Robert Shaw, the English character actor best remembered as the salty sea Captain Quint in Jaws and for his stints in many other fondly loved motion pictures, died 35 years ago today of a heart attack.
Shaw was an amazingly robust talent, and he had a chameleonic tendency in his roles, blending effortlessly into them, and they were as diverse as being an assassin in the 2nd James Bond film To Russia With Love, the young Henry the Eighth in A Man For All Seasons (in which Shaw holds his own against a caliber supporting cast), the no-apologist mobster henchman Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting and “Mr. Blue” in the original version of the subway heist flick Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3, who was steely, frozen rope, and cunning. A common thread through all these characters and more that Shaw portrayed on screen or stage, is that they all had a certain elegance to them in the middle of their controlled menacing hazes.
A Shaw performance kind of makes one gulp when watching it, it sets an unease, a slight one, never one that overpowers the performance, but acts as an uplift to it; Shaw, like a minimal few other actors such as De Niro, Hoffman, Brando et al, they all have that quality of the unsettling; with men like them, there’s actually something rather enhancing about their ability to do that to the viewer, which gives the performance and the audience member watching it, elevation. Even as Quint in Jaws, Shaw comes across as making one uncomfortable; he’s consistently flinching like steel wool on skin yet ultimately charming and there’s not much sitting still inside or outside the viewer’s circulatory and nervous system when watching him do it. Robert Shaw had that gift and knack to be able to suss that up in his performances, and it remained a sort of hub and foundation upon which he built his roles.
Shaw also wrote plays and novels, something which no doubt had a helping hand in his success of understanding and getting inside the head and soul of the characters he played. He was a truly remarkable actor who understood the fine line between subtlety and passion, flat lined delivery and explosive tendencies. Shaw could tackle them all and did. If not for his death at the all too young age of 51, there’s no telling what he might have done. There could have been a future of starring or acting as a utility player in many action films of the 1980s, the Rambo franchise, The Delta Force, Commando, and plenty more, all of which could have benefited by a Shaw cameo or meaty role. Alas, the presence of Robert Shaw remains as an influence and guiding light to what came in the wake of his passing.
The rich and full body of work that is available which showcases the wonderful range and acting latitude of Robert Shaw is readily accessible and one is urged to take advantage of the great performances captured on celluloid courtesy of the man. Here’s to remembering one of the great, three-dimensional actors, one who never flinched and emanated a false note in a performance, or took the easy roads and slummed in his acting roles, a classy gentleman whose mile wide presence will always be ingrained in the consciousness on the silver screen, and transcending it as well for the ages, Robert Shaw.