Peter Benchley

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Peter Benchley
Portrait by Alex Gotfryd, 1974
Peter Bradford Benchley

(1940-05-08)May 8, 1940
New York City, U.S.
DiedFebruary 11, 2006(2006-02-11) (aged 65)
  • Author
  • screenwriter
  • ocean activist
Years active1967–2006
Winifred "Wendy" Wesson
(m. 1964)
Parent(s)Marjorie Bradford
Nathaniel Benchley
RelativesRobert Benchley (grandfather)
Nat Benchley (brother)

Peter Bradford Benchley (May 8, 1940 – February 11, 2006) was an American author, screenwriter, and environmental activist. He is known for his bestselling novel Jaws and co-wrote its movie adaptation with Carl Gottlieb. Several more of his works were also adapted for both cinema and television, including The Deep, The Island, Beast, and White Shark.

Later in life, Benchley expressed some regret for his writing about sharks, which he felt indulged already present fear and false belief about sharks, and he became an advocate for marine conservation. Contrary to widespread rumor, Benchley did not believe that his writings contributed to shark depopulation, nor is there evidence that Jaws or any of his works did so.[1]

Early life[edit]

Benchley was the son of author Nathaniel Benchley and Marjorie (née Bradford), 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. After his return to the United States, Benchley had six months reserve duty in the Marine Corps, and then became a reporter for The Washington Post.[2] While dining at an inn in Nantucket, Benchley met Winifred "Wendy" Wesson, whom he dated and then married the next 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 born.[3]

Once Johnson's term ended in 1969, the Benchleys relocated out of Washington and lived in various houses, including one in Stonington, Connecticut where son Clayton was born in 1969. Benchley wanted to be near New York, and the family eventually got a house at Pennington, New Jersey in 1970.[3] Since his home had no space for an office, Benchley rented a room above a furnace supply company.[4]


By 1971, Benchley was doing various freelance jobs to support himself and his family. During this period, when Benchley would later declare he was "making one final attempt to stay alive as a writer", his literary agent arranged meetings with publishers. At these meetings, 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 pounds (2,060 kg) 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 resulting in the novelist submitting the first 100 pages. Much of the work was rewritten as the publisher was not happy with the initial style. Benchley worked by winter in his Pennington office, and during summer in a converted chicken coop in the Wessons' farm in Stonington.[2][4] 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.[5]

Jaws was published in 1974 and became a great success, a bestseller for 44 weeks. Steven Spielberg, who would direct the movie version of Jaws, has said that he initially found many of the characters unsympathetic and wanted the shark to win.[6] Book critics such as Michael A. Rogers of the magazine Rolling Stone shared the sentiment but the book was popular nonetheless.

Benchley 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 movie released in 1975. Benchley made a cameo appearance as a news reporter on the beach. The movie, featuring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss, was released during the summer season, considered traditionally to be a bad season for movies. However, Universal Studios decided to release the movie with extensive television advertising. It eventually grossed more than $470 million worldwide. George Lucas used a similar strategy in 1977 for Star Wars which exceeded the financial record set by Jaws, and hence the summer "blockbuster" movie practice was begun.[7]

Benchley estimated that he earned enough from book sales, movie rights and magazine/book club syndication to be able to work independently as a movie writer for ten years.[8]

Subsequent career[edit]

Benchley developed his second novel, The Deep, published in 1976, after a chance meeting in Bermuda with diver Teddy Tucker while writing a story for National Geographic.[9] Benchley visited the wreck of the Constellation which he described as having sunk on top of two other wrecks, the Montana and the Lartington.[9] This gave Benchley the idea of a honeymooning couple discovering two sunken treasures on the Bermuda reefs — 17th century Spanish gold and a fortune in World War II-era morphine — and who are victimized subsequently by a drug syndicate. Benchley co-wrote the screenplay for the 1977 movie release, along with Tracy Keenan Wynn and an uncredited Tom Mankiewicz. Directed by Peter Yates and featuring Robert Shaw, Nick Nolte and Jacqueline Bisset, The Deep was a financial success, and one of the top 10 highest-grossing movies in the US in 1977, though its financial tally was much less than that of Jaws. However, the movie inspired a number of technical firsts and was a Best Sound nominee at the 1978 Oscars.[10]

The Island, published in 1979, was a story of descendants of 17th-century pirates who terrorize pleasure craft in the Caribbean, resulting in the Bermuda Triangle mystery. Benchley again wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation. But the movie version of The Island, featuring Michael Caine and co-featuring David Warner, failed financially when released in 1980.

During the 1980s, Benchley wrote three novels that did not sell as well as his previous works. However, among them was Girl of the Sea of Cortez, a fable influenced by John Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Benchley's novel, about a girl's complicated relationship with the sea, was his best-reviewed book and has developed a considerable cult following since its publication.[citation needed] Sea of Cortez indicated Benchley's increasing interest with ecological issues and anticipated his future role as an advocate of the importance of protecting the marine environment. Q Clearance, published in 1986, was written from his experience as a staffer in Johnson's White House. Rummies (also known as Lush), which was published in 1989, is a semi-autobiographical work, inspired partly by the Benchley family's history of alcohol abuse. While the first half of the novel is a relatively straightforward account of a suburbanite's development of alcoholism, the second part, which is set at a New Mexico substance abuse clinic, is written as a thriller.

He resumed nautical themes for 1991's Beast written about a giant squid threatening Bermuda. Beast was brought to the small screen as a made-for-television movie in 1996, with the title The Beast. His next novel, White Shark, was published in 1994. The story of a Nazi-created genetically engineered shark/human hybrid, it failed to achieve popular or critical success. It was also adapted as a made-for-television movie titled Creature, with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times saying it "looks more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than any fish".[8] Also in 1994, Benchley became the first person to host Discovery Channel's Shark Week.

In 1999, the television show Peter Benchley's Amazon was created, about a group of airplane crash survivors in the middle of a vast jungle.

During the last decade of his career, Benchley wrote non-fiction works about the sea and about sharks, advocating their conservation. Among these was his book entitled Shark Trouble,[11] which illustrated how hype and news sensationalism can interfere with the public's understanding of marine ecosystems and potentially cause negative consequences as humans interact with it. This work, which had editions in 2001 and 2003, was written to help a post-Jaws public to more fully understand "the sea in all its beauty, mystery and power".[12] It details the ways in which man seems to have become more of an aggressor in his relationship with sharks, acting from ignorance and greed as several of the species become threatened increasingly by overfishing.

Benchley was a member of the National Council of Environmental Defense and a spokesman for its Oceans Program: "[T]he shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors."[13]

He was also one of the founding board members of the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI).

Benchley died of pulmonary fibrosis in 2006.[14]


Due to Peter Benchley's long record of shark conservation and educating the public about sharks, the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards have been instituted by Wendy Benchley and David Helvarg as his legacy.[15]

In 2015, researchers confirmed a new species of lanternshark had been found off the Pacific coast of South America, naming it Etmopterus benchleyi. Main researcher Vicki Vásquez noted the author's work in promoting ocean conservation, particularly sharks, as motivation.[16][17]




  • Time and a Ticket (1964)
  • Life's Tempo on Nantucket (1970)
  • Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea (1994)
  • Shark Trouble: True Stories About Sharks and the Sea (2001)
  • Shark!: True Stories and Lessons from the Deep (2002)
  • Shark Life: True Stories About Sharks and the Sea (with Karen Wojtyla) (2005)


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ferguson, Christopher J. (May 18, 2020). "Examining Media Myths". Psychology Today. Retrieved October 31, 2021.
  2. ^ a b Peter Benchley, Obituary The Guardian via Internet Archive. Retrieved November 7, 2023.
  3. ^ a b Stratton, Jean (April 2, 2008). "After Nine Years on Borough Council, Wendy Benchley Sets New Agenda". Town Topics. Vol. 62, no. 14. Princeton's Weekly Community. Retrieved May 12, 2018.
  4. ^ a b Benchley, Peter (June 4, 2002). "2: Jaws". Shark Life: True Stories About Sharks & the Sea. New York: Random House Publishing Group. pp. 14–19. ISBN 0-307-54574-1.
  5. ^ Downie, Robert M. (2008). Block Island History of Photography 1870–1960s. Vol. 2. p. 243. OCLC 428688552.
  6. ^ Dowling, Stephen (February 1, 2004). "The book that spawned a monster". BBC News. BBC. Retrieved January 1, 2009.
  7. ^ "Rise of the blockbuster". BBC News. BBC. November 16, 2001. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  8. ^ a b "Peter Benchley". Contemporary Authors Online. Gale. 2003. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |url= (help)
  9. ^ a b "What real ships inspired The Deep?". October 4, 2020. Retrieved October 23, 2020.
  10. ^ "The 50th Academy Awards | 1978". | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved October 23, 2020.
  11. ^ Wood, Robin (June 28, 2002). "Peter Benchley's 'Shark Trouble'". CBS News. CBS Interactive Inc. Retrieved May 12, 2018.
  12. ^ Benchley, Peter (June 4, 2002). Shark Trouble: True Stories and Lessons About the Sea. Random House Publishing Group. p. 13. ISBN 9781588362070.
  13. ^ Hodgson, Tim (February 17, 2006). "Make your company a world wide known name with us!". The Royal Gazette. Archived from the original on June 5, 2006. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  14. ^ "Jaws author Peter Benchley dies". BBC News. BBC. February 13, 2006. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  15. ^ "About the Awards". Peter Benchley Ocean Awards. Retrieved December 25, 2015.
  16. ^ "Forget the Flashlight: New Ninja Shark Species Lights up the Sea". Live Science. Retrieved November 15, 2018.
  17. ^ Vásquez, V.E.; Ebert, D.A.; Long, D.J. (2015). "Etmopterus benchleyi n. sp., a new lanternshark (Squaliformes: Etmopteridae) from the central eastern Pacific Ocean" (PDF). Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation. 17: 43–45.

External links[edit]