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People Top 5
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- April 25, 1977
- Vol. 7
- No. 16
A Competitive, Arrogant Boozer? Robert Shaw Takes a Third Wife, Has a Tenth Child and Reforms
And Robert Shaw, the speaker, hides from the demons of fame in the Irish countryside. The contented-looking farmer in scruffy clothes little resembles the competitive, arrogant, hard-drinking Shaw of filmland legend. Could this be the same man who played the stone-faced killer in a James Bond adventure, the flim-flammed gangster in The Sting, the salty shark hunter swallowed in a gulp in Jaws?
The Robert Shaw that moviegoers know has never been hotter at the box office. Adding to his extraordinary string of hits in recent years, Shaw can be seen these days as an Israeli intelligence agent in Black Sunday. Next he portrays a professional diver in The Deep. As a Hollywood diamond, he is being polished well. The going rate for his services in a film runs to $750,000; few other foreign actors are paid as well.
Yet, as he surveys his 75 acres near the hamlet of Tourmakeady in County Mayo, Robert Shaw seems oblivious to stardom. "Here they measure you as a man and not by the bank balance," he says and looks about him. "This land had gone to pieces, but I'm restoring it, fertilizing it, and one day it will all be emerald-green grass."
Shaw is renovating a 167-year-old stone mansion. He drives a tractor to clear the brush and grows his own vegetables in two greenhouses. And, in partnership with the village dentist, he has gone into the business of fattening cattle for market.
When the chores are done, Shaw often cooks for his family and guests (a specialty is roast pheasant). The custom after dinner is for the adults to adjourn about a mile down the road to Paddy Walsh's pub. Shaw has not drunk anything stronger than cider for nearly four months. But that does not prevent him from helping out behind the bar, drawing pints of Guinness and skimming the excess foam with an expert flick of a wooden paddle.
"I'm the happiest I've been in a long time," he confesses. "I have my new marriage. I have my new baby, my tenth child. I don't have to work in third-rate movies anymore, and I'm in great physical shape."
At 50, Shaw claims he is mellowing after long years of struggle for commercial success. "It's been a strange movie career," he says—not a slow steady progression, but good years followed by bad in disheartening sequence. "I'm enjoying my seventh resurgence now," he muses, an edge of sarcasm creeping into his deep voice. "It was luck that they kept on discovering me." Though long acknowledged as a fine actor, Shaw rarely has won the starring role in a film. "I was never really a character actor—I was a leading man who was always cast as a character," he explains. "I wanted to be Jack Nicholson or Jean Gabin." The closest Shaw has come to winning an Oscar was a 1967 nomination for his supporting role—of course—as Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons. The actor who won it that year was Walter Matthau for A Fortune Cookie.
"I still don't think of myself as a star," says Shaw. "Success lasts only three seconds. After that you're the same as you were before you had it. I'm not a true artist anyway because I refuse to shrug off my family. To support them I must work in commercial films. My taxes alone keep eight lawyers busy, and when I finally get my money, it's only one-third of what I earn. With the kids in school and my other responsibilities, I get no change back from the first million dollars. The money flows out like water."
Shaw concedes his family would survive if he never appeared in another movie. "But I still want the best for my kids. That doesn't mean I'm mercenary," he insists. "Having been brought up in a capitalist competitive world, I retain its traditions. There's no future in being poor."
Born in Lancashire, England, Shaw spent his earliest years in the wildly beautiful Orkney Islands of Scotland, where his father, a doctor, practiced. But the elder Shaw, losing a battle with alcoholism, committed suicide by swallowing opium when Robert was 12. His mother took the boy back to her native Cornwall, where he grew up to be both a first-rate athlete (rugby and squash) and a budding poet. His family pointed him toward Cambridge University, but young Robert chose the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art instead.
He made his stage debut in a Royal Shakespeare Theatre production of Macbeth at Stratford-on-Avon in 1949, then continued his apprenticeship with the Old Vic in London. Gradually he branched out to other London stage productions (Tiger at the Gates, The Long and the Short and the Tall, The Changeling, among others), to films (The Luck of Ginger Coffey, The Royal Hunt of the Sun) and to TV (a series called The Buccaneers). During those years the boy poet had also begun writing fiction, and in 1959 he published his first novel, The Hiding Place. Another of his novels (he has five to date) became the hit play The Man in the Glass Booth (and a less successful movie from which Shaw angrily disassociated himself).
Busy as his credits make those years sound in retrospect, Shaw has vivid memories of early dry spells, when he toiled in an ice cream factory, operated a hospital switchboard and wrote book reviews for the London Sunday Times. He even recalls sharing the same unemployment line with his close friends from the theater, playwright Harold Pinter and actor Donald Pleasence.
As a performer, Shaw drew consistent critical praise. But he wasn't "commercial," and often chose to act in movies that were not big moneymakers. In addition, he gained a reputation for being a prickly character known to enjoy his liquor.
"Drink? Can you imagine being a movie star and having to take it seriously without a drink?" asks Shaw incredulously. "I agree with Richard Burton that drink gives poetry to life. Drink for actors is an occupational hazard born largely out of fear."
Shaw, as a matter of fact, has been on the wagon since January—in a few more days it will be four months and he will win a $10,000 bet with his agent. "I don't think I deserve the heavy boozer reputation anymore," Shaw says. "The only time it's all right for me to be drunk now is when I fly. I developed a real fear of flying four years ago. If I'm sober I can't do it.
"I don't know how much I drank but it was too much," he concedes. "But I never hit anybody over the head with a bottle or punched anybody in the mouth. There was never any violence. I gave up smoking four times before I finally quit for good, and maybe it'll be the same with drink. I don't regret any of it, but I've reached the conclusion that I don't want to die of cirrhosis of the liver."
Shaw says it's no secret that he went on a bender after his wife of 11 years, actress Mary Ure, died unexpectedly in 1975. It happened only hours after she opened in a new play. "Her stage comeback had been a huge success," Shaw recalls. "I didn't go partying with her because I had to get up early the next morning for a film. She came home, took two pills and slept on the sofa so as not to disturb me. She never woke up to read her marvelous notices in the papers. Technically, the pills after the champagne killed her."
For Shaw, "it was a nightmare, though I don't feel guilty about Mary's death, and I can't take the blame for it." In one sense, he discloses, "it was a happy release for her because she was suffering from the early stages of a cancer tumor—unknown to anybody."
Ure was Shaw's second wife, by whom he had four children. He was previously married to actress Jennifer Bourke, who also gave him four children. Last summer, Shaw married his longtime secretary, Virginia "Jay" Jansen, and their first baby was born in December (in New York—his first in the U.S.). In addition, Jay has an older son, now 12, whom Shaw adopted years ago. So the actor's brood now numbers 10, ranging in age up to 24.
There has always been some mystery surrounding Jay's older son, Charles, but the Shaws talk quite openly about the circumstances. "Everyone always thought Robert was the father," says Jay. "The truth is I became pregnant during a mad affair with a French musician. I paid for an abortion in Denmark but I was tricked. Nothing was done, and I decided to have the baby." Adds Shaw: "Never once while I was married to Mary did we play around."
Jay also admits that, at first, she resisted the idea of marrying Robert. "I didn't want to be a film star's wife; I'd seen enough of what it meant traveling exhausted around the world living from suitcases. But I'm happy he finally wore me down, and I changed my mind. It was only after I agreed to his final proposal that I stopped calling him Mr. Shaw." Her new husband says of her: "Virginia was pregnant when we got married—but then all my wives have been. She loves me more than the other two did. She's a better wife than secretary. And she's got another think coming if she believes our new baby will be the only one—having kids keeps you young."
Mrs. Avery had propped a pillow under the head of her dying elderly friend and looked up through the barred windows of the old peoples' home psychopath ward...Dear God this home is filled with weeping old men and weeping old women ...They are ignored, they are a burden to everyone...Couldn't even children love them? Are they just spectres to be shut up? Dear God, why is it that Jesus Christ did not sanctify old age by living till he was 90?
"These may be the best sentences I have ever written," says author Robert Shaw of this excerpt from his upcoming novel, The Ice Floe. He researched the book between movies and plays by inspecting the squalid conditions in old peoples' homes around New York City. "I want the truth out," he says. "If I never write anything else again, I've asked valid questions in a lovely prayer." (A compulsive writer, Shaw often helps revise his movie scripts: "Most of the material is third-rate. I try to make it second-rate.")
Shaw has no intention of vegetating himself in his declining years. According to his master plan, he will exploit his box office popularity for perhaps another six years and then retire to his Irish sanctuary. He will tend the land, write and sit as a honored patriarch among his loving and possibly still expanding family.
"He belongs here," says a County Mayo neighbor. Many of his friends there have never seen him in a movie (the nearest theater is 40 miles away). But they keep up with his career partly through the antique, hand-cranked, party line telephone system in Tourmakeady. "I've tried to get a private line," says Shaw, "but it's an impossibility. Everybody listens in." He and his agent in Los Angeles have tried to talk in code but the locals broke that. "They knew I had accepted the parts in Black Sunday and The Deep even before my agent gave the film producers a final yes. But I really don't mind," Robert Shaw adds with a smile, "I've found more peace here than I would ever have in Hollywood."
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