On this day in history : 9th August 1927 – The birth of actor, novelist and playwright Robert Shaw – who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Henry VIII in ‘A Man For All Seasons’….

Robert Shaw – Public domain

Shaw was born in Westhoughton, Lancashire and was the son of a former nurse, Doreen Nora and a doctor of Scottish descent, Thomas Archibald Shaw…. He had a brother and three sisters and when he was 7 the family moved to Orkney, Scotland…. Shaw’s father was an alcoholic and a manic depressive – when Shaw was 12 his father committed suicide…. The family relocated to Cornwall….

Shaw was inspired by one of his schoolmasters, who would regularly take his students to see plays in London…. The first play Shaw saw was Hamlet in 1944, with Sir John Gielgud…. After a brief time of working as a teacher himself Shaw used a £1,000 inheritance from his grandmother to join the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art….

He graduated and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company – where he was to be directed by Gielgud…. After making his stage debut in 1949 Shaw was to tour Australia with the Old Vic and then go on to tour Europe and South Africa…. It was whilst performing in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ in Stratford during 1950 that he was spotted by Sir Alec Guinness – who suggested he ‘come to London to do Hamlet’…. Shaw had been discovered….

His first film role was a small part in the classic ‘Lavender Hill’…. It was also around this time that he married his first wife, actress Jennifer Bourne…. They were to have four daughters…. He went on to have parts in films such as ‘The Dam Busters’, ‘A Hill in Korea’ and a successful role as Dan Tempest in the 1956 film ‘The Buccaneers’…. It was around this time that he was to write his first novel, ‘The Hiding Place’ – which was to sell some 12,000 copies in the UK and around the same in the US and France…. He also began to write for television….

Robert Shaw in ‘The Buccaneers’, 1957 – Public domain

In 1959 Shaw met and began an affair with well-known actress Mary Ure, who was married to playwright and actor John Osbourne (Look Back in Anger)…. The pair were to work together and although both were still married had a child in 1961…. Shaw’s wife also gave birth around the same time…. They were to divorce, as were Ure and Osbourne – and in April 1963 Shaw and Ure married and went on to have three more children…. His film career continued; in 1963 he played the blond assassin Donald ‘Red’ Grant in the Bond film ‘From Russia With Love’….

Shaw had become a very familiar face to the cinema-going public…. He was to appear in ‘The Sting’ in 1973 and ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’ in 1974…. But the role many will remember him for is as Quint, the Irish shark hunter in the 1975 film ‘Jaws’…. It was part he very nearly did not take on, as he was unimpressed with the script…. The film was to be one of the biggest box-office successes of the time, netting more than $100 million worldwide….

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However, he was to make little or no money from it, due to taxes he owed in the US, Canada and Ireland…. This was a bleak period for Shaw….his wife had died after taking an accidental overdose of prescription drugs – and he began to suffer from depression….

Despite his depression he continued to work….and he was to find love again, after falling for his secretary, Virginia Dewitt Jansen…. They married in July 1976 – he adopted her son and they were to have another of their own….

In 1977 Shaw began work on his next film ‘The Deep’ and also in the same year he starred in ‘Force 10 from Navarone’ – a sequel to ‘The Guns of Navarone’…. It was whilst making ‘Avalanche Express’ in 1979 that the film’s Director, Mark Robson, died….and production stopped…. As it turned out this film was also to be Shaw’s last – as by now his health was beginning to suffer on account of his alcoholism….

Shaw returned to Ireland whilst he waited for filming to resume…. It was while driving home to Tourmakeady, with his wife and son in the car, that he was taken ill…. The day had been spent playing golf with friends in Castlebar and shopping with his family…. As they neared home he began to experience chest pains – he pulled the car over and got out…. Shaw collapsed by the side of the road – an ambulance arrived 15 minutes later and he was taken to Mayo General Hospital, Castlebar, where he was pronounced dead…. Robert Shaw had died from a heart attack at the age of 51…. A memorial stone marks the location where he died….

Image credit : ClintMalpaso – own work CC BY-SA 3.0

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