Many readers only know Peter Benchley, if they know him at all, as the author of Jaws (1974), the novel upon which Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed blockbuster film was based—but Benchley was more than a one hit wonder (or a one trick pony). In a career spanning decades and media, Benchley would go on to write a number of acclaimed novels like Beast (1991) and The Deep (1976), not to mention screenplays and television programs, in addition to working as an ocean conservationist. Here are a few interesting facts about him.
1. He felt bad about maligning sharks
Benchley was perhaps best known in his later years for his nonfiction works about the ocean in general and sharks in particular. Apparently, he felt that his work had had an unnecessary negative impact on public perception of sharks, and he had hoped to rehabilitate their image and educate the public about their importance to the ecosystem. Discussing his most famous work later in life, he said, "the 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."
2. He worked as a White House speechwriter for LBJ
After stints at Harvard and in the Marine Corps Reserve, Benchley took a job as a reporter at the Washington Post. His aptitude as a writer on political topics must have become apparent, because in 1967 he was hired by Lyndon B. Johnson to work as a presidential speechwriter.
3. Jaws found him writing in some peculiar spaces
Following the end of Johnson’s tenure as president, Benchley decided to devote himself to the idea that would eventually become Jaws. The plot of the novel had been germinating since he had read about a 4,550 lb. great white shark caught off the coast of Long Island, but the task of sitting down and actually writing out his ideas remained to be worked through. He wrote the initial pages in a rented room above a furnace supply company. After he had sold the idea to Doubleday, he did rewrites in a converted turkey coup in Connecticut.
4. He never thought Jaws would get made into a movie
As such, he wasn’t too worried about what to call it. He and the publishers decided on “Jaws” only minutes before sending it to the printers (it had previously been called “The Stillness in the Water,” “Leviathan Rising,” and a host of other doomed monikers). Why the lackadaisical attitude? According to Benchley: “It was a first novel, and nobody reads first novels. It was a novel about a fish, for God’s sake, and who cared about fish? Furthermore—and as a final dose of reality—we all loudly agreed that there wasn’t a chance that anybody would ever make a movie out of the book.”
5. Jaws (the movie) was the first summer blockbuster
This may belong more to a list of interesting facts about Steven Spielberg, but Benchley certainly deserves some credit for producing the source material that would (aided by massive television ad-buys) forever buck the trend of reserving summer release dates for expected duds. Jaws would stand as the highest grossing film of its era until the arrival of Star Wars in 1977.
6. The film also features a cameo from Benchley
As a newscaster addressing the screen from the beach. He also co-wrote the movie’s screenplay, meaning that while the film makes a number of changes from the source material (the film cuts out the book’s mafia plot line, and notably adds Quint’s backstory as a survivor of the USS Indianapolis disaster), Benchley’s creative mind was still a driving force behind the film’s vision, helping to scare beachgoers for years to come.
7. He often returned to the sea in his novels
Though Benchley would never write an outright sequel to Jaws (nor was he involved in any meaningful way with the film sequels), his fictional work was not through mining the terrors of the uncharted deep. In Beast, a giant squid terrorizes Bermuda; in White Shark (1994), a human-shark hybrid created by Nazi scientists is inadvertently unleashed on the coast of Long Island; The Deep centered around sunken treasure on a Bermuda coral reef. All three of these tales (and others) would be adapted for either film or television.
8. He was the first host of Shark Week
Though Shark Week had been airing on the Discovery Channel since 1988, it wasn’t until 1994 that they began their practice of featuring celebrities as hosts. Fittingly enough, 1994’s host was Benchley himself, who no doubt relished the opportunity to provide educational content about the misunderstood creatures he came to love.