With the 1974 publication of Jaws, the story of a man-, woman-, and child-eating shark that terrorizes a seaside community, Peter Benchley left an indelible imprint on the collective American psyche. Who would ever want to go into the water again?
But there's little the reading public likes better than a good scare (remember Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby? Or how about Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs?), and with Jaws, his first novel, Benchley got all the elements just right: There was a predator; there was plenty of suspense; and, oh yes, plenty of gore, too. The book, a perfect summer beach read, was wildly successful and spent 40 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Benchley admitted that the book had little basis in scientific fact (at the time, almost nobody had any firsthand experience with great whites), but as a former newspaper reporter, he had impeccable instincts for a good yarn. He followed Jaws with two more terrifying deep-sea adventure novels, The Deep and The Island.
In 1982, Benchley published The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, a lovely, idyllic, and notably scare-free novel that received mixed reviews. "This reader yearned for more conflict," wrote a critic for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "more 'and then what happened?' After a few more forays into traditional fiction, the author returned to his forté in bestselling thrillers like Beast, White Shark, and Creature.
Aware in his later years of the fragility of the species, Benchley became a staunch defender of the great white shark, penning several works of nonfiction about these endangered predators and actively advocating for ocean conservation. He died on Feburary 11, 2006, from pulmonary fibrosis, but his legacy continues with the Peter Benchley Shark Conservation Award, given annually for outstanding contributions to shark conservation.
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Benchley was a speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson during the first two years of his administration (1967-69).
In 1999, Benchley turned his attention to writing and developing a short-lived syndicated series about plane crash survivors in the jungle, Amazon, starring Carol Alt and C. Thomas Howell.
Benchley's novels have inspired several movies and teleplays, and the author had a hand in some of them -- sometimes as an actor. He was a TV interviewer in Jaws, played bit parts in other films, and appeared onscreen as an interviewee in E!'s True Hollywood Story about the making of Jaws.
Benchley was the grandson of Robert Benchley, the famous humorist and member of the Algonquin Round Table.
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