Ian Shaw first saw “Jaws” when he was 7 or 8. Steven Spielberg’s epic monster movie instilled in the boy a lifelong fear of swimming in open water.
“It still has an effect on me,” says Shaw, who is 53. “I’m still wondering what’s down there, even in fresh water.”
The night after that first screening, he says, he had a nightmare that sharks were circling his bed. He called out to his father to come and save him, “which he duly did.”
Shaw’s father was better equipped to allay his son’s fears about sharks than most dads. He was Robert Shaw, the renowned English actor perhaps most famous for playing Quint, the hell-bent, Narragansett-crushing shark hunter in “Jaws.”
The elder Shaw died in 1978, at age 51. That year, Ian — then 8 years old, the ninth of Shaw’s 10 children — pledged that he would dedicate his life to acting.
After three decades appearing largely in British television series, his acting career has recently taken an impressive leap out of the water. As of early August, Shaw has a show on Broadway. He’s playing Robert Shaw.
The play, “The Shark Is Broken,” which Shaw co-wrote with Joseph Nixon, is a three-hander that takes place on the deck of the Orca, the real-life lobster boat (originally called the Warlock) from Marblehead that served as the set of the final act of “Jaws.” The actors playing Shaw, Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell), and Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman) exhaust all their discussion topics — acting, alcohol, fathers and sons — while they wait for the film’s technical crew to declare the mechanical shark ready for its close-up.
Prior to Broadway, Shaw’s play had successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in London’s West End. Since it opened at the Golden Theatre (where it is scheduled to run through Nov. 19), he has been routinely stopped on the streets of New York. With a mustache and muttonchops, he looks precisely like his father did when “Jaws” was filmed.
“It’s quite nice, actually,” Shaw says on a video call. “I live in a small village in Sussex, where everyone kind of knows who you are. Now I come to New York, which is very exciting, full of culture and wonderful food. And what’s strange is that because people are saying hello to me, it sort of feels like I’m in a village again.”
It’s the fictional seaside village of Amity, of course, that’s terrorized by the great white in the original “Jaws.” Shaw was on the set on Martha’s Vineyard with his parents — his mother was the British actor Mary Ure, who had a leading role in “Look Back in Anger” (1959) — during the shoot in the summer of 1974.
He can recall visiting the warehouse in Edgartown where engineers were scrambling to get the three mechanical versions of the shark — famously nicknamed Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer — to work properly.
“I remember one of the technicians pulling the blanket off the shark,” he says. “I didn’t know how lucky I was. It’s possibly one of my earliest memories.”
Really, what he wanted to do was to romp around on the beach, “playing with sand castles and mucking about on the dunes.
“I was busy being 5,” he says. “At that age, being on a film set is a very dull place to be, and especially one where they aren’t actually filming.”
In fact, that’s the premise of “The Shark Is Broken.” The stage is designed to look like you’re out on the ocean, with waves rippling and storm clouds drifting. Shaw’s downtime dialogue is rooted partly in the historical record, drawing on resources such as screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s book “The Jaws Log” (1975), and partly in the playwright’s imagination.
At a preview performance on Broadway in early August, a full house was eager to hoot at every in-joke. Shaw, as the elder Shaw, groused that he’d gotten himself wrapped up in “a trifle, an entertainment” — a flimsy action movie that no one would be talking about in 50 years.
Brightman (“School of Rock,” “Beetlejuice the Musical”) drew plenty of laughs for his spot-on impersonation of Richard Dreyfuss, the twitchy actor who played marine biologist Matt Hooper. The prickly banter between Dreyfuss and Shaw lies at the heart of the younger Shaw’s script.
Some years ago, Shaw auditioned in England for a production of “Hamlet,” set to be directed by Dreyfuss. When he introduced himself, he says, Dreyfuss “was sort of drained of all blood. He’d been traumatized by having worked with my dad.
“He looked as if he’d eaten a bad oyster,” Shaw says.
Robert Shaw was a classically trained Shakespearean actor who went on to star in “From Russia With Love” (1963), “The Sting” (1973), and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974). Though he was notably disdainful of the script for “Jaws” when he first signed on, according to his son, he came to see Spielberg as a prodigious talent in the making.
“My memory,” Shaw says of the director, who was 27 at the time, “is that he was too young to be telling my dad what to do.”
Mary Ure died of an accidental overdose in April 1975, hours after she took part in the opening night of a play on a London stage. She was 42. Three years later Shaw’s father was dead, too. As devastating as that was, he says that his large family remains close, and that he always felt supported by his older siblings.
“They’re a great group of people,” he says.
When he began writing the script for “The Shark Is Broken,” he quickly developed some debilitating reservations.
“There was so much potential for it to be miscommunicated,” he says. “I want people to have sympathy with the characters, one of which is my dad,” whom he “adored.”
“But at the same time, you want it to be truthful and interesting. It’s quite a fine line.” He sketched out the manuscript, he says, “and shoved it in a drawer.”
If any of his siblings had expressed concerns about the portrayal of their father — his heavy drinking in particular, a recurring theme — Shaw says he would have scrapped it altogether. But the more he discussed the idea with friends and family, the more they encouraged him to do it.
“I woke up many times in the writing process at 3 in the morning, feeling very panicky and stressed,” he says. “It would be such a car crash, so incredibly embarrassing, that people would be saying, ‘Is he mad?’ ”
In the end, the play isn’t about the shark at all, but the people waiting for it. Like most plays, it’s about human flaws and frailties. Madnesses, even.
The title, he says, implies that it’s not just the mechanical shark that’s in need of repair.