Peter Benchley dead at 65

Old 02-13-2006, 03:52 AM
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Default Peter Benchley dead at 65

A major bummer.


Sunday, February 12, 2006

Peter Benchley, author of ‘Jaws,’ dead at 65

What do you do for an encore once you’ve changed the culture?

Novelist Peter Benchley — who passed away at his Princeton home today at age 65 from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis — didn’t seem to agonize much over that question.

What would he do after his first novel, "Jaws," was published in 1974, selling 9 million copies and spawning a hit film? Well, he wrote more novels (several of which also became movies and TV films). He traveled. He went scuba diving. He worked for marine conservation. He raised his family.

"He was a very put-together person," said Richard Zanuck, who co-produced "Jaws" with David Brown. "I knew him before the success, when we optioned the book, and I knew him after, and there wasn’t much difference. Maybe he got a better house, or sent his kids to better schools, but as a human being he remained pretty constant. He was friendly and witty and very much a gentleman."

Benchley is survived by his wife, Wendy, three children, and five grandchildren. A small family service will take place next week in Princeton, Wendy Benchley said.

Princeton Borough police said they were called to the Benchley home shortly after 11 a.m.

"He died at home with his family, peacefully," said son-in-law Chris Turner, who is married to the Benchleys’ daughter, Tracy. Turner said the death had come as a surprise to the family, although Benchley had been in poor health for months.

"He was a quiet, reserved person, but ever so nice and gentle," said Princeton Mayor Mildred Trotman. A friend of Benchley, she also worked with his wife, a councilwoman and former freeholder. The Benchleys had been married for 41 years.

"It was a wonderful marriage," said Beth Healey of Princeton, a family friend, recalling a man who moved among Hollywood stars and Manhattan publishers as easily as he did among New Jersey suburbanites. "It never went to his head," she said of his success.

But Benchley’s "Jaws" wasn’t merely a success. It changed things. The big beach read — that was one part of its legacy. The big summer-movie blockbuster — that was another. The career of a young director named Steven Spielberg, of a rugged character actor named Roy Scheider — that was the work of "Jaws," too. And so, too, was a renewed fear of sharks, a fear that Benchley often fought against.

"'Jaws' shook all the nuts out of the trees," said Frank Mundus, a Hawaii-based fisherman who always claimed to be the inspiration for the novel’s colorful Quint. "Before the movie, I couldn’t get another boat to go shark fishing. After the movie, everyone wanted to be a shark fisherman."

"He was a great influence on our lives, and on cinema itself," said Brown. "He changed the history of movies, really. The whole concept of the summer blockbuster — that really began with 'Jaws.'"

Benchley’s life began in more serious waters. The son of novelist Nathaniel Benchley and grandson of the famous humorist Robert, he grew up on Nantucket, then went to Harvard as an English major. Later, he worked as a reporter for the Washington Post and a television critic for Newsweek. For the last two years of the Johnson administration, he toiled in the West Wing as a speechwriter.

By the early ‘70s, though, he had come to a crossroads.

"He was sitting on a beach, staring out to sea, trying to find himself, asking what direction his life was going to take," said Zanuck. "And this idea came to his mind about a great white shark. And I often think, this is really symbolic of the power of an idea. This is really the evidence of how one idea can change so many lives."

"In 1964, I had read about a fisherman who had caught a 4,550-pound Great White shark off Long Island," Benchley later explained on his Web site,, "and I thought to myself, ‘What would happen if one of those came around and wouldn’t go away.’ That was the seed."

Zanuck and Brown saw the book two years later, while it was still in publisher’s galleys, and signed an immediate option. Benchley did the first draft of the script, which was then re-written. Although there were the usual bruised egos — exacerbated when Spielberg told a reporter the book was so bad he’d been "rooting for the shark" — apologies were made, and Benchley even did a cameo in the film. (He plays a TV journalist.)

"The Benchley family knew all about Hollywood, and Peter had no illusions about the business," said Brown. "He took it all as it came, and he understood the changes that had to be made. We worked with him again, of course, because he was a very easy collaborator. He took a very witty view of it all."

It was a good attitude to have. Although his next novel, "The Deep," also became a best-seller, the 1977 film was mostly remembered for the sight of Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt. Another nautical thriller, "The Island," a modern pirate story, quickly sank in theaters three years later. Follow-up marine thrillers — "The Beast," and "Creature" — recycled the same watery giant-animal horrors for TV.

Compared to the breakthrough of that first novel, these were all small fry.

Another man would have sat about, agonizing over it, and wondering why that first success couldn’t be replicated, or bettered. Benchley, a fisherman to the end, took a more philosophical approach, viewing "Jaws" as his own great catch and a terrific piece of luck — but nothing that had to be proven over and over again. He knew he had done it, once, and that was enough.

"He was a real gentleman, and although he made millions off that idea, he didn’t seem to be affected by it at all," said Zanuck. "I liked him enormously. He was a lot of fun, very much an athlete. He did a lot of long-distance swimming and diving, and he did some really hairy dives with sharks."

"People use the phrase, but he really did swim with the sharks," said Brown. "But he wouldn’t get on an airplane."

Perhaps that’s because an airplane — with all of its machinery and fuel and gravity-defying flight — is not a thing of nature. A shark is. It was a living thing. And it was also, Benchley knew, something to be understood, and respected and even — in its own way — admired.

"Every time you get into the water with a Great White, you feel completely insignificant," Benchley told the National Geographic News in 2002. "Not only from the fear, but also from sense of how absolutely perfect the animal is in its environment, and how out of place you are. We have a terrible feeling of superiority, and don’t really respect the fact that the world’s greatest wilderness is at our backdoor. When you see a 2,000- or 3,000-pound animal swimming up and considering whether or not you’re edible, it’s quite a humbling experience."
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