Robert Shaw (actor)

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Robert Shaw
Robert Shaw headshot.jpg
Shaw c. 1971
Born (1927-08-09)9 August 1927
Westhoughton, Lancashire, England
Died 28 August 1978(1978-08-28) (aged 51)
Toormakeady, County Mayo, Ireland
Occupation Actor, novelist, playwright
Years active 1947–1978
Spouse(s) Jennifer Bourke (m. 1952; div. 1963)
Mary Ure (m. 1963; d. 1975)
Virginia Jansen (m. 1976)
Children 10, including Ian Shaw
Relatives Rob Kolar (grandson)

Robert Archibald Shaw (9 August 1927 – 28 August 1978) was an English actor, novelist, and playwright.

In an extensive career over thirty years, usually in supporting character roles with an authoritative aspect, he appeared in almost fifty cinematic productions, including playing King Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons (1966), for which he was nominated for the 1967 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Early life[edit]

Robert Archibald Shaw was born on 9 August 1927 in Westhoughton, Lancashire, the son of former nurse Doreen (née Avery), who was born in Piggs Peak, Swaziland, and doctor Thomas Shaw.[1][2] He had three sisters named Elisabeth, Joanna, and Wendy, and one brother named Alexander. When he was seven years old, the family moved to Scotland, settling in Stromness, Orkney. When Shaw was 12, his alcoholic father killed himself. The family then moved to Cornwall, where Shaw attended the independent Truro School.[citation needed] For a brief period, he was a teacher at Glenhow Preparatory School in Saltburn-by-the-Sea in the North Riding of Yorkshire, before attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He also served in the Royal Air Force.[citation needed]

Acting career[edit]

Shaw in The Buccaneers (1957)

Shaw began his acting career in theatre, appearing in regional theatre throughout England. In 1952, he made his London debut in the West End at the Embassy Theatre, in Caro William.

Shaw starred in a British TV series which also appeared on American television as The Buccaneers (1956–57). Shaw's best-known film performances include assassin Donald Grant in the second James Bond film From Russia with Love (1963); the title role in The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964); the relentless panzer German Army officer Colonel Hessler in Battle of the Bulge (1965); a young Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons (1966); Lord Randolph Churchill, in Young Winston (1972); General George Armstrong Custer in Custer of the West (1967); mobster Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting (1973); the subway-hijacker and hostage-taker "Mr. Blue" in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974); the shark-obsessed fisherman Quint in Jaws (1975), lighthouse keeper and treasure-hunter Romer Treece in The Deep (1977); and Israeli Mossad agent David Kabakov in Black Sunday (1977).

Shaw was nominated for the Golden Globe Award and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in A Man for All Seasons.

He performed onstage as well, across Britain and on Broadway in the United States,[3] where his notable performances include Harold Pinter's Old Times[4] and The Caretaker,[5] Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Physicists directed by Peter Brook,[6] and The Man in the Glass Booth, inspired by the kidnapping and trial of Adolf Eichmann, written by Shaw himself, and directed by Pinter.[7]

Writing career[edit]

Shaw was also an accomplished writer of novels, plays and screenplays. His first novel, The Hiding Place, published in 1960, received positive reviews. His next, The Sun Doctor, published the following year, was awarded the Hawthornden Prize in 1962.

Shaw then embarked on a trilogy of novels – The Flag (1965), The Man in the Glass Booth (1967) and A Card from Morocco (1969). His adaptation for the stage of The Man in the Glass Booth gained him the most attention for his writing. The book and play present a complex and morally ambiguous tale of a man who, at various times in the story, is either a Jewish businessman pretending to be a Nazi war criminal, or a Nazi war criminal pretending to be a Jewish businessman. The play was quite controversial when performed in the UK and the US, some critics praising Shaw's "sly, deft and complex examination of the moral issues of nationality and identity", others sharply critical of Shaw's treatment of such a sensitive subject.

The Man in the Glass Booth was further developed for the screen, but Shaw disapproved of the resulting screenplay and had his name removed from the credits. However, Shaw viewed the completed film before its release and asked to have his name reinstated. In 2002, director Arthur Hiller related Shaw's initial objection to the screenplay and his subsequent change of heart:

"When we decided that we needed more emotions in the film and leaned it towards that, we tried, obviously, to be honest to Robert Shaw, to keep that intellectual game-playing, but to create more of an emotional environment. And Robert Shaw became very disturbed. He did not like the idea and indeed, if you will watch the film, you will see that his name does not appear in the credits, nor does it even say, 'based on the play, The Man in the Glass Booth' because he wouldn’t let us do it. He just didn't like the idea until he saw the film. Then he phoned Eddie Anhalt, the screenwriter, and congratulated him because he thought it was—just kept the tone he wanted and did it so well. And he phoned Mort Abrahams the Executive Producer to see if he could get his name put on the final credits. But it was too late to restore his name, all the prints were all made."[8]

Shaw also adapted The Hiding Place into a screenplay for the film Situation Hopeless... But Not Serious starring Sir Alec Guinness. His play Cato Street, about the 1820 Cato Street Conspiracy, was produced for the first time in 1971 in London.

Personal life[edit]

Shaw was married three times and had 10 children, two of whom were adopted. His first wife was Jennifer Bourke from 1952 to 1963, with whom he had four daughters. His second wife was actress Mary Ure from 1963 to 1975, with whom he had four children. He adopted son Colin (born 1961) from his wife's previous marriage to John Osborne; according to an interview with Colin, he was Shaw's son born during an affair while Ure was still married to Osborne. Shaw's son Ian (born 1969) also became an actor. He had two daughters, Elizabeth (born 1963) and Hannah (born 1966). This marriage ended with Ure's death from an overdose. His third and final wife was Virginia Jansen from 1976 until his death in 1978, with whom he had one son, Thomas, and adopted her son, Charles, from a previous relationship. Shaw's grandson is American musician and composer Rob Kolar.[9]

For the last seven years of his life, Shaw lived at Drimbawn House in Tourmakeady, County Mayo.[10]


Like his father, Shaw was an alcoholic for most of his life.[11] He died in Ireland at the age of 51 from a heart attack on 28 August 1978, while driving from Castlebar, County Mayo to his home in Toormakeady.[12] He suddenly became ill, stopped the car, stepped out, and then collapsed and died on the roadside. He was rushed to Castlebar General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.[13][14] (He had just completed acting in the film Avalanche Express). His body was cremated and its ashes scattered near his home in Toormakeady. A stone memorial to him was unveiled there in his honour in August 2008.[10]


Shaw has a pub named after him[15] in his birthplace of Westhoughton.

Villain Sebastian Shaw from the X-Men comics is named and modelled after Shaw.[16]






  1. ^ Wakeman, John; Kunitz, Stanley (1975). World Authors, 1950-1970: A Companion Volume to Twentieth Century Authors. Wilson. p. 1292. ISBN 0-8242-0419-0. 
  2. ^ Ross, Lillian; Ross, Helen (1961). The Player A Profile of an Art. Simon and Schuster. p. 472. 
  3. ^ Robert Shaw at the Internet Broadway Database
  4. ^ Old Times at the Internet Broadway Database
  5. ^ The Caretaker at the Internet Broadway Database
  6. ^ The Physicist at the Internet Broadway Database
  7. ^ The Man in the Glass Booth at the Internet Broadway Database
  8. ^ The Man In The Glass Booth; Interview with Arthur Hiller; 2003 DVD release; KINO VIDEO.
  9. ^ Ciafardini, Marc (6 June 2016). "Composer Rob Kolar Takes the Sonic Wheel for 'The Detour' on TBS". Retrieved 27 January 2018. 
  10. ^ a b Connie O'Toole "Robert Shaw memorial unveiled in Mayo village" Irish Times (11 August 2008)
  11. ^ McIver, Brian (14 June 2012). "Revealed: The Scottish roots behind hellraiser Robert Shaw as Jaws hits cinemas again". Daily Record. 
  12. ^ "Robert Shaw". 
  13. ^ "Robert Shaw, British Actor, Dies in Ireland". The Post and Courier. 29 August 1978. Retrieved 6 December 2011. 
  14. ^ David Parkinson, "Shaw, Robert Archibald (1927–1978)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press 2004; online edition 2007; ISBN 978-0198614111
  15. ^ "The Robert Shaw". JD Weatherspoon. Retrieved 9 June 2011. 
  16. ^ "Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed #44!". Retrieved 9 June 2011. 

External links[edit]