Tuesday, February 28

Robert Shaw

He delivered stern, raucous, steely-eyed performances, full of mischief, temperament and arrogance.  When he was in a scene, it was pretty difficult to watch anyone else.  While he began acting in the late 40s, he didn't really come into his own until the 70s and then he seemed to be everywhere.  It might have gone on forever, but sadly Robert Shaw was dead by the end of the decade.

He was born in 1927 in Lancashire, England, to a nurse and a doctor.  He spent his earliest years in Scotland from where his mother hailed and where his father had his practice.  His father, however, was a manic depressive and an alcoholic and he committed suicide when Shaw was just 12 years of age.

Perhaps due to having three sisters and a brother, he was very competitive from early life and developed a superior attitude along with it.  He took these traits into adulthood and believed he could do anything he set his mind to.  He excelled in sports and after a schoolmaster got him interested in reading the classics, Shaw enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  He then went to Stratford-on-Avon where the esteemed John Gielgud directed him but said I do admire you and think you have a lot of ability and I'd like to help you but you make me so nervous.

He made a lot of people nervous and others made every effort to avoid him because of his arrogant manner. While he already thought he was quite accomplished, his brusque manner likely masked a basic insecurity which he, in turn, dealt with by marathon drinking.  Luckily, he didn't get into physical encounters with others as many of his contemporaries would do, but he certainly loved the sauce.

He began acting in one play after another, mainly Shakespeare, and appeared in television projects.  He worked on the stage with Alec Guinness who took a shine to him and got him a small part in his film, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Shaw's first screen appearance.  He worked steadily throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, mainly in television, and though he was regarded as a very good actor, somehow big-name recognition wasn't happening.

He became an accomplished author with his first novel, The Hiding Place, published in 1960, and went on to write more novels along with plays and screenplays.

The first film which garnered Shaw worldwide attention is indisputably
From Russia with Love (1963), my favorite James Bond movie.   Everyone who's seen it remembers him as the blond, stone-faced killer who had the most riveting fight with Sean Connery aboard a train.

The Guest (1963), a compelling drama based on Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, is concerned with three men.  Shaw is a quiet, meek sort of man who takes in a derelict (Donald Pleasence) and offers him a job as his manservant, much to the consternation of Shaw's sadistically-inclined brother, Alan Bates.

Shaw has the title role in The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964), a film not known to many Americans unless one is a big Shaw fan.  It's still considered one of his early efforts, before his fame really took hold.  If more people had seen this performance as an unstable, unemployed Irish immigrant in Montreal, his career might have ascended more quickly. 

Ginger Coffey costarred the pretty, blonde Scottish actress, Mary Ure.  Before she and Shaw married in 1963, they had been cheating on their spouses with one another since 1959. The marriage may have taken place when it did because she was pregnant with the first of their four children.  He had just divorced his actress-wife, Jennifer Bourke, who had been pregnant with their first of four children. With third wife, Virginia Jansen, his longtime secretary, he had two children.  Are you counting?  That's 10.  Ure, to me, is most famous for her roles in Sons and Lovers (1960) and Where Eagles Dare (1968).

With second wife, Mary Ure

The title of Battle of the Bulge (1965) says it all.  Shaw played the evil German while Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Robert Ryan, George Montgomery and Charles Bronson handled the American soldiering.  I expect this film, if revered at all, is due to the cast.

A Man for All Seasons (1966) is a brilliant film and with actors like Shaw, Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller and Orson Welles, how could it be anything else?  The tale of Sir Thomas More's stand against King Henry VIII when the king rejected the Catholic church in order to obtain a divorce deservedly won Oscars for best picture and more.  And I'll tell you Shaw's interpretation of the blustery king stands right up there with Laughton and Burton... all of whom received Oscar nominations for their performances.

Lover of westerns though I might be, Custer of the West (1967) is not one of the finest.  In fact, there are so many things wrong with it that it borders on embarrassing, not to mention highly fictional. But Shaw was the best thing about it and he got another chance to work with Ure.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969) focused on Spanish explorer Pizarro and his conquest of the Incas but it may have been a little too long on chatter and too little on action-adventure.  I liked it, however, because Shaw always captivated and it didn't hurt that Christopher Plummer and Leonard (Romeo) Whiting were along for the hunt.

Young Winston (1972) was a rather rousing look at the early life of Winston Churchill. Little-remembered Simon Ward was spot on
as the future prime minister as were Shaw and Anne Bancroft as his parents.  I thought it was a decent historical piece but it apparently didn't provide quite the excitement that audiences were looking for.

A Reflection of Fear (1972) is a British flick that received little attention in the states. Shaw plays an estranged husband and father who returns to his home to see his disturbed daughter and divorce his hateful wife.  Ure played the wife.  Shaw and Ure are terrific as are Sondra Locke as the daughter, Signe Hasso as the grandmother and Sally Kellerman as Shaw's fiance.

The Sting (1973) is the second film Shaw appeared in that won a best picture Oscar. He plays a criminal banker who is at the center of an elaborate con to relieve him of his fortune.  I was blown away by the Oscar-winning writing of this film.  Shaw took a decidedly backseat role to the reunion of superstars Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

Shaw began his action-thriller phase with The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (1974) and a juicy one it is, too.  Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo and Earl Hindman play four very bad men who hijack a New York subway train and demand ransom for the passengers with cop Walter Matthau in hot pursuit.  Shaw said working underground in freezing and dirty conditions took a toll on his mental and physical health.  He suffered a heart attack from which he recovered.  It was a wake-up call and he decided he wanted to take life a little easier, especially his personal life.  He began looking for a piece of rural property, something far away from the glare of the spotlight.

Unquestionably, his most famous and best role was playing the crusty shark hunter, Quint, in Jaws (1975).  By the time filming commenced his drinking bouts had become gargantuan because Ure passed away suddenly.  She had opened in a new play and it looked like a success.  She came home after opening night, took a couple of prescribed pills and had champagne. Apparently the combination killed her at age 42.  Shaw was devastated and some friends thought he was drinking the way he was so he could join her.  

Shaw was not the first or even second choice for the role. Spielberg first wanted Lee Marvin and when that didn't pan out, he sought out a true seaman, Sterling Hayden, who also declined. Shaw didn't want to accept the role because he had read the novel and thought it was trash.  But Ure convinced him it was a good career move so he went ahead. 

I thought he was sensational as Quint, certainly the most colorful of the three leads, and of course the only one to not make it out alive. I remember sitting in the theater in 1975 and lifting my legs off the floor as Quint was trying to stay out of the mouth of the Great White.  Rumors have circulated for years that he and Richard Dreyfuss didn't get along.  Some say during down time they got on fairly well but once on set, Shaw apparently picked on Dreyfuss relentlessly, much as his character did.

The film's best dialogue scene, in the boat's galley, showing wounds and remembering the USS Indianapolis, required a complete re-do.  Since the characters were supposed to be drinking, Shaw decided to get into the spirit and got himself so blasted that he blacked out.  Once recovered he is responsible for writing much of the dialogue or improvising it.

Around this time Shaw moved to Ireland.  He bought 75 acres near the hamlet of Tourmekeady in County Mayo.  He renovated a 167-year old stone mansion and loved his days on his tractor clearing brush.  He grew his own vegetables in his two greenhouses. With his dentist he went into the business of fattening cattle for market. Here they measure you as a man and not by a bank balance, he said.  His new marriage steadied him and he claimed at the time that he was sucking up the pints less than ever and that he was happier than he had ever been.

He followed up the magnificent Jaws with the lightweight pirate flick, Swashbuckler (1976). Silly as it was I found it fun and entertaining. Shaw looked a bit long in the tooth and physically wrong for the part and Genevieve Bujold received most of the good notices.

Robin and Marian (1976) starred Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as the famous forest frolickers in their twilight years.  I thought the casting of these two actors was a brilliant stroke of genius and I loved watching them together.  Although in a smaller role as the sheriff of Nottingham, Shaw delivered the right amount of menace. I suspect he did it for the money.  Hey, he had a lot of mouths to feed. 

Black Sunday (1977), on the other hand, was a starring role and the film a tense, exciting and completely engaging, edge-of-the-seat entertainment which still holds up today.  Playing an Israeli intelligence agent, he's out to stop Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller from blowing up a blimp hovering over a packed super bowl stadium with the U.S. president in attendance.  I would guess that fans of action-thrillers love this one as much as I did.

Shaw and I disagree on The Deep (1977). He thought it was junk while I was, again, highly entertained by one of his movies.  He must have loosened up on Peter (Jaws) Benchley's writing, because he was the scribe on this one as well. It is another watery thriller, this time involving a young couple (Jacqueline Bisset and Nick Nolte, both looking their ravishing best) caught up in a deadly, voodoo-laced treasure hunt in Bermuda. Shaw is their mentor and sometime-protector. The underwater scenes are spectacular as is Bisset in her wet T-shirt.

Force 10 from Navarone (1978) is not as good as its predecessor, The Guns of Navarone (1961) but it is not bad either. With a cast including Harrison Ford, Edward Fox and Franco Nero and a big box of popcorn, one could do worse.

In 1978 Lee Marvin joined Shaw for Avalanche Express, another action-thriller, filmed throughout Europe.  It was another of those films that everyone (Maximilian Schell, Linda Evans, Horst Buchholz and footballer Joe Namath) did for the money.  Shaw plays a Russian who wants to defect and Marvin was just the man to get him to safety, although we know there would be plenty of roadblocks.  It might have been better than it is if Shaw had been able to complete post-dubbing and other essentials after the completion of filming. But that would never be accomplished.

On August 29, 1978, 51-year old Robert Shaw had finished a day of golf and was in the car with his wife and young son, heading home, when he suddenly experienced chest pains.  He stopped the car, got out, saying he wanted to walk off the pain, and collapsed on the roadside and died.

How sad.

Next posting:
a good 70s film

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