Why playing his father in The Shark is Broken was an ‘affectionate dance’ for Ian Shaw


Day 610:11Broadway play The Shark is Broken offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Jaws

The Shark is Broken is a play about the squabbles between a trio of bored actors stuck on a ramshackle boat waiting for a mechanical shark to start working. If something about that setup sounds familiar, it’s because co-writer Ian Shaw drew from his own father Robert’s experiences filming Jaws

To add another wrinkle, Ian Shaw actually plays his own father in the play.

“It’s quite an intimate thing to pretend to be your father,” Ian Shaw told Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong. 

“In my heart, there’s a lot of love. So it does feel like it’s some sort of affectionate dance that we’re performing in some strange way.”

After selling out at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019, the comedy has since moved to London, and then to Toronto fall in 2022 before opening this month on Broadway.

Jaws remains iconic nearly 50 years after it was released. It became the first modern summer blockbuster in 1975 and put Steven Spielberg on the path to becoming Hollywood’s most successful director.

None of that seemed likely to actors Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and, of course, Robert Shaw — who are portrayed in the play — during the troubled production.

Robert Shaw was an Oscar-nominated actor and appeared in several ’70s blockbusters, ranging from The Sting to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. He was also a novelist and playwright, but as his son Ian confirms, he had a torrid personal life and alcoholism plagued him most of his life. Robert Shaw died at 51 in 1978.

Ian Shaw as a child with his father, actor Robert Shaw. (Submitted by Ian Shaw)

Ian Shaw spoke with Armstrong about how the play emerged from reading his father’s “drinking diaries” and what it was like to visit the set of Jaws as a child. Here’s part of their conversation.

This play started on a bit of a whim when it opened in Edinburgh. You weren’t sure anybody was going to show up. And now here you are, performing it on Broadway, your first Broadway show. How is this moment feeling for you?

I’m still pinching myself. It’s very hard to process. You know, I’m currently in the theater —  the John Golden here — that my mother [actor Mary Ure] did Look Back In Anger in 1957, which is something that I never thought I would say.

So, yes, I mean, I did think that the play had a popular element to it, but I just thought we would be touring around village halls…. I thought that, obviously Jaws fans — of which there are a sizeable number — would be interested in the behind the scenes story, but I didn’t conceive that it would be quite so popular.

Man reads newspaper, another looks glum and third man talks below deck on a boat.
From left to right, actors Colin Donnell, Ian Shaw and Alex Brightman star in the Broadway run of The Shark is Broken. (Matthew Murphy)

If I’ve got this right, you got the idea to write this play after reading what you’ve called your father’s drinking journals? What on earth is a drinking journal?

It’s literally an account of what you didn’t drink or did drink that day. So, it would be, you know, “June the 10th, no alcohol.” And then it might be, “July 15th, two bottles of wine.”

What I found moving about that was that you could see the attempt. You could see that he was in the grip of something that he was trying to shake himself free from.

And, of course, he didn’t manage to in the end with the shark being broken during the filming of Jaws. There were so many delays that it was just an invitation to open a bottle of vodka, you know?

What was it about that, though, that made you think, “huh.” Because there’s all these different parts of the story that you grew up in the lore of this movie—

Yes…. There were a lot of alcoholics in the acting profession from Robert’s era. And I sometimes wonder whether they were trying to compensate for the lack of masculine liberty that there is associated with being an actor, by being a hard drinking, tough guy.

I do find that fascinating and I do find it fascinating how the world has evolved since then.

LISTEN | The Shark is Broken depicts behind-the-scenes drama on set of Jaws:

23:50In The Shark is Broken, Ian Shaw depicts the behind-the-scenes drama on the set of Jaws and plays his father

I wonder how much of a glimpse this has given you into a better understanding, maybe, of your dad. I mean, he died, [when] you were quite young, right? He was 51 years old. So that would have been—

When I was eight.

So you don’t get that chance to know him as an adult. Did that make it difficult to portray him on stage? 

I don’t know. I mean, I do feel that I did know him quite well, obviously, from the perspective of a boy. And the great thing about that is that you’re not in conflict. So, it’s before you start to break free of your father, so I didn’t go through the teen years that some of my siblings did with him. So we were simpatico.

And then, of course, you know, in my research and talking to the family, and reading everything that he wrote and all the interviews that he did, and watching his performances on film and watching his performances on The Dick Cavett Show … you do feel that you’ve got a fairly comprehensive picture of somebody.

And, of course, I share much of his outlook anyway, so I feel that I’ve never known a character better.

Black and white photo of a little boy looking at a mechanical shark
Ian Shaw looks on at the mechanical shark from Jaws, which was known as Bruce by crew members on the set of the 1975 Steven Spielberg blockbuster. (Submitted by Ian Shaw)

You visited the set [of Jaws] as a young kid, right? Like four or five years old when we go to a movie set, such a magical place. You have no idea that these giants — these actors that were working with your dad — they didn’t get along. When and how did you find out that there was this tension between those three?

I think I sort of had the feeling that it wasn’t all plain sailing. But it was only really when I met Richard Dreyfuss that I realized the extent of it, because I met him in the ’90s and auditioned for him and introduced myself as Robert Shaw’s son. He looked like he’d seen a ghost, which was quite appropriate because he was auditioning Hamlet, you know?

Did you expect to write a play that was so funny when you set out to patch this thing together?

Yeah, that was the intention, you know, to make it a comedy. I mean, I personally think Jaws is very funny… And so we were taking inspiration from the film, and it also veers quite swiftly to a different change of tone.

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