- Robert Shaw’s casting as Quint in Jaws was not Spielberg’s first choice, and initially brought some concerns from producers.
- Shaw’s drinking habits led to some outrageous behavior during production, including nearly getting in a fight with producer Richard D. Zanuck after Shaw lost a ping-pong game to him.
- Despite appearing only in the latter half of Jaws, Shaw’s portrayal of Quint made him a memorable character and is one of the actor’s most iconic performances.
It took some time for Steven Spielberg to cast one legendary role in Jaws, and his eventual choice almost caused a fistfight on set. Jaws is all about a deadly shark making its way through the fictional New England beach town Amity Island and hunting everyday people along the way. It was a surprise success, drawing in over $475 million at the box office across various releases in 40 years, while the strength of its premise, characters, and cast launched Jaws into the public consciousness and served as Spielberg’s ascension as a standout Hollywood director.
In a recent reflection on the movie’s troubled production with Vanity Fair, Spielberg admitted that casting Jaws‘ Quint proved an especially difficult prospect. He went through a few different options before eventually finding Robert Shaw, who he revealed was suggested to him by producers who were simultaneously concerned about the actor’s drinking habits, which nearly resulted in a fight breaking out on set. Check out Spielberg’s quote below:
I did go for a big star initially because my first choice for Quint was Lee Marvin, but he wasn’t interested. What I heard was that he wanted to go fishing for real! He took his fishing very seriously and didn’t want to do it from a “movie” boat. My second choice was Sterling Hayden, whom I thought would make an amazing Quint. He had an Ahab quality about him—he had done a film entitled Terror in a Texas Town in 1958, where he played an imposing whaler who walked around with a harpoon. I was a big fan of his, especially from the two films he had done with Stanley Kubrick, The Killing  and Dr. Strangelove . I don’t remember why, but he wasn’t able to do the role. There were other actors who wanted to play Quint, and then Dick Zanuck and David Brown suggested Robert Shaw—they had just worked with him in The Sting , which they produced, and loved him. I’d just screened two films with Shaw to refresh my memory, including A Man for All Seasons , in which he was spectacular. Based on that, and of course on From Russia with Love —with that great fight on a train where he played the nemesis to 007—I said, ‘Wow . . . I wish I had thought of him! It’s a great idea!’ He fortunately said yes. I’ll never forget that one of the first things Shaw said to me was, ‘I haven’t had a drink in two months!’ And Dick was always warning me when he sensed that Robert Shaw had been drinking, fearing it would delay filming—but it didn’t really matter because the shark wasn’t working anyway. Incidentally, during production, Dick Zanuck and Robert Shaw would play ping-pong together, and one day, when Dick won, Shaw challenged him to a fistfight which was quickly defused by others. If Shaw had gotten a black eye, that would definitely have put us further behind schedule!
Why Robert Shaw Was Perfect For Jaws
If Spielberg was looking for an Ahab-like figure, Robert Shaw was sure to impress from the beginning. He may not have been Spielberg’s first pick, but critics and audiences agreed he was the perfect Quint, and Jaws was lucky that Spielberg found him. He brought a rough edge to the movie that really lent itself to the idea of an experienced maritime hunter heading into the fray. With Shaw’s earnest touch, what might have been a laughable character became a veritable legend.
When characters take themselves too seriously, it can take away from the mystique of a movie. Jaws introduces Quint with literal nails on a chalkboard, before he starts spewing the occasional line about hunting a gigantic shark. If Shaw had not been particular about executing every line perfectly, it might have been impossible to consider him a genuinely interesting character. Instead, Quint’s desire to take down the terrifying killer shark feels like a rational step, even if he sometimes brings the concept to the edge of absurdity, as seen in various parodies throughout the years.
Despite largely appearing only in the latter half of Jaws, Shaw manages to make Quint a memorable character. Every line, every stare, and every bloody step elevates the man and ensured that Shaw would enshrine himself in Hollywood history along with his roles in A Man for All Seasons, The Sting and From Russia with Love. Many factors launched Jaws into the public eye, but what made it so perfect may very well be Spielberg’s decision to cast an actor with the perfect energy for Quint.
Source: Vanity Fair