Sunday, September 12, 2010

Interview With A Great Actor

While flipping through the cable stations last spring, I hit upon Jaws, the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and The Sting in quick succession. Wow, I thought, what an amazing coincidence: all three movies have the same key grip, the great Stan "Double Trouble" Winchester. For these movies to be on TV at the exact same time is a kind of cosmic synchronicity that rarely happens. I figured it was my patriotic duty to blog about it; otherwise, the terrorists win.

As I was slogging through the internet, finding pages upon pages about Stan Winchester, across hundreds of fan sites specifically devoted to him (Double Trouble Bubble, Stan the Man, Days of Winchester, OMG Stan), an obscure connection between the three previously-mentioned films hit me like a thunderbolt: they all starred Robert Shaw, the actor who played Quint in Jaws, Mr. Blue in Pelham and the quizzical bellboy Rufus in The Sting.

Robert Shaw is a ferocious acting machine, a steel-gazed molten tower of Irish lumber who always seems to be fighting back the urge to give you a severe beating and then buy you a frothy drink in a dented tankard after the beating, and then give you another beating. His onscreen presence can only be described as "scowled." I went through all the other adjectives, and that's the only one that comes close.

Now, Jaws is my favorite movie of all time. It was the first movie I ever saw on our top-loading VCR, and I just kept watching it over and over. I can recite Quint's famous USS Indianapolis speech verbatim. I do so at parties when there's a dip in the action, and it never fails to draw stares of awe. Not to brag, but some listeners are looking at their feet when I finish, most likely out of deference to my uncanny accuracy. What a joy it would be to recite that speech in front of the man who delivered it! Inspired, I started a long search for the reclusive actor, who died of a heart attack in 1978. The phone book seemed like a logical starting point. 

My search turned out to be surprisingly easy, though, thanks to some flat-out luck: my favorite Irish radio station called to tell me that I had won two tickets to see a local band, Molly Malone's Whiskey Thugs, at the Blarney Tooth in Kilbuckle. Can you guess whose voice was telling me this news? That's right. Robert Shaw himself was filling in for the overnight DJ, and so I asked him right then and there if I could interview him in person. Being an amiable chap, he agreed at once. 

What follows is a transcript of that interview.


ME: Very nice to meet you.

ROBERT SHAW: Pleasure's all mine, young fella. Tea?

ME: I'd love some. 

RS: Little nip on ya?

ME: Uh, sorry?

RS: Little nip o'your willet, there, me boyo?

ME: Wow, I have no idea what you mean.

RS: Would you like some whiskey in your tea?

ME: I would love some.

RS: Me too. Haven't touched the stuff since 1996, so I'm fresh out.

ME: Of tea or whiskey?

RS: Ha! Both. I have tap water, though.

ME: That's okay.

RS: Suit yourself.

ME: Where have you been all these years?

RS: Well, after the 1970s there was a lull, but my career took an upswing in the late 80s. 

ME: When you were cast as Sal, the racist pizza maker, in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

RS: Exactly. That was a great role. Lots of yelling and cursing, but with a social message that still resonates to this day. I got to keep the shirt, that Hawaiian thing. Got it in my closet.

ME: I'd love to buy it from you.

RS: [smiles] Let's see how things progress.

ME: Not many people know that you are an accomplished writer in addition to being a great actor. You're written novels, plays, screenplays. Probably your best-known work is called The Man in the Glass Booth, which you penned in 1967.

RS: You've done your homework.

ME: Well, I didn't want to come all this way without knowing my stuff. Why does voice-over work hold such a particular fascination for you?

RS: What do you mean?

ME: Well, The Man in the Glass Booth tells the story of a VO artist who does wacky cartoon voices for a living, sort of a Mel Blanc type character, and then dresses up as a dowdy British housekeeper so he can be close to his children.

RS: The Man in the Glass Booth is about the moral ambiguity of The Holocaust.

ME: That's not what I have in my notes, Bob.

RS: Sir Robert, if you don't mind.

ME: A perfect segue into my next topic: you've been married ten times and had three children, six of whom you adopted.

RS: Actually, I was married three times, had ten children, one of whom I adopted.

ME: Again, that's not--See what I have written here?

[I show him my notes. He tears them up and eats them. I am honored.]

RS: Let's just shoot the shit, shall we?

ME: Great! What was Paul Newman like?

RS: Never met the man.

ME: Do you think your acting career was limited by the number of roles out there for broad-shouldered, Irish writers who can stare down into the shallow souls of most Hollywood directors?

RS: Well, it certainly helped me snag my most famous role.

ME: You're referring, of course, to Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

RS: That role was made for me. I don't know who else could have ever played it. I know that sounds like arrogance, but it's what everyone thinks. Quite frankly, I was a little too old for the role, but it's amazing what they can do with a wig and make-up over there.

ME: You famously wore hair extensions for your role as Patsy Cline in Coal Miner's Daughter. Was that a difficult process?

RS: Can we not talk about Hollywood anymore?

ME: Okay, then. How about this: I can recite the Indianapolis speech from Jaws word for word. Would you like to hear it? 

RS: You do that while I start my laundry.

ME: Perfect. 

[I launch into the speech, trying desperately to recreate the pain and maintain the fierce control that the man displayed onscreen. I hear a washing machine running in the basement. Shaw comes back just as I'm doing the whale call, and we start singing "Show Me The Way To Go Home." As in the film, the song builds in tempo. We're both grinning wildly, cackling and shouting at top volume. Shaw leaps from his chair with unexpected spryness and gives me a beating. I am honored.]

ME: That was fun!

RS: Here, press this steak against your eye.

ME: This is a soup can.

RS: Don't you think I know a steak from a soup can?

ME: Oh, wait this is a steak. A chicken noodle steak. In a can.

RS: Now you're making sense again.

ME: I wanted to ask you about your father's suicide when you were twelve--

RS: I'd love to talk about that.

ME: --but I thought my readers would find that incredibly boring, so I'll just ask point blank: were you upset that they didn't ask you to reprise your role as Mr. Blue in the remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three?

RS: A little bit, but I understand how Hollywood works. I'm eighty-two years old now, you know? The most agile man of that age isn't much of a threat, even if he does have an Uzi. 

ME: Solemn words from a wise man. Would you autograph my right buttock?

RS: With my boot heel.

ME: I'm honored.

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