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Robert Shaw as Jaws' Quint: 8 Facts

Getty Images / Silver Screen Collection

Robert Shaw as Jaws' Quint: 8 Facts

For people who love the classic thriller Jaws as much as I do, it’s not just about the shark (although the shark is awesome). One of the greatest things about Jaws is the absolutely spot-on acting, especially by the film’s trio of leading men: Roy Scheider as Police Chief Brody, Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Hooper and Robert Shaw as shark hunter Quint. The three play fantastically together and alone, each perfectly capturing his character’s essence: Brody’s worry and paranoia, Hooper’s cocky naiveté, Quint’s unhinged obsession.

I love Quint best of them all, even though (spoiler alert) he’s the only one of the three who doesn’t make it out alive. Shaw’s performance brings Quint to life, from his odd English-pirate-meets-Cape-Cod-salty-dog accent to his casual comfort at sea to his tendency toward reciting inappropriate poetry. It’s no surprise that Quint is one of Shaw’s best-known roles, being both high-profile and perfectly executed. But what might surprise casual fans of the movie are some of the little-known details of Shaw’s character and performance. Here are eight facts you might not know about Robert Shaw as Quint.

1. Shaw wasn’t director Steven Spielberg’s first choice for Quint.

He wasn’t his second choice, either. Spielberg initially wanted tough-as-nails Lee Marvin to play the captain of the Orca, but Marvin bowed out with a quip, saying he’d rather go fishing for real than play a fisherman in the movie. Spielberg approached Sterling Hayden next, but when he wasn’t available, producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown suggested Shaw, who had recently impressed them as they worked together on The Sting. Spielberg ended up watching some of Shaw’s other movies and agreeing that he was perfect. What made him so perfect? His ability to die dramatically on screen. James Bond strangled him in From Russia With Love; he was electrocuted by a train’s third rail in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three … he was a natural to slide into the gaping mouth of a killer great white.

2. Shaw took some convincing before he’d accept the role.

Spielberg knew Shaw was just right for the part, but Shaw wasn’t so sure that the movie was just right for him. He had read Peter Benchley’s book … and he hated the best-seller. “Jaws was not a novel,” he commented. “It was a story written by a committee, a piece of s***.” But Shaw’s wife, the actress Mary Ure, and his secretary both begged him to take the role, and he finally agreed. In the end, he was glad he caved in: “The last time they were that enthusiastic was From Russia with Love. And they were right.”

3. A local fisherman inspired Shaw’s performance.

Martha’s Vineyard resident Craig Kingsbury was hired to coach Shaw on his Cape Cod accent, and he told Shaw stories of life on Cape Cod and at sea, some of which Shaw referenced as he improvised bits and pieces of dialogue. Kingsbury so impressed Spielberg – who called him “the purest version of who, in my mind, Quint was” – that Spielberg offered the nonactor a role in the film. He accepted and ended up playing fisherman Ben Gardner, who gets one of the biggest screams in the movie when his severed head pops out of the wrecked boat Hooper is inspecting.

4. Our original introduction to Quint was nixed by Gregory Peck.

Spielberg’s initial vision for Quint’s first scene was that he’d be sitting in a movie theater, watching Moby Dick … and laughing his head off. One by one, the other audience members would get fed up and leave until Quint was alone in the theater, his laughter echoing down the street as he watched the tale of seafaring obsession. But Spielberg was unable to secure the rights to the 1956 film, because Peck, who starred as Ahab, was uncomfortable with his performance and didn’t fancy the idea of the mocking scene. As it turned out, Quint got our attention well enough as Spielberg introduced him with the screech of his fingernails on a blackboard.

5. The movie’s best scene required a do-over.

OK, so we all agree that the USS Indianapolis speech is the best part of the movie, right? Even if it’s not your personal top scene, most Jaws fans agree that it’s captivating, clearly in the running for the movie’s best monologue. Well, Shaw had an idea for how to make it come out just right. The characters are drinking during the scene leading up to the monologue, he reasoned, so in the spirit of dramatic accuracy, he should drink a bit, too. Just a little. A wee tipple … or, as it turned out, so much that he blacked out and had to be carried back to the set. Late that night, Shaw called Spielberg, panicked, unable to remember if he had done anything embarrassing. He asked that they try the scene again the next day.

6. The reshot Indianapolis scene was perfected thanks to Shaw’s skill as a writer.

Two reasons why the Indianapolis scene turned out so remarkably well: 1. A contrite Shaw played it sober, nailing it in just a few takes. 2. Shaw rewrote the scene. In addition to being an Oscar-nominated actor, Shaw was an award-winning writer of novels, plays and screenplays, and when he took a crack at polishing up the monologue, he made it into something unforgettable. Spielberg asserts that the monologue was a joint effort between two screenwriters and Shaw, while others say that Shaw did the heavy lifting to make the monologue so perfect (though one or more of the writers didn’t quite do their research: Quint says the ship sank “June the 29th, 1945,” but it was actually July 30 when the Indianapolis went down). Dreyfuss, whose Hooper listens with horrified fascination as Quint’s tale unfolds, said that he wasn’t just acting: He really couldn’t tear his eyes away from Shaw, and the monologue was “one of the most riveting things” he’d “ever seen or heard.”

7. Shaw contributed to one of the movie’s continuity errors.

In the scene just before the Indianapolis monologue, when Quint and Hooper compare scars, it was Shaw’s idea for Quint to remove the cap from his tooth, showing off to Brody and Hooper and launching the informal competition. But in subsequent scenes, the cap remains off … until suddenly it’s back on during Quint’s final moments, as he’s being eaten by the shark. Oops.

8. Shaw and Dreyfuss engaged in lots of friendly feuds on-set.

Or were they friendly? Co-workers reported near-constant antagonism between Shaw and Dreyfuss, noting that Shaw tended to bait Dreyfuss with cracks and pranks – turning a firehose on the younger actor, bribing him to climb the boat’s tall mast and jump into the ocean, offering backhanded compliments. But Dreyfuss wasn’t entirely an innocent victim – when Shaw commented over a glass of whiskey that he wished he could quit drinking, Dreyfuss grabbed the glass and tossed it, whiskey and all, into the ocean. Dreyfuss himself recalls that off the set, Shaw was kind, gentle and funny … but when they walked onto the set, he transformed, becoming competitive and aiming cracks at Dreyfuss. The consensus seems to be that Shaw was probably pestering Dreyfuss to make their on-screen hostility more realistic, method acting-style. (But he was probably kind of annoyed about that glass of whiskey, too.) 

What do you love best about Jaws? Tell us in the comments.