Author, screenwriter, activist
Born: May 8, 1940, in New York City
Died: February 11, 2006, in Princeton, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2018: Arts & Letters
Sharks always played an important part in Peter Benchley’s life. Spending summers as a youth on the island of Nantucket, he was fascinated by the dorsal fins he spotted slicing through the water as he sailed and fished. Later he wrote articles about sharks, and ultimately penned the novel that made him famous.
In an autobiography on his website, Benchley wrote: “I believe that, at one time or another, all young people are fascinated either by sharks, dinosaurs and/or pirates; my passion was for sharks.”
Benchley grew up in New York City, attended Harvard College, travelled the world (inspiring a memoir, “Time and a Ticket”), and served briefly in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He landed his first job as a reporter for the Washington Post, moved to Newsweek as radio/TV editor, and in 1967 was hired as a junior speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson.
After the close of the Johnson Administration, Benchley freelanced for numerous publications, including National Geographic and The New Yorker. In 1970, he and his wife and their infant son settled in Pennington, New Jersey. Four years later, Doubleday published his first work of fiction, “Jaws,” about a great white shark terrorizing an oceanside resort. “Jaws”—partly inspired by the infamous Jersey Shore shark attacks of July 1916–sold millions of copies and became a blockbuster film. Benchley co-wrote the screenplay for the film, and made a cameo appearance as a reporter.
Benchley’s subsequent novels included “The Deep,” which inspired another hit film; “The Island”; and “The Beast.” He wrote screenplays for all three, as well as three “Jaws” sequels and other films.
In his later years, Benchley became a self-described marine conservationist, dedicating himself to increasing awareness of sharks and other marine creatures through non-fiction articles and filmed documentaries. These efforts were, in part, intended to counter the fear of sharks he had aroused with his earlier fictional writings.