|Original caricature of Richard Benjamin by Jeff York (copyright 2014)|
Quick, name the best actors of the 1970’s. You know, the guys who were so talented they could play leading roles as well as supporting ones. The guys who could do comedy, drama, thrillers…you name it. Who’d you come up with? Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall? Of course. I’d also make the case for George Segal, Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and one other amazing actor who doesn’t get nearly his due - Richard Benjamin.
If you don’t know his work that’s a real shame, because Benjamin was not only one of the best actors of the era, but his resume in the late 60’s and 70’s rivaled most of his contemporaries. And he was never less than wonderful in the roles he played. Yet because he took up directing and virtually stopped acting in the 80’s, he’s not given nearly the credit or stature as some others from his generation.
One of his specialties was a subtle panic that was funnier than most pratfalls. He was able to make simple miscommunication with Prentiss’ character into something utterly hilarious. He made matrimony sexy and vital and modern. Soon, the film world would figure out that Benjamin’s special brand of realism and modernity was perfect for the big screen too. And in the next decade, he was cast in all sorts of notable films.
|Richard Benjamin with Ali McGraw in GOODBYE, COLUMBUS (1969).|
His first big role was a great one, and one that netted him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. In 1969’s GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, he played Neil, a working class New Yorker who starts dating Brenda, a daddy’s girl (Ali McGraw) from a wealthy Jewish family. Benjamin certainly knew how to get the laughs in this droll comedy about the caste system, but he also brought components of resentment to his gatecrashing everyman. His moody performance elevated the film beyond its easy satirical targets. When Benjamin fended off queries from Brenda’s brusque father, he’d pause before answering and let his eyes answer before his tongue did. Those eyes continually spoke volumes about his distaste for her family’s nouveau riche gaudiness. And at the end, when Brenda sabotages their relationship by letting her dad discover her diaphragm, Neil walks away from the relationship disgusted at his own participation in it as much as her immaturity.
From there, Benjamin was offered more plum roles and no matter what he played, be it a soldier in CATCH-22 (1970) or a lothario in PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT (1972), he always brought complexity to the part, even in the most obvious of roles or genre films. In DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE (1970), he portrayed an utter shit of a smug husband, putting Carrie Snodgrass’ beleaguered wife through the ringer with his petty demands and whining gripes. But he managed to wring a lot of laughs out of his bad guy role, even persuading the audience to understand precisely where his angst was coming from. It led to his second Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a comedy film in as many years.
|Richard Benjamin in THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973).|
In THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973), Benjamin turned to genre, playing a murder suspect onboard a Mediterranean yacht in an Agatha Christie style mystery. Benjamin used his affability, intelligence and good looks to draw the audience over to his character’s side, only to pull the rug out from under them when it’s revealed that he is the killer. And when he attempts to strangle James Mason in the final scene, Benjamin is wearing puppets to hide his fingerprints. It’s a scene that could have come off as laughable and ludicrous, but Benjamin made those weapons utterly chilling because he was so utterly chilling.
In many respects, Benjamin’s most significant performance on film came in the sci-fi thriller WESTWORLD (1973). He played a businessman vacationing at an ‘adults only’ theme park where robots satisfy your every desire in western, Roman or medieval fantasy lands. The role was similar to previous ones he’d played in that again, he was playing a smart, slightly neurotic New Yorker. But when the film takes an exceedingly dark turn in the third act, with the robots going haywire and killing guests, Benjamin had to morph into an action hero.
|Richard Benjamin in WESTWORLD (1973).|
And become one, he did. After his friend (James Brolin) is gunned down by the sinister gunslinger (Yul Brynner), Benjamin is next in his metallic sites. He goes on the run and has to figure out how to fight to survive. It showcased a new side of Benjamin’s screen persona and he was totally believable in the role. He used both his good guy appeal as well as the steeliness from some of his darker roles to become a true cowboy who ultimately took out the bad guy and became the last man standing in the theme park.
My favorite role of Benjamin’s is actually a supporting one, and one that I believe should have won him an Academy Award. Benjamin won a Golden Globe for his turn as the long-suffering theatrical agent to Walter Matthau’s aging vaudevillian in the film version of Neil Simon’s THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1975). Unfortunately, he wasn’t even nominated come Oscar time. George Burns got the nod, and the win, for his leading role in the film, even though he was placed in the supporting category. But watch the film again and note who is really the best supporting player to Matthau.
|George Burns, Walter Matthau with Richard Benjamin in THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1975).|
Benjamin got big laughs trading barbs with his cantankerous curmudgeon of a client, who also happens to be his uncle. But Benjamin handled the toughest dramatic scenes in the movie with equal aplomb. When Matthau’s character falls sick, his nephew finally yields the power in their relationship, but there is no joy in it. Benjamin’s character truly feels for the old geezer and their reckoning over where their relationship stands is filled with tears. The audience was crying too and helped make this film one of the biggest hits that year. It also showcases the very best work of Benjamin’s onscreen career. (Very likely Matthau’s too.)
There would be other strong roles to come Benjamin’s way after that. He played good supporting role in comedies like HOUSE CALLS (1978) and LOVE AT FIRST BITE (1979), but Benjamin was itching to move beyond acting and get into the director’s chair. And in 1982, he helmed his very first feature. The nostalgic comedy MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982) turned out to be an incredibly auspicious debut for him.
|Richard Benjamin directing MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982).|
The story of a washed-up, drunk matinee idol spending a week rehearsing for a 1950’s variety show netted Benjamin some of the best reviews of his career. And it garnered star Peter O’Toole his seventh Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Benjamin knew comedy inside and out, but here he also showed his great flair for getting the most from a film’s cinematography, production design and editing. Not surprisingly, he was masterful in extracting superb performances from his cast of veteran character actors. Joseph Bologna, Lanie Kazan, Cameron Mitchell, Adolph Green, Lou Jacobi and William Macy all shown as bright as they’d ever been onscreen. And newcomer Mark-Linn Baker made a punchy debut under the expert guidance of Benjamin.
|Richard Benjamin today.|
Richard Benjamin went on to direct 14 other major motion pictures, including the widely acclaimed THE MONEY PIT (1986) starring Tom Hanks, and MERMAIDS (1990) with Cher and Winona Ryder. Benjamin always made for a fun talk show guest too. But now, at 75, he’s virtually retired. He’s had a long and multi-faceted career. He’s still married to Paula Prentiss after 53 years, which has to be some kind of record in Hollywood. And like that amazing union, his screen work too has stood the test of time. If you haven’t ever seen any of Benjamin’s work, do check out the films I’ve highlighted here. I can assure you that you’ll be in for a real treat.