Robert Shaw was an incredible actor. For film fans, there are about five or six key films associated with him. He is a bit like Richard Burton as an actor, remembered for being a tremendous stage actor, a few really good film roles, but unfortunately a lot of schlock.
Shaw logged many stage roles in London and on Broadway in the 1950s and 1960s. He was even a playwright and novelist. Film roles paid the bills and allowed him to do more serious work. Shaw actually began his career in the late 1940s on stage, then worked his way to more substantial roles on stage and on British television. By the beginning of the 1960s, he had a few film roles under his belt and had written his first novel. He appeared on Broadway in the 1961 production of Harold Pinter’s Caretaker, in a cast that included Donald Pleasance and Alan Bates.
The producers of the James Bond films signed him to portray an assassin in From Russia With Love (1963). Muscular, blonde and deadly, this was the first significant introduction of Shaw to world audiences. Being a Bond villain puts you on a select list. Steely-eyed and emotionless, he was almost robotic, and certainly lacking in the color of other Bond film villains. From Russia With Love was almost a traditional spy film, though a bit ramped-up to meet the Bond audience expectations that had been set with Dr. No.
In 1965, Shaw had a co-starring role in The Battle of the Bulge, a World War II epic about the Ardennes Counteroffensive, Germany’s last significant offensive, and the largest single American battle of the War. The film condenses and fictionalizes some events since this was a huge operation by the Germans and response by the Americans. Shaw plays Col. Hessler, in charge of the German Panzer tanks for offensive. He is grim and colorless, driven to win at any cost. This was a huge film, although it received mixed reviews, in part because of the freedom by the filmmakers with historical accuracy. Hessler was similar in character with the assassin from the Bond film. As written, the character was like so many other German officers in war films: ruthless, narrow-minded and unfeeling. Shaw plays this well, but without much originality.
The next year, Shaw played Henry VIII of England, in A Man For All Seasons, who wants an annulment from Katherine of Aragon so he can marry Anne Boleyn. He need Thomas More to approve it. Shawn was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for his performance. This was a major role for Shaw, a serious work and a high profile film.
Shaw had a starring role in Custer of the West (1967), in which he played George Armstrong Custer. The film was poor received. He was now starring in films, but the quality of those films was very uneven. Shaw would also take co-starring or featured roles in bigger films like The Battle of Britain (1969) and The Sting (1973). Playing a mobster who gets “stung” by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Shaw is able to concentrate on a character role. The Sting was a hugely successful film and put some energy in Shaw’s career.
Shaw was now in his middle 40s and he had entered the grandest part of his career. Next up was the classic, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). The heist thriller had a large, distinguished cast, but it was Shaw that had the meatiest role as leader of the thieves. Coldly calculating and efficient, Shaw’s character could have been essentially a two-dimensional criminal, but Shaw ups the game as he had to keep his crew under control, deal with a variety of train passenger issues, and navigate through the subway police negotiations. The film received favorable reviews, made a lot of money and increased Shaw’s power ranking.
Jaws (1975) would top anything Shaw would do in his career. The crusty, eccentric and philosophical Quint, was a role that Shaw very much created. He wrote much of the scene describing the sinking of the USS Indianapolis a terrifying recount of how the survivors of the ship that transported components for the atomic bombs, was sank and much of the crew became shark food.
Shaw went on to co-star in a number of films before he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1978. The best of his late career films were as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin and Marian (1976), the Israeli agent in Black Sunday (1977) and Maj. Mallory in Force 10 From Navarone (1978). He tackled another Peter Benchley role as treasure hunter Romer Treece in The Deep (1977). Shaw plays Treece as somewhat of an opportunist, mysterious in his motives, but who saves the day, like Quint did in Jaws. The Deep made a lot of money but it did not garner a reputation like Jaws with fans or critics. It is not a great film, but certainly an entertaining one.
Shaw’s last film, Avalanche Express (1979), is a terrible film. Shaw was said to be soured on films and was going to refocus his career on theater and writing. He died during filming, and his entire dialogue role was re-recorded by another actor, which sounds nothing like him. The director, Mark Robson, also died during filming, which should have been an omen. Avalanche Express is a very tired spy film, lackluster with the exception of the special effects scenes. The film was beneath Shaw, who may have taken the role strictly for the money and the location filming in Ireland. Fortunately, there are enough other films to speak of Shaw’s legacy.