Philadelphia, PA – 1974
I was in Fels Junior High School. My time at Fels was the worst time of my young life. I was entering puberty. I had greasy hair, braces, zits all over my face, glasses and weird clothes. I don’t know what my mom was thinking when she bought my wardrobe back then. I wore black dress shoes that had buckles on them. Kids would make fun of me and called them Pilgrim shoes. I was a total mess. If I had been a good student or an athlete all would have been forgiven but I was just a total loser. Low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety didn’t help. But I was a smart kid. But that doesn’t help when you’re a total failure. I remember my mom later said she wished she could have just put me to sleep and woke me up when I was 18.
The school of thought back then was you didn’t have to love your kids. I remember my mother later told me that she didn’t love me during that time. I get it. But you don’t tell your child that. You don’t ever say those words to a little kid.
I loved to read. My father taught us all how to read before we ever went to school. He would spend time with us with books on how to sound out words and vowels and consonants. I will say when it came to educating us kids my father was amazing.
He would read us The Hobbit at night before bed.
I was a deadly reader long before my peers. I have instilled the same in my daughter growing up. I may say no to you for another toy but I’ll never say to you if you want a book. I’ve bought plenty of both for Lorelei but she has always been an avid reader like her dad. I love that about her!
I was sitting in the auditorium after lunch one day doing study hall or whatever and this little Jewish ginger kid named Eric Dorfman gave me a paperback he had just finished entitled Jaws.
I loved sharks, dinosaurs, barbarians, superheroes and horror movies and everything like that so I was interested.
“You should read this. You’ll like it.”
I had never read an “adult novel” until then. I had only read science books, textbooks for school, and most of all, comic books.
The book opens with a strong hook. Just like the opening of the film that would later premiere. I remember being drawn into the story immediately. My dad told me that the author Peter Benchley was the grandson of the author Robert Benchley.
Robert Charles Benchley was an American humorist best known for his work as a newspaper columnist and film actor. From his beginnings, at the Harvard Lampoon, while attending Harvard University, through his many years writing essays and articles for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and his acclaimed short films, Benchley’s style of humor brought him respect and success during his life, from New York City and his peers at the Algonquin Round Table to contemporaries in the burgeoning film industry.
His grandson Peter Bradford Benchley was an American author and screenwriter. He is known for the bestselling novel Jaws and co-wrote its subsequent film adaptation with Carl Gottlieb. Several more of his works were also adapted for cinema, including The Deep, The Island, Beast, and White Shark.
Later in life, Benchley came to regret writing such sensationalist literature about sharks, which he felt encouraged excessive fear and unnecessary culls of such an important predator in ocean ecosystems, and became an outspoken advocate for marine conservation.
By 1971, Benchley was doing various freelance jobs in his struggle to support his wife and children. During this period, when Benchley would later declare he was “making one final attempt to stay alive as a writer”, his literary agent arranged meetings with publishers. Benchley would frequently pitch two ideas, a non-fiction book about pirates, and a novel depicting a man-eating shark terrorizing a community. This idea had been developed by Benchley since he had read a news report of a fisherman catching a 4,550 pounds (2,060 kg) great white shark off the coast of Long Island in 1964. The shark novel eventually attracted Doubleday editor Thomas Congdon, who offered Benchley an advance of $1,000 leading to the novelist submitting the first 100 pages. Much of the work had to be rewritten as the publisher was not happy with the initial tone. Benchley worked by winter in his Pennington office, and in the summer in a converted chicken coop in the Wessons’ farm in Stonington. The idea was inspired by the several great white sharks caught in the 1960s off Long Island and Block Island by the Montauk charter boat captain Frank Mundus.
Jaws was published in 1974 and became a great success, staying on the bestseller list for 44 weeks. Steven Spielberg, (He was only 26 years old when he directed Jaws!) who would direct the film version of Jaws, has said that he initially found many of the characters unsympathetic and wanted the shark to win. Book critics such as Michael A. Rogers of Rolling Stone shared the sentiment but the book struck a chord with readers.
Benchley co-wrote the screenplay with Carl Gottlieb (along with the uncredited Howard Sackler and John Milius, who provided the first draft of a monologue about the USS Indianapolis) for the Spielberg film released in 1975. Benchley made a cameo appearance as a news reporter on the beach. The film, starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss, was released in the summer season, traditionally considered to be the graveyard season for films. However, Universal Studios decided to break tradition by releasing the film with extensive television advertising. It eventually grossed over $470 million worldwide. George Lucas used a similar strategy in 1977 for Star Wars which broke the box office records set by Jaws, and hence the summer blockbuster was born.
Benchley estimated that he earned enough from book sales, film rights, and magazine/book club syndication to be able to work independently as a film writer for ten years.
I remember being terrified reading the book in my bed. I think about that now, and it seems silly. How could a monster who couldn’t leave the ocean even get me in my bed? But I was young and this was a grown-up scary story. One of the things that I noticed about the book that was different from the movie was this: In the book, Hooper is having an affair with Brody’s wife, and in the end, he dies. In the book, he’s in the shark cage and the shark smashes through it and eats him.
Wildwood, New Jersey – 1975
There was so much hype about this film when it came out. It was the summer of ’75 and we were down the shore in Wildwood. (Which is a resort/retirement community somewhat like Amity in Jaws) There were five movie theaters around the island and they all had the posters for the movie up. But another brilliant piece of marketing they had going were these other posters called “Shark Facts.” They had the Jaws logo at the bottom, and then a list of facts about sharks. My favorite one was “Most shark attacks occur in 3 feet of water.” I knew this scared the hell out of everyone.
After seeing Jaws you really never saw people just running down to the ocean and jumping in. It was more like, walk to the water’s edge, stop, peer out into the ocean, and then step into the water.
One of our neighbors took his daughter Stacy to see it. (Which I thought was inappropriate, because she was too young to see a film that violent and gory. But that was just my opinion) Of course her dad Steve always did stupid stuff. The scene at night when they’re underwater investigating the wreck of a boat. Hooper sees a hole in the hull and pulls out what appears to be a Dorito chip-sized shark tooth from the wood. As he does this a dead person’s head pops out. It is one of the most startling moments in the entire film. Well, Stacy jumped, the popcorn went flying, and was stuck in her hair as well as her father’s hair! (They both had dark curly hair)
I remember a group of us went to see it. I’m pretty sure my sister Janice was in that group. I remember during the opening credits, which is a camera cruising underwater through the seaweed, I started having anxiety. I knew we were in for some real thrills and chills. The film is so well done. Even though the shark by today’s special effects standards looks so fake, it still holds up as a great movie.
While filming Jaws they had so many problems with “Bruce” the mechanical shark, that they couldn’t show him as much as they wanted to. But this worked out really well. You’re always more afraid of what you can’t see than what you can see. And that music! Brilliant score by John Williams. Probably the most iconic two notes in history.
It’s just a great story about three very different men, thrown together in a small space in a very dangerous place, up against a massive marine predator.
I’ve watched the film again recently. I watch it every summer. Last year it came on TV at my favorite bar, Square 1682, and the bartender passed out bowls of their delicious and savory truffle popcorn. It really made the moment and brought everyone together at the bar as we watched this landmark classic film.
Jaws invented the Summer Blockbuster!
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