In 1975 "Jaws" was unleashed upon the American populace. And with its release (along with "Star Wars" two years later) the summer blockbuster was forever cemented in Hollywood's business model. Nestled between the folds of this seminal picture is a performance by Shaw that I saw as a very young man and inhabits my earliest memory of truly great acting.
His character, Quint, was a sea captain, a latter-day Ahab. He's the one hard man on Amity Island and he comes into the film with the sound of nails down a chalkboard. From this iconic entrance, Shaw goes on to craft one of the most fascinating and singular figures I have ever seen in cinema. This tough old captain is a being of pure power, every part of him is calloused, and one can do little more than accept him. From the cadence of his speech to his swarthy swagger to the way he seems to be forever munching on some kind of cracker, you never feel as though you are watching an actor; you are simply watching a man exist. You believe everything he does.
Apart from being a seafarer and a crushing, perpetual realist, Quint is a storyteller. Over the course of the film, he spins tales of his life and times that are so beautifully detailed -- not just by the words but by the sound of Shaw's voice and the twinkle in his eye -- that you find yourself impossibly entranced by every moment of the man's life. He's the drunk at the bar you wish would go on rambling forever. Every breath he takes, every squint, every raw cackle, is bursting with his history. The screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb offers only flashes, moments from Quint's life; the rest is written across Shaw's forehead and etched along his jaw. We can clearly read every word.
Quint's story of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in shark-infested waters proves to be more harrowing than the great white itself. Though he smiles through almost the entire story, it is a smile unlike any I have ever seen on another human being -- the last remaining expression for a story seen in too many nightmares. There is so much honesty in his performance, it becomes unthinkable not to believe every word. Quite often, I forget that he is speaking written lines.
In a time of tent poles and products, I am reminded that great stories will keep people coming back to the movies. And as great stories are written, there must be great actors to live them. Robert Shaw was one of those actors, and his characters -- not only Quint but many more -- will live on long after we all feel safe to go back in the water.
Connor Paolo is currently starring on ABC's "Revenge" and was recently seen on the CW's "Gossip Girl."