Pistols in Parallel: Paula Prentiss and Her Sister Ann

Pulchritudinous Paula Prentiss (b. 1938) is often Paired with Popular People (the letter of the day is P, apparently). Chief among them, of course actor Richard Benjamin, to whom she has been married for over 60 years (and about whom we have written several posts already, on Benjamin himself, on his vaudeville uncle, on the tv show Quark, and on the Benjamin-Prentiss sitcom He and She). On screen Prentiss was paired with actor Jim Hutton as a latter day light comedy “screen couple” in the films Where the Boys Are (1960), The Honeymoon Machine (1961) Bachelor in Paradise (1962), and The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962). Today, however we pair her with her sister, Ann Prentiss (1939-2010), as volatile a pairing, you will discover, as vinegar and baking soda.

Two gorgeous and statuesque Italian girls from Texas — can you think of anything more intimidating, even terrifying? Their given last name was Ragusa, which led me to speculate that Garry Marshall was thinking of them when he gave that surname to Eddie Mekka’s character on Laverne and Shirley. And ya know what? It’s true! I just ran it down. Garry Marshall went to Northwestern, where he was friends with both Richard Benjamin and Paul Prentiss, students fellow there at the time.

An MGM scout discovered the beautiful and talented Prentiss when she was still at college; she was thus essentially typecast in Where the Boys Are. Those films with Jim Hutton we mentioned above all followed. Hutton backed out of the sequel Follow the Boys (1963) thus breaking up the screen partnership. Prentiss demonstrated her training and range by starring in the Public Theatre’s 1963 production of As You Like It. The she co-starred in Man’s Favorite Sport (1964) with Rock Hudson, appeared in The World of Harry Orient (1964) with Peter Sellers, then the all-star war film In Harm’s Way (1964), and Woody Allen’s What’s New Pussycat? (1965).

During the shooting of the latter film Prentiss suffered what has been described as a nervous breakdown, and a near suicide, after which she was institutionalized for several months. This was a crucial turning point in her career obviously. Up until this juncture she was an upward trajectory towards stardom. Her career was far from finished afterwards, but it was on more of a plateau, usually as a supporting player, or as a lead in smaller or made-for-tv type films. Prentiss had been a much bigger star than her husband until this point; in the early to mid ’60s Benjamin had mostly starred in stage productions of Neil Simon plays.

Interestingly, during the interval when Paula was “away”, her sister Ann turns up in the movie Any Wednesday (1966) with Jane Fonda, Jason Robards, and the Hutton-esque Dean Jones. Were the producers like “We need a Prentiss, any Prentiss, for this role! Paula’s unavailable? Get the other one, then!”

In 1967, there was television success for all three of them. Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin starred in their sit-com He and She, which was short-lived but had the dual outcome of restoring her career, and raising awareness of her husband, who would soon attain his own stardom with Goodbye Columbus (1969). That same year, Ann was cast a regular on her own short-lived sit-com Captain Nice (1967) with William Daniels.

Paula was always the more successful of the two sisters. I’m sure I first saw her in the campy horror classic The Stepford Wives (1975) where she plays the memorable role of Katharine Ross’s funny best friend. (The scene where Prentiss is revealed to have been replaced by a robot manages to be both the scariest moment in the movie and pretty hilarious at the same time. No mean feat). Her other films include Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970), Move (1970) with Elliott Gould, Born to Win (1971) with George Segal, Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972) with Alan Arkin, The Parallax View (1974) with Warren Beatty, Saturday the 14th (1981), and Billy Wilder’s last film Buddy Buddy (1981).

Ann’s best role is probably in Robert Altman’s California Split (1974). I’m certain this is where I first became conscious of her — I thought she was Paula at first, the two were so similar. It’s a good sized role. Normally she worked in television, in guest shots on programs like Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, Hawaii Five-O, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Love American Style, and Starsky and Hutch. Her last credit was a prominent voice-over part in My Stepmother is an Alien (1988).

Then, in the mid ’90s, an odd twist:

First this story — Ann was arrested for assaulting her elderly father. How being described as “Sister of Actress” must have made the gall rise in her gullet! But that’s not the end of the story, because then this happened.

While in jail for the assault, Ann Prentiss attempted to have a hit put out on her father, as well as Richard Benjamin, and her nephew, Paula and Richard’s son Ross. She did not try to have Paula killed. It’s all very mysterious. Her motive for either the assault and the murder plot seems to be shrouded in mystery. Jealousy? Drugs? Mental illness? Money? You’ll find lots of online mentions of the events, but none but the close-lipped family seems to know why they happened. Ann Prentiss died in 2010, about a dozen years into her 19 year sentence for attempted murder.

The long and the short of it: the Ragusa sisters seem to have been high strung gals! The irony is that their father was a Social Sciences Professor. Get these daughters properly socialized, teach!

Paula Prentiss’s most recent screen credit is in Oz Perkins 2016 horror film  I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House with Ruth Wilson. As for Oz Perkins’ colorful family history, that’s a topic for another day.