He was an awesome man, a roaring-terrific man who had the most wonderfully transparent of cloaks on his ferocity, a man who must have been the bane of teachers and sergeants, the favorite of children and dogs.
Robert Shaw, the actor who died yesterday of a heart attack at 51, was a cutter of the sort of swaths that Washington is never quite easy with.
I met him once, at a party in Georgetown, six years ago. He made the greatest Georgetown party entrance I've ever seen, an entrance that never stopped until he left, now that I think of it.
But then, Shaw was good at entrances.
Think of him as Quint, in "Jaws," setting the whole theater cringing and moaning when he enterred by dragging his fingernails all the awful way down a blackboard; or Shaw as Henry VIII in "Man for All Seasons" leaping from the royal barge into the slops of the Thames, to greet his friend Sir Thomas More. (He never stopped shouting in that movie. But then, he hardly spoke as the assassin in "From Russia With Love," and the effect was the same - a man who would not be brooked.) Anyhow:
Shaw was late, of course. That helped. Roger Stevens had gotten the party up for him. Mary Ure (Shaw's wife) and Rosemary Harris, who were to open the next night in a pinter play, "Old Times," at the Kennedy Center.
It was a nice enough party, but it was a Sunday night in late February, and everyone seemed to have had too much weekend, or not enough, and the languor was running high.
I didn't know it yet, but for civilized certainties of the order of that party, Robert Shaw was the unfailing antidote.
I was hanging around in the all when Shaw entered/landed/detonated wearing not only a bright red - not autumn-red or even scarlet or crimson - leisure suit, but a face screwed up with the sort of ferocious choirboy innocence that terrifies bartenders.
"Where's the bar?" he roared.
"In there," I said, and introduced myself.
"Wonderful," he said, with the sort of glance that just might have guessed my weight, skinned and dressed, but for one thing he was dragging me behind him, and for another the rest of the party - Nancy Hanks, Mrs. Hugh Auchincloss, Tom and Zelda Fichandler, and so on - was sliding toward us as if the house had just been hit with a torpedo and was listing 20 degrees to port.
A society columnist hit him first and hard about the upcoming play: "I'm sure I'll just love it," she said.
"You may loathe it," Shaw said, his Lancashire accent gnashing away. "You may very loathe it; it's an extraordinary play and you just might loathe it. It breaks down by thirds. Two-thirds of the audience love the acting, and one-third can't stand anything about the play."
His wife did her best to tone him down and make amends. The best she got was a brow that wrinkled with a sudden seizure of concern, as if perhaps he had remembered a favorite aunt's birthday.
"I really must find a drink for this poor lady," he explained, parting the crowd.
We got to the bar. He grabbed my arm again.
"Sit down boy! Let's talk!" God knows what he wanted to hear but I was saved by the rest of the crowd traipsing in, much to his disgust. There was nothing to do now, for a good time, but to do all the talking himself.
His gospel for the evening was about Indian wrestling, and its perils. The previous Monday, in New York, it seemed, he'd had the bad fortune to encounter "a couple of Irish actor friends.Out of work, just like all actors. We ended up drinking at some Irish bar on the East Side, and we started Indian wrestling. By Tuesday night I'd gotten to the semi-finals when I lost, and I'd have been all right if it wasn't for Mary's birthday party on Friday when I tried it again and won. Now feel that elbow, it's twice the size of the other one, a major injury, my doctor says."
He abated for a long enough moment that a little old lady, no doubt schooled in the art of conversation, commiserated.
"I've lost the use of my right arm myself," she said.
"Well c'mon, then," Shaw said, propping his foot next to hers. "Lets arm wrestle." I remember thinking that it was either a credit to Shaws acting, or the old lady's good sense, that she declined.
It was hard to decide which. But then, that's what Shaw was all about.