Portrait of Richard Benjamin

This is our fourth post on Richard Benjamin (b. 1938) and he’s mentioned in 15 others on Travalanche, but we swear we’re not obsessed with him. It just so happens that we’ve written about aspects of his career piecemeal, and today we wanted to do a little squib to anchor all the others to. We’ve written about his vaudeville uncle Joe Browning, about the cute sit-com he starred in with his wife Paula Prentiss, He and She (1967-68), and the sci-fi parody sitcom Quark (1978) he starred in, a personal favorite of mine during my tween years. Today, we attempt a snapshot of the entire subject.

Benjamin is from NYC, the son of a garment worker. After attending New York’s High School of Performing Arts (the Fame school), he went to Northwestern, where he met Prentiss. Her career peaked first, with appearances in movies like Where the Boys Are (1960), Bob Hope’s Bachelor in Paradise (1961), Follow the Boys (1963), The World of Henry Orient (1964), and Woody Allen’s What’s New Pussycat? (1965). Benjamin, meanwhile starred in the national tours of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, which led to his being cast in the original Broadway production of Simon’s The Star-Spangled Girl with Anthony Perkins and Connie Stevens in 1966. At this stage, came the pivotal, but brief He and She.

Strange to relate, there was a period, roughly 1969 through the mid ’70s when he was, properly speaking a movie star (as in the star or co-star of films). He had an extraordinarily handsome, almost womanly, face, with bony cheekbones and long eyelashes. While his patently Jewish identity made that novel at the time, it must be remembered that this was also the era in which Dustin Hoffman became a mega-star. He was in two major Philip Roth adaptations, Goodbye, Columbus (1969) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1972). In the former film he was thus Ali McGraw’s leading man before Ryan O’Neal, Steve McQueen, or Kris Kristopherson — not a bad little crew to be a part of in the looks department. Other films of the period included Frank and Eleanor Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), the original Westworld (1973) in which he was an actual action hero of sorts, and the quirky murder mystery The Last of Sheila (1973), which we wrote about here.

But there was (and is) another component to his personality. He often played whiny, petulant, complaining characters (not unlike Charles Grodin), and his overall pencil-necked physiognomy fed into a perception of his nerdy. Though well over six feet tall, he was not what you would describe as “rugged”. His wrists were thin; his body was downright willowy. So we mostly associate him with comedies, especially as the ’70s rolled on — quite a few of them modern classics of a sort. Lots of them are ensemble pictures or ones in which he is third or fourth billed in a supporting part. These pictures include Catch-22 (1970), The Sunshine Boys (1975), House Calls (1978), Love at First Bite (1979), Scavenger Hunt (1979), How to Beat the High Co$t of Living (1980), First Family (1980), and Saturday the 14th (1981). This, recall, was around the time of Quark (1978) and he also guest hosted Saturday Night Live in 1979. Thus his career can be said to have peaked twice, once in the late 60s/early 70s, and again about a decade later.

Then, at this crucial juncture, he resolved to pursue yet another her career as a director. His first theatrical film behind the lens was his best and seemed to portend big things as a comedy auteur. My Favorite Year (1982) remains a cult favorite among comedy buffs. Loosely inspired by a real life incident in which a drunken Errol Flynn wreaked havoc when he appeared on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, it cast a pre-Perfect Strangers Mark Lin-Baker as a young comedy writer charging with minding a loose cannon British actor played with bravura aplomb by Peter O’Toole. The crazy good ensemble also includes Jessica Harper, Bill Macy, Joe Bologna, Cameron Mitchell, Lainie Kazan, Lou Jacobi, Adolph Green, George Wyner, and Selma Diamond. Benjamin continued to have a pretty good track (if not unambiguously stellar) track record as a director for around a decade: Racing with the Moon (1984) with Sean Penn, Elizabeth McGovern, and Nicholas Cage; City Heat (1984) with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds; The Money Pit (1986) with Tom Hanks and Shelley Long; Little Nikita (1988) with River Phoenix and Sidney Poitier; My Stepmother is an Alien (1988) with Dan Aykroyd and Kim Basinger; Mermaids (1990) with Cher, Bob Hoskins, Winona Ryder, and Christina Ricci; and Made in America (191) with Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson. Mrs. Winterbourne (1996) with Shirley MacLaine, Ricki Lake, and Brendan Fraser was his last theatrical feature.

Benjamin later directed TV movies of Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor (2001) and The Goodbye Girl (2004) and appeared in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997), among other things. His last credit was in 2015.

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.