Robert Shaw liked to drink. Indeed, the actor, author and playwright liked to drink a lot. It could sometimes lead to near disastrous results.
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 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.
More on Robert Shaw, after the jump…