Robert Shaw, 52, one of the most forceful and successful character actors on the contemporary English speaking screen, died Sunday near his home in Ireland.

According to a police spokesman, Mr. Shaw became ill while driving with his third wife, Virginia, and their 20-month-old son, Thomas, near the family's home in Tourmakeady, County Mayo. Mr. Shaw reportedly stopped the car, got out and died on the roadside.

Mr. Shaw first achieved movie prominence in 1964 as the sinister assassin with granite physique and short platinum haircut who stalked Sean Connery's James Bond in "From Russia With Love ." Later, he made imposing invaluable contributions to a pair of Academy award-winning films-the 1966 "A Man for All Seaons" in which he won an Oscar nomination for his supporting portrayal of Henry VIII, and the 1973 "The Sting," in which he played a menacing Irish gangster-and to one of the greatest box-office sensations, "Jaws," in which he appeared as the fanatical shark-hunter Quint.

While pursuing a notable acting career in the theater and motion pictures. Mr. Shaw also wrote five novels and three plays. He was working on a sixth novel at the time of his death. In a recent interview he remarked. "I find acting much easier than writing, but writing is more important to me. I think as I get older I'd rather write, but acting is so much more profitable." Mr. Shaw's best-known literary effort was "The Man in the Glass Booth," a novel the author himself later dramatized successfully.

Born in the Lancashire town of Westhoughton on Aug. 9, 1927. Mr. Shaw grew up in Cornwall and the Orkney Islands. His father, a doctor, committed suicide with an overdose of opium when Robert Shaw was 12.

As a youth, Mr. Shaw excelled at sports, especially rugby, squash and track where his specialty was the 400-meter dash. He spurned a scholarship to Cambridge and a career in the family profession of medicine to apply at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in 1945. He later recalled RADA with fond horror as a hotbed of competition for aspiring actors in the post-war period, "closer to a concentration camp than a school."

After graduation from RADA, Mr. Shaw spent several years as a member of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon and the Old Vic. He made his professional debut at Stratford-on-Avon as Angus in "Macbeth." His most noteworthy West End credits were "Tiger at the Gates" in 1956 and "The Long and Short and the Tall" in 1959, the same year his first novel, "The Hiding Place," was published.

Mr. Shaw made his film debut in the 1955 British war melodrama "The Dam Busters." Ironically, he will star as the chief dam-buster in "Force 10 from Navarrone" an adventure melodrama about World War II commandoes scheduled for release at Christmas. He also had completed a starring role as a defecting KGB agent in "Avalance Express" at the time of his death. This spy thriller, which costars Lee Marvin, is tentatively scheduled for release in the spring of 1979.

Alert moviegoers might have spotted Mr. Shaw early in 1964 as one of the fascinating misfits in "The Guest" the movie version of Harold Pinter's play "The Caretaker." With in a few months the success of "From Russia With Love" brought mass audience recognition to Mr. Shaw, and fame soon caught up with his costars from "The Caretaker," Donald Pleasence and Alan Bates.

Mr. Shaw's theatrical career has been linked closely with Pleasence and Pinter. He made his Broadway debut in a production of Pinter's "The Physicists" and later costarred in Pinter's "Old Times." Pleasense enjoyed a Broadway triumph in the title role of "The Man in the Glass Booth," which was directed by Pinter.

In an interview with Clarke Taylor that appeared in the Washinton Post two years ago, Mr. Shaw stated, "My time is real development, both personally and professionally, came in working with Harold Pinter. He's the most interesting talent working in the theater today. It was a great creative, happy period for me."

A prolific actor and author, Mr. Shaw also extended himself as a paterfamilias. He had four daughters by his first marriage, to Jennifer Bourke, then two sons and two daughters by his second marriage, to actress Mary Ure, who died in 1975 from a fatal combination of alcohol and barbiturate poisoning. Mr. Shaw's third wife, the former Virginia Jansen, had worked as the secretary to the actor and Miss Ure for many tears. Mr. Shaw adopted Jansen's son by a previous marriage, and their own son was born in December 1976.

Mr Shaw frequently cited this brood as a spur to his creative or merly mercenary activity. Discussing his choice of certain film roles with Taylor, Mr. Shaw confided, "Money isn't the sole reason. But I do seem to spend more than I earn. And it takes a lot of money to raise these children of mine.

"I don't spend much on myself, maybe a drink. And I like to travel and stay at really fine hotels. I have an interest in fast cars, and I now have a Mercedes 450SL, but it's not like before, when I woned Rolls Royce convertibles and Astin Martins. Of course, the tax situation in Britain is impossible.

"I wake up in the middle of the night, frequently, with pain and humiliation and a great deal of shame at some of the work I've done in films. And I would do a good movie any day, regardless of the money. Unfortunately, there aren't many, and . . . if you are not successful now and again, nobody asks you to be in any movies at all. For years the studios would say 'Shaw's pictures make no money, he's not an international star.'"

Despite his vital participation in such hits as "The Sting" and "Jaws," Mr. Shaw never quite established credibility as a bankable star. Usually at his best as a menace, he may have had too much authority for conventional heroic leads. At any rate, he failed to bring a satisfying heroic or romantic presence to such starri ng vehicles as "Custer of the West," "Swashbuckler" and "Black Sunday." His physically and technique had a rather intimidating potency. He was frequently an impressive performer but rarely an ingratiating one.

Assessing his work, Mr. Shaw remarked. "Most of the time, in movies, I'm about 50 times larger than the part." While justified by the evidence, self-critism like this was no doubt instrumental in earning the rugged, outspoken actor a reputation for insufferable vanity from some segments of the press.

Moviegoers and film-makers can attest to the authenticity of that larger-than-life quality. Mr Shaw's most gripping sustained scene on film is probably Quint's description of the shark attack on survivors of the U.S.S. Indianapolis that anticipates the thrilling finale of "Jaws."

Director Steven Spielberg has recalled that Mr. Shaw's first reading of Quint's speech, which the actor had helped rewrite, "devasted the set." Ironically, "the effect was so overwhelming that it threatened to capsie everyone prematurely. We had to do it again, with more restraint. In terms of the finished film, the reading was even better because Bob was imposing more controls on his emotions."

The larger-than-life identity seems certain to endure, but Mr. Shaw did submerge himself in the role of a victimized man in "The Caretaker" and a frustrated man in "The Luck of Ginger Coffrey." Irvin Kershner's fine, unjustly neglected movie version of Brian Moore's novel. Mr. Shaw also was prominently, if indecisively, featuredin such movies as "Young Winston" (where he played Lord Randolph Churchill). "The Battle of Britain," "The Birthday Party." "Robin and Marian" (as the Sheriff of Nottingham) and "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3."

He acieved considerable success in England as the lead in a television series called "The Buccaneers." He made a brief, unsuccessful attempt at the Broadway musical stage in 1970 as a singing Elmer Gantry in a failed song-and-dance adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel.

Three years ago, Mr. Shaw bought a 150-year-old mansion near a troutfilled lake in Tourmakeady and moved in with his wife and most of the Shaw progeny. According to friends, he described the location as "the nearest point on earth to heaven" and added. "When I go, I hope it will be from here."