Peter Bradford Benchley, writer: born New York 8 May 1940; married (two sons, one daughter); died Princeton, New Jersey 11 February 2006.
Peter Benchley's first novel, Jaws, became one of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters, an acknowledged classic recently judged by the American Film Institute as the second most scary movie after Psycho.
The story of a great white shark that terrorises a smart resort similar to Long Island captured the public's imagination, first as a novel which sold over 20 million copies, then as a film which was the first to take $100m at the box office and, with inflation adjustments, is one of the 10 biggest- grossing films of all time (it was No 1 movie for two years, until Star Wars took the spot). Directed by Steven Spielberg in 1975, it made the phrase "Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water . . ." part of popular language, and John Williams's ominous cello motif has been copied and parodied many times.
Benchley himself co-scripted the film version of Jaws (with Carl Gottlieb), and has a cameo role as a reporter. The story was inspired, he said, by his family's swordfish expeditions on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, which prompted a lifelong fascination with sharks. "We couldn't find any swordfish, but the ocean was littered with sharks, so we started catching them."
The grandson of the humorist Robert Benchley, and the son of the children's writer Nathaniel Benchley, he was born in New York City in 1940 and was educated, like his father and grandfather, at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, then Harvard, where he majored in English in 1961 - he had started writing articles for The New York Herald Tribune while still studying. "After college," he recalled,
I travelled around the world for a year and wrote a book about my experiences called Time and a Ticket . Then I entered the Marine Corps in a six-month reserve programme.
After working as a journalist- reporter on The Washington Post for over a year, be became television editor of Newsweek from 1964 to 1967, then moved to the White House as a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War. As a freelance, he wrote for such magazines as Life and The New Yorker, and in the late Sixties he wrote two articles after a 4,500lb great white shark was caught off Long Island's Montawk Point:
I thought to myself, "What would happen if one of those came around and wouldn't go away?" That was the seed of Jaws, but I didn't actually pursue it until 1971.
Benchley originally called the book Silence in the Water, but with the title Jaws it was published in February 1974, and was an immediate sensation, with Benchley's prose often unflinching in its graphic imagery - of a child's fate when snatched from a raft he writes, "the boy's legs were severed at the hips, and they sank, spinning slowly, to the bottom".
The book spent 44 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, making Benchley the most successful first novelist ever (though Jaws could never topple the No 1 seller, Richard Adams's 1972 tale of rabbit life, Watership Down). The film version was superbly directed by Spielberg, who neatly judged every shock and surprise and wisely withheld the shark's first appearance until 80 minutes into the film, when it causes one of the greatest shock moments in screen history. (Spielberg modestly admitted later that the shark would have appeared sooner had the model been ready - it had promptly sunk when first tested.)
Benchley's subsequent books included the best-seller The Deep (1976), in which searchers for sunken treasure discover a cache of drugs, plus The Island (1979), The Girl of the Sea of Cortez (1982), about a young girl's fascination with the sea and its inhabitants, and Q Clearance (1986). The last, a spy comedy that drew on some of his experiences at the White House, was described by the Los Angeles Times as "a prime example of that vanishing literary species, the comic novel". He returned to underwater terrors in Beast (1991) and White Shark (1994).
"Everything I've written," said Benchley, "is based on something that has happened to me or something I know a great deal about. In The Deep, I had been lucky enough to learn about Bermuda and to meet Teddy Tucker, a great Bermudan treasure diver, while doing a story for the National Geographic. The Deep was based on a real shipwreck called The Constellation, which was carrying a cargo of drugs during World War II. That particular ship sits on not one, but two old Spanish ships, wrecked hundreds of years earlier than The Constellation. I could only make one credible, so that's what I based The Deep on. With Beast, I had been fishing for giant squid for years with no luck. Again, it was a speculation, a "what if" story. Almost all my stories are "what ifs".'
Both The Deep and The Island were filmed, with pale results compared to Jaws. The Deep (1977), featuring the Jaws star Robert Shaw with Jacqueline Bisset and Nick Nolte, was tediously overlong, and The Island (1980) was worse, an excessively violent tale starring Michael Caine as a journalist who discovers in the Bermuda Triangle an uncharted island inhabited by pirates.
Benchley's later books were factual ones: Shark Trouble (2002) and Shark Life (2005). After Jaws, he wrote almost 40 television shows about wildlife. Though he was nearly bitten by sharks twice, he regretted in later years his demonisation of the shark, to the point where he stated, "Sharks rarely take more than one bite out of people because we're so lean and bony and unappetising to them." (Those who have suffered one bite might disagree.) "If you're careful," said Benchley, "you don't have to worry about being attacked by sea creatures. I have been frightened by sharks and moray eels and killer whales and sperm whales, but never hurt."
Benchley was a keen environmentalist and diver, and had recently been making short films about the sea to be shown in aquariums around the world:
They are designed to teach youngsters and adults alike about the importance of conservation in the ocean. It is very hard to get people who live far from the seashore to understand how important the ocean is to all of us.
Just last week, Benchley told the Daily Express, "Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today. Sharks don't target human beings, and they certainly don't hold grudges."
Tom VallanceReuse content