Peter and the Shark

People thought Peter Benchley was crazy to quit his job and write a book about sharks. Worked out pretty well, though. Ever heard of Jaws?

Peter And The Shark
People thought Peter Benchley was crazy to quit his job and write a book about sharks. Worked out pretty well, though. Ever heard of Jaws?

At the time, he was in his early thirties and looked right out of prep school. He wore brown tortoiseshell glasses and favored tweed sports jackets, and I remember him as charming and quick-witted and unfailingly courteous. So when he asked me to join him for a drink, I readily accepted. We had just finished taping our segments for the Newsweek Broadcast Service at Metromedia Channel 5 (now Fox 5 News) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and took our drinks at a bar across the street from the studio.

“I wanted to tell you personally that I’m quitting,” he said. “I enjoyed working with you, and I wanted to say goodbye with a drink.”

I asked him if he was taking another job, and he shook his head. “I have to devote myself full-time to a novel I’m writing. I’m afraid if I don’t give it my best shot now, I never will.”

“What’s the novel about?”

“I’m not supposed to talk too much about it,” he said. “But I can tell you it involves a great white shark.”

The next time I saw Peter Benchley we happened to run into each other on a street corner in Midtown Manhattan. That was 40 years ago this summer. The movie version of his mega-selling novel Jaws was shattering box-office records, and Benchley had not only earned a co-screenwriting credit, he’d also made a cameo appearance as a TV reporter.

“You did it, Peter!” I said. “You must be feeling on top of the world.”

“Actually, I’m feeling very lucky,” he said happily, and went on to praise the young director, Steven Spielberg, for turning his novel into such a massive critical and commercial success.

Before I tell you more about my fleeting reunion with Benchley, here’s a very brief backgrounder: A 1961 graduate of Harvard, he was the son of novelist Nathaniel Benchley and the grandson of Robert Benchley, the celebrated humorist and essayist for The New Yorker. When we worked together, he was a freelance writer/editor/producer for the Newsweek Broadcast Service. I was a sportswriter for Newsweek magazine and contributed a couple of segments each week to the service. Benchley edited my scripts, and on occasion he also reported and produced his own segments. His pieces reflected his fascination with the sea, and many were about—cue the movie’s foreboding, staccato theme music—great white sharks!

Benchley’s single-minded pursuit of shark stories had become something of a joke around the studio, even though his reports made damn good television, giving viewers a peek into a world that wasn’t then broadly covered. I had witnessed how excited he’d get when he screened his segments for us. What I didn’t know was that all the while he’d been working on a novel about a man-eating shark that terrorizes a sea-side community.

After Benchley and I said our goodbyes and wished each other well, I returned to the studio. “Can you believe that Peter is quitting to write a novel about a shark?” I said to the executive producer and the director in the control room. “He’s lost his mind over this obsession of his.”

There was a lot of chuckling and eye-rolling at Peter’s expense, but nobody was laughing when word started trickling out almost a year later that Doubleday was on the verge of publishing a blockbuster novel by Peter Benchley. The rest, as they say, is history.

So when I ran into Benchley that long-ago summer, I ‘fessed up. “I gotta be honest, Peter, I thought you were crazy to leave Newsweek.”

“You weren’t the only one,” he said with a quick and easy laugh. “It’s like I won the lottery. How can you predict that?”

I never saw Benchley again. He had to know the nearly impossible odds against duplicating the pop-cultural phenomenon of Jaws, but he continued to write novels—and non-fiction books as well—that tapped into his infatuation with the sea, including The Deep and The Island, both of which were adapted into movies. In later years, he regretted having turned the great white shark into such a terrifying villain, and he became a staunch promoter of oceanic conservation.

Peter Benchley was 65 when he died on February 12, 2006, from pulmonary fibrosis. I still feel the way I felt all those years ago: I’m glad I was wrong about Benchley quitting his Newsweek gig to write his novel—and even gladder I had the chance to tell him so.