Born Peter Bradford Benchley, May 8, 1940, in New York, NY; died of pulmonary fibrosis, February 11, 2006, in Princeton, NJ. Author. Peter Benchley wrote the immensely successful 1974 novel that became one of the top-grossing movies of all time, Jaws. Benchley's tale of a great white shark that terrorizes a New England coastal community sold millions of copies, and the 1975 film of the same name incited enough public anxiety that summer that authorities regularly closed down beaches when sharks were spotted offshore.
Born in 1940 in New York City, Benchley hailed from an esteemed East Coast literary family. His father, Nathaniel Benchley, was a novelist, and grandfather, Robert Benchley, was a humorist long associated with the New Yorker magazine. In his teens, Benchley earned money by writing daily during his summer vacations, a deal offered by his father in the hopes of instilling the necessary authorial discipline in his son. Following his graduation from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Benchley went on to major in English at Harvard University, and spent a year traveling abroad; his first book, Time and a Ticket, was an account of his journey and published in 1964.
Benchley spent the next few years as a staff writer for the Washington Post, associate editor at Newsweek, and speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was working as a freelance magazine journalist when a publisher-friend encouraged him to try his hand at writing a novel. Benchley recalled a newspaper story from some years back about a fisherman who caught a great white shark off the coast of Long Island. The beast weighed in at 4,500 pounds, and Benchley thought to himself, "'What would happen if one of those came around and wouldn't go away?'" the Times of London quoted him as telling one interviewer about the genesis of his book.
After receiving a modest advance from the publishing house Doubleday, Benchley—by then a husband and father—rented a room above a garage near his New Jersey home, and began writing. Though he initially struggled to turn in a manuscript that met with his editors' approval, the advance buzz on what became Jaws was heavy, and the film rights were acquired prior to publication in early 1974. The potboiler went on to spend 44 weeks on the New York Times best-seller lists, with some 20 million copies sold over the years.
Some of those sales came after a relatively unknown filmmaker named Steven Spielberg was hired to direct his first big-budget film based on Benchley's novel. Released in July of 1975, Jaws is generally considered the first-ever summer blockbuster movie; prior to then, film studios considered the summer months as the ideal time to drop dud movies into theaters. The film version starred Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, and went on to become one of the top-grossing films in motion-picture history. It was also one of the first films to benefit from a heavy nationwide marketing campaign timed for a general release; until that point, Hollywood studios often released feature films in limited markets, and rarely spent advertising dollars on what was viewed as a horror film. The success of the movie, from a screenplay that Benchley co-wrote, secured Spielberg's career. In it, he used a forward-tracking zoom-out shot that became indelibly known as "the Jaws shot" in filmmaking curricula.
Benchley followed his impressive debut with The Deep in 1976, which was made into a 1977 film that starred Shaw again with Jacqueline Bisset as deep-sea treasure hunters. Other novels of his were less successful, and these included Beast, a cautionary tale about a giant squid who begins to attack humans when environmental abuses reduce its traditional oceanic food supply. Benchley also worked on Amazon, a late-1990s television series, and produced a collection of stories in 2002 titled Shark Trouble. Just before his death, he wrote a book for younger readers, Shark Life, in 2005. Benchley often said that he felt badly that his best-selling novel had seemed to forever demonize sharks in the public eye, and especially regretted having his beast attack a boat. For the remainder of his life he felt compelled to explain that sharks do not attack watercraft, as they did in his story.
An ardent conservationist, Benchley served as spokesperson for the Environmental Defense Fund, and was also involved with the group WildAid, which sought to end the poaching of sharks for their fins, which are considered a delicacy in some parts of Asia. He suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of the lung tissue, and died on February 11, 2006, at the age of 65, at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. Survivors include his wife, Wendy; his daughter, Tracy; his sons, Clayton and Christopher, and five grandchildren. Invariably deemed the mastermind behind the killer shark in popular culture, Benchley often received fan mail "from people who read Jaws as a kid and were captivated by it," his wife told the New York Times, "and who then went on to become marine biologists or who were teachers who would focus some of their time on the ocean. Maybe when Jaws first came out people were scared of the water. But the next generation found a great adventure story, and many of them wanted to learn about the ocean. That thrilled Peter."
Chicago Tribune, February 13, 2006, sec. 1, p. 10; Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2006, p. B11; New York Times, February 13, 2006, p. A21; Times (London, England), February 14, 2006, p. 59; Washington Post, February 13, 2006, p. B6.