Sutherland has pointed out Shaw was a far better writer than many of the best-selling authors whose books inspired the films he starred in, particularly Pete Benchley (Jaws, The Deep) and Alistair MacLean (Force 10 From Navarone), though sadly none of Shaw’s five novels or his three plays are currently in print.
As we all (probably) know, Shaw himself was involved in the writing of the famous Indianapolis speech, as Spielberg has explained in 2011:
I owe three people a lot for this speech. You’ve heard all this, but you’ve probably never heard it from me. There’s a lot of apocryphal reporting about who did what on Jaws and I’ve heard it for the last three decades, but the fact is the speech was conceived by Howard Sackler, who was an uncredited writer, didn’t want a credit and didn’t arbitrate for one, but he’s the guy that broke the back of the script before we ever got to Martha’s Vineyard to shoot the movie.
I hired later Carl Gottlieb to come onto the island, who was a friend of mine, to punch up the script, but Howard conceived of the Indianapolis speech. I had never heard of the Indianapolis before Howard, who wrote the script at the Bel Air Hotel and I was with him a couple times a week reading pages and discussing them.
Howard one day said, “Quint needs some motivation to show all of us what made him the way he is and I think it’s this Indianapolis incident.” I said, “Howard, what’s that?” And he explained the whole incident of the Indianapolis and the Atomic Bomb being delivered and on its way back it was sunk by a submarine and sharks surrounded the helpless sailors who had been cast adrift and it was just a horrendous piece of World War II history. Howard didn’t write a long speech, he probably wrote about three-quarters of a page.
But then, when I showed the script to my friend John Milius, John said “Can I take a crack at this speech?” and John wrote a 10-page monologue, that was absolutely brilliant but out-sized for the Jaws I was making! (laughs) But it was brilliant and then Robert Shaw took the speech and Robert did the cut-down.
Robert himself was a fine writer, who had written the play The Man in the Glass Booth. Robert took a crack at the speech and he brought it down to five pages. So, that was sort of the evolution just of that speech.
Robert Shaw wanted to be remembered more as a writer than as an actor, and it’s sad to think the effort any writer puts into their body of work often ends up unread, forgotten, out-of-print, with limited availability from ABE Books or Amazon.
Shaw was born in Lancashire, England, in 1927, and at the age of six, he moved with his family to the Isle of Orkney, part of that remote and wind-swept archipelago to the north of mainland Scotland. His father was a doctor and an alcoholic. He also suffered from severe depression. The father’s mood swings were violent and caused the mother, together with her children, to temporarily abandon their new home, only to return when his mother found she was pregnant. Though Shaw rebelled against taking-up his father’s profession, he inherited his genetic predisposition for alcohol.
As an “in-comer” the young Shaw was the focus of anti-English racism from his Orcadian classmates. He was bullied but quickly learned to stick-up for himself. A probably apocryphal tale recounts how the young Shaw was ostracized and barred by some of the pupils from playing soccer. The canny Shaw, therefore, made friends with other outcasts and formed his own soccer team. In a grudge match between the two, Shaw’s band of misfits thrashed the school’s eleven. Mind you, as this is a tale of a Scottish football team snatching “defeat from the jaws of victory” against a squad of “in-comers” led by an English laddie, well, it just might be true, as it fits the Scottish temperament.
His isolation on the Isle was compounded by his father’s suicide (from an opium overdose) when Shaw was twelve. It was an event that had considerable effect, making the youngster emotionally withdrawn. Years later in 1965, when Shaw was becoming a movie star, the director Lindsay Anderson, who worked with Shaw in the theater during the fifties, noted (rather unfairly) in his diary how there was no “personal engagement” with the actor, which made his work:
”...deficient in real sensibility, to be studiously worked, and somehow over-conscious of effect.”
Yet, by his own admission, the waspish Anderson hadn’t seen Shaw’s spellbinding and brilliant performance as Aston in the film version of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, alongside Alan Bates and Donald Pleasance, or his “Red” Grant in From Russia With Love, or even his acclaimed turn on TV as Hamlet. In a way, it’s typical of Anderson damning without just cause, but he does intuitively hit on the “temperamental clash” at work in Shaw’s life, as the actor does seem to have been driven by his own personal demons, which he spent a lifetime trying to contain.
In an interview for The Battle of the Bulge, from 1966, Shaw comes across like a very polite, clipped merchant banker, or government spokesperson. The only time he shows a glimmer of emotion, pride, is when he mentions his books.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Robert Shaw wasn’t a fun guy to be with. He was a strong family man—albeit one who married three times—and fathered a brood of children. He also enjoyed pranks and long boozy nights with friends, writers, and actors. Yet he was a spendthrift and was often possessive and jealous, an emotional influence that did little to help his second wife, Mary Ure’s alcoholism. Here’s a snapshot of their relationship:
Robert Shaw was fiercely protective, and some say jealous, of Mary, and he insisted that she take a step back and concentrate on being a full-time mother and wife. Mary didn’t give up her career entirely but the demands of motherhood, she bore three children during this period, and her growing dependence on alcohol meant her career lapsed.
Shaw’s agent, John French, would later state bluntly: ‘Shaw had taken all her cash, demolished her job, made her into a housekeeper.’
Because of her blonde-hair and beauty, Ure was unimaginatively described as “the Scottish Marilyn.” But she was a far better actress to Monroe and in all respects had far more natural beauty. Ure was a highly respected actress who had starred in the original stage production of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger. She had made a name starring in a string of hit films, including The Mind-Benders, The Luck of Ginger Coffey and in 1968, Where Eagles Dare opposite Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Before meeting and marrying Shaw, Ure had a relationship with Osborne, and a brief fling with Burton. The common thing these three men had in common (apart from their talent) was their alcoholism. Thru her connection with these men, Ure became a drinker too and may have contributed to her tragic and early death.
Two years after her death in 1977, Shaw was interviewed by People magazine:
Shaw says it’s no secret that he went on a bender after his wife of 11 years, actress Mary Ure, died unexpectedly in 1975. It happened only hours after she opened in a new play. “Her stage comeback had been a huge success,” Shaw recalls. “I didn’t go partying with her because I had to get up early the next morning for a film. She came home, took two pills and slept on the sofa so as not to disturb me. She never woke up to read her marvelous notices in the papers. Technically, the pills after the champagne killed her.”
For Shaw, “it was a nightmare, though I don’t feel guilty about Mary’s death, and I can’t take the blame for it.” In one sense, he discloses, “it was a happy release for her because she was suffering from the early stages of a cancer tumor—unknown to anybody.”
Robert Shaw’s first novel The Hiding Place (1960), was a clever, well-written, darkly amusing tale of two British airmen (Wilson and Connolly) forced to bail out behind German lines during the Second World War. They are given refuge by a Corporal Frick, who hides the airmen in his cellar. Having spent much of the war living on his own, their rescuer comes to enjoy the men’s company so much he keeps them hidden long after the war has finished, letting the pilots believe the battle is still raging all around them. Wilson develops a talent for writing, while Connolly frets about his wife back in England and plans to escape. This becomes possible, years later, when their captor becomes ill.
The Hiding Place was highly successful, and was made into a movie Situation Hopeless…But Not Serious, which starred Robert Redford, Mike Connors as two American pilots, and Alec Guinness as their misguided savior.
As an interesting aside, the idea of people held captive underground while a war supposedly takes place overhead, was explored in Philip K. Dick’s short story, “The Defenders,” first published in 1953, which he later developed as a full-length novel, The Penultimate Truth. The idea of strange imprisonment was also touched on by Harold Pinter in his one-act play, The Dumb Waiter, in which two hit-men await for orders (delivered via a communication tube) by an unknown and unseen employer.
Shaw was possibly inspired by the emerging tales of Japanese prisoners of war, found hiding in jungles, still fighting, still believing the Second World War was raging. There’s also the sliver of autobiographical detail in Shaw’s book—the experience of life before and after the war (rationing, poverty, fear) and the sense of isolation that came from his time in Orkney.
I haven’t read his next novel, The Sun Doctor (1961), which makes it hard to comment, other than to pick the choicest reviews. The book won the Hawthornden Prize in 1962 and made his rivals fume. The nasty author John Fowles hated The Sun Doctor‘s success, and tried to console himself in his journals by claiming his weighty novel The Magus was worth a dozen of Shaw’s clever, clean and smooth books. Again, it was an unfair comment, but I do wonder how much such petty, cowardly attitudes ultimately weighed against Shaw’s success as a writer? And lest we forget, Fowles would write his version of Shaw’s The Hiding Place, with his book The Collector, were a man kidnaps a teenage girl to keep in his basement.
In 1966, the year Shaw was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for his performance as King Henry the VIII in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, he published his third novel, The Flag, the first a trilogy of books. The Flag was inspired by the “Red Vicar,” Conrad Noel, a founding member of the British Socialist Party, who flew a Red Flag and a Sinn Fein flag outside his church. In Shaw’s well written, and cinematic tale, version John Calvin, a former soldier during the First World War, and miner, who becomes a vicar in the the north of England, before being transferred to a parish in Eastwold, Sussex, where his views of a Socialist Christianity come into sharp conflict with those of his congregation.
Shaw’s supportive views on Socialism (and Marxism) were later explored in his play Cato Street, where a group of revolutionaries planned to assassinate the then British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, and members of his cabinet, in 1820. The play was presented at the Young Vic with Vanessa Redgrave, Bob Hoskins and James Hazeldine in the cast.
Shaw was a writer of ideas—cultural and political themes, and their effect on individuals. His fourth novel, and second of his trilogy, The Man in the Glass Booth (1967) was his most powerful and controversial, a brave and stunning tour de force, which he adapted into a highly successful play that ran in London’s West End and on Broadway, with Donald Pleasence.
The story concerns a rich Jewish industrialist and Holocaust survivor, Arthur Goldman, who is supposedly exposed as a Nazi war criminal. Goldman is kidnapped from his Manhattan home to stand trial in Israel. Kept in a glass booth to prevent his assassination, Goldman taunts his persecutors and their beliefs, questioning and admitting his own and the collective guilt for the Holocaust—or as the judge puts it, to stand in the dock and “say what no German has ever said in the dock.”
The book differs from the play, but both are equally important works of literature. Both are unbelievably out-of-print.
The Man in the Glass Booth was filmed in 1975, with Maximilian Schell in the lead role. Shaw was dissatisfied with the result and had his name removed form the credits.
The final part of this trilogy, and Shaw’s last novel, A Card from Morocco (1969), dealt with a pair of alcoholics (Englishman Arthur Lewis and Bostonian Patrick Slatterly), and their long, tragic and funny conversations during their travels in Spain. The book dealt with male anxieties about identity, sexuality, and desire.
Pursued by the IRS and in debt to the British taxman, Shaw moved to Ireland. His career took off during the 1970s with roles in The Sting, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Jaws, Robin and Marion, and Black Sunday, but with each blockbuster, he would also star in a variety of B-movies (A Town Called Bastard, The Deep, Force 10 from Navarone) all of which may have paid the bills, but sold his talent cheap.
During the making of his last film, Avalanche Express, another dud co-starring Lee Marvin, Robert Shaw died of a heart attack. He had been driving with his wife in Ireland, when he felt ill. He pulled the car over to the side of the road, got out of the vehicle to get some air, no sooner had he closed the driver’s door, Shaw collapsed and died of a massive heart attack. As the film was incomplete, Shaw’s voice was removed from the film, and overdubbed by actor Robert Rietti.
Robert Shaw was a highly talented, intelligent and complex man, who was driven by great ambition and his own private traumas to create a very significant body of work as an author and as a performer. His early death, aged 51, at a roadside in Ireland, was a sad end to such an immensely talented actor and an even greater writer.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
Driven by Demons: Robert Shaw, James Bond and ‘The Man in the Glass Booth’