Peter Benchley

The late, great American Author Peter Bradford Benchley was born May 8, 1940. He was the son of Marjorie (née Bradford) and author Nathaniel Benchley and grandson of Algonquin Round Table founder Robert Benchley. His younger brother, Nat Benchley, is a writer and actor. Peter Benchley was an alumnus of The Allen-Stevenson School, Phillips Exeter Academy, and Harvard University. After graduating from college in 1961, Benchley travelled around the world for a year. The experience was told in his first book, a travel memoir titled Time and a Ticket, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1964. Following his return to America, Benchley spent six months reserve duty in the Marine Corps, and then became a reporter for The Washington Post.

While dining at an inn in Nantucket, Benchley met Winifred “Wendy” Wesson, whom he dated and then married the following year, 1964. By then Benchley was in New York, working as television editor for Newsweek. In 1967 he became a speechwriter in the White House for President Lyndon B. Johnson, and his daughter Tracy was also born 1967. Once Johnson’s term ended in 1969, the Benchleys moved out of Washington, and lived in various places, including an island off Stonington, Connecticut where son Clayton was born in 1969. Peter wanted to be near New York, and the family eventually got a house at Pennington, New Jersey in 1970. By 1971, Benchley began doing various freelance jobs in his struggle to support his wife and children. His literary agent arranged many meetings with publishers. Benchley would frequently pitch two ideas, a non-fiction book about pirates, and a novel depicting a man-eating shark terrorizing a community. This idea had been developed by Benchley since he had read a news report of a fisherman catching a 4,550 pound great white shark off the coast of Long Island in 1964.

The shark novel eventually attracted Doubleday editor Thomas Congdon, who offered Benchley an advance of $1,000 leading to the novelist submitting the first 100 pages. Much of the work had to be rewritten as the publisher was not happy with the initial tone. Benchley worked by winter in his Pennington office, and in the summer in a converted turkey coop in the Wessons’ farm in Stonington. The idea was inspired by the several great white sharks caught in the 1960s off Long Island and Block Island by the Montauk charterboat captain Frank Mundus. Jaws was published in 1974 and became a great success, staying on the bestseller list for some 44 weeks. Steven Spielberg has said that he initially found many of the characters unsympathetic and wanted the shark to win. Book critics such as Michael A. Rogers of Rolling Stone shared the sentiment however the book struck a chord with readers.

Benchley also co-wrote the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb (along with the uncredited Howard Sackler and John Milius, who provided the first draft of a monologue about the USS Indianapolis) for the Spielberg film released in 1975. Benchley made a cameo appearance as a news reporter on the beach. The film, starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss, was released in the summer season, with editing by Verna Fields, score by John Williams and directed by Steven Spielberg who was credited with infusing the film with such an air of understated menace that he was hailed as the heir apparent to “Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock. Jaws became the first film to gross over $100 million in United States and grossed over $470 million worldwide. George Lucas used a similar strategy in 1977 for Star Wars which broke the box office records set by Jaws, and hence the summer blockbuster was born. The film spawned three sequels, none of which matched the success of the original critically or commercially, two video games, Jaws in 1987 and Jaws Unleashed in 2006 and was also adapted into a theme park attraction at Universal Studios Florida (in Orlando, Florida and Hollywood), and two musicals: JAWS The Musical!, which premiered in the summer of 2004 at the Minnesota Fringe Festival; and Giant Killer Shark: The Musical, which premiered in the summer of 2006 at the Toronto Fringe Festival.

Benchley’s second novel, The Deep, is about a honeymooning couple who discover sunken treasures on the Bermuda reefs—17th-century Spanish gold and a fortune in World War Two-era morphine and are subsequently targeted by a drug syndicate. This 1976 novel is based on Benchley’s chance meeting in Bermuda with diver Teddy Tucker while writing a story for National Geographic. Benchley co-wrote the screenplay for the 1977 film release, along with Tracy Keenan Wynn and an uncredited Tom Mankiewicz. Directed by Peter Yates and starring Robert Shaw, Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset, it was released in 1977. Benchley’s third novel The Island, was published in 1979, was a story of descendants of 17th century pirates who terrorize pleasure craft in the Caribbean, leading to the Bermuda Triangle mystery. Benchley again wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation for the film version of The Island, starring Michael Caine and co-starring David Warner.

During the 1980s, Benchley wrote three novels, Girl of the Sea of Cortez, a fable influenced by John Steinbeck about man’s complicated relationship with the sea, Which featured Benchley’s growing interest in ecological issues and anticipated his future role as an impassioned advocate of the importance of protecting the marine environment. Q Clearance, which was published in 1989, which is a semi-autobiographical work, loosely inspired by the Benchley family’s history of alcohol abuse. In 1991 Benchley wrote the novel Beast about a Giant Squid threatening Burmuda. Beast was brought to the small screen as a made-for-television film in 1996, under the title The Beast. His next novel, White Shark, was published in 1994 and was the story of a Nazi-created genetically engineered shark/human hybrid. White Shark was also turned into a made-for-television film titled Creature. Also in 1994, Benchley hosted Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. In 1999, the television show Peter Benchley’s Amazon was created, about a group of plane crash survivors in the middle of a vast jungle.

Benchley later wrote factual works about the sea and about sharks advocating their conservation. Among these was Shark Trouble, which illustrated how hype and news sensationalism can help undermine the public’s need to understand marine ecosystems and the potential negative consequences as humans interact with it. Shark Trouble was written to help the public understand “the sea in all its beauty, mystery, and power.” And mentions that man’s relationship with the marine environment, particularly his ignorance and greed, have led to many marine species becoming increasingly threatened with extinction. Benchley was a member of the National Council of Environmental Defense and a spokesman for its Oceans Program and was also one of the founding board members of the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI). Benchley sadly died on 11 February 2006 of pulmonary fibrosis in 2006. But leaves a rich legacy of novels and television work. The Peter Benchley Ocean Awards were also instituted by Wendy Benchley and David Helvarg In light of Peter Benchley’s life-long record of shark conservation and educating the public about sharks.

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