When playwright and actor Ian Shaw was a little boy, he got to visit the film set of Jaws. “I have to be honest,” he confesses, “I wasn’t particularly interested, apart from seeing the shark. The shark was exciting. It was scary, even though it wasn’t moving.”
Ian remembers a young Steven Spielberg "hopping about" with a little handheld video camera. And he did get a peek at the shark. "It was under a blanket, because it was all top secret," recalls Ian.
That lucky little boy was on set because his father, English actor and writer Robert Shaw, starred in the movie as Quint, the grizzled shark hunter. With him aboard the Orca fishing boat were Amity Island’s police chief Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, and marine biologist Matt Hooper, played by a young Richard Dreyfuss. The on-set squabbles between Robert Shaw and Dreyfuss are the stuff of Hollywood legend, and at the center of Ian Shaw’s play, co-written with Joseph Nixon, The Shark Is Broken, which officially opens August 10 at the Golden Theatre.
When Jaws was released in the summer of 1975, it was an instant hit at the box office, but it was also blamed for the downtick in beach tourism. “I remember seeing the film and staying out of the water. I’m one of those who was spooked,” Ian tells Playbill on a trip to the Sharks exhibition at the America. Museum of Natural History. At one point, with a camera following behind him, he offers to crawl inside the mouth of the life-sized model of a megalodon on display. Ian looks so much like his father that Quint’s death scene in the final moments of Jaws immediately spring to mind.
That father-son resemblance comes in handy for The Shark Is Broken, because not only did Ian co-write the comedy, he also stars in it—as his father. The play premiered at Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 and transferred to the West End for an Olivier-nominated run in 2021. For the Main Stem production, Broadway regulars Alex Brightman and Colin Donnell join Shaw as Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider, respectively.
The second half ofJaws takes place on the boat as the trio are hunting for the man-eating great white shark. And it was filmed on the ocean as opposed to a giant studio water tank. Delays caused by weather and a consistently broken mechanical shark, led to a lot of downtime in close quarters for the film’s star trio. And Robert and Dreyfuss seemed to always be at odds with each other. The fictionalized account of the behind-the-scenes has been pieced together by Ian and Nixon based on interviews, documentaries, news clippings, Robert’s own writings, and stories from Ian’s family.
“With Richard and Robert, who have unattractive aspects to their characters, which they would both admit, I think—we didn’t want to be cruel. We just wanted to be honest about it, and to perhaps understand a little bit why they were the way that they were,” says Ian. It’s an antagonistic relationship between the two of them, with both actors constantly needling each other, with Scheider stuck in the middle. Richard gives Robert guff about his drinking. Robert taunts and goads Richard to get a better performance out of him. As hostile as they seem to one another, Ian puts forth that there was also a great deal of affection between the pair. “In a way, it’s a classic father-son relationship.”
The Shark Is Broken may be billed as a comedy, but, like Jaws, it’s important to look at what’s lurking beneath. And here, the layers of that father-son relationship run deep. There is a scene in the play in which Robert is speaking of his own father who committed suicide at age 52 when Robert was only 12 years old. Robert, age 47 during filming, wonders if he’ll outlive his father. He doesn’t. Robert Shaw died from a heart attack at age 51, only four years after filming Jaws.
Remember, these lines, when spoken on stage, come from the mouth of Ian Shaw. It’s hard to separate the actor from the role here. At age 53, he has outlived both his grandfather and his father. “I was nervous about it, because I felt that I was exposing myself to something that might be damaging emotionally. But it’s so interesting. When you do it, you quickly realize it’s not about you. It’s about all of us. We all have fathers, and traditionally, that relationship is quite difficult to unpack,” says Ian. “I found it quite liberating, personally, to actually go through that process by doing this.”
Ian also lost his mother, actress Mary Ure, at a young age. But he has memories of visiting New York with her as a young boy and is looking forward to revisiting places like Central Park and Harlem that only exist as shards of memory for him now. Incidentally, Ure made her Broadway debut in 1957’s Look Back in Angerwhich also played at the Golden Theatre, adding another layer to Ian’s nightly steps—walking in his father’s shoes where his mother once trod.
The Shark Is Broken is still a comedy about a movie about a shark, though. And Jaws fans will have plenty of fun hunting for the hidden treasures from the film on the set and in the script.
For Ian though, these moments on stage in his father’s skin are some of the most special of his career. “The minute I walk into the theatre, I’m looking forward to going out there,” he says. “My heart is completely invested. It’s very precious to me because it’s about my life and my father’s life.
Catch The Shark Is Broken through November 19 at the Golden Theatre. Special thanks to The American Museum of Natural History. See the Sharks Exhibit there through September 4.