Over on Mark Evanier's website (always a good way to start a piece), he wrote here the other day about the movie The Sunshine Boys, and links to a good interview with one of that film's actors, Richard Benjamin, who he notes he likes a lot.
I had reason to meet Richard Benjamin back about 20 years ago, when Northwestern finally made it to the Rose Bowl after about 55 years, and so there were a lot of NU alumni events around Los Angeles, as you might imagine, what with all the entertainment graduates from the school. I happened to be at this one particular house party that Benjamin also was attending with his wife (now of 54 years), Paula Prentiss, who also went to the school where they met, and they were both a pleasure to talk with.
I have to admit, I know that I made that easier by gaining a lot of bonus points bringing up a movie he'd directed that had flopped horribly, but I said I loved -- and loved for all the right reasons, as I explained them. In fact, it was to tell him this which is, to a large degree, why I sought him out.
The movie was called Milk Money, and was such a disaster, it's one of the things that pummeled his directing career. The problem was that, long before the movie opened, almost a year, as I recall, word had somehow got to some right-wing religious family group that went on the rampage, slamming the despicable film for being all about a little 10-year-old boy who goes out with his allowance to buy a hooker for himself. The campaign against the film was vociferous in outrage for its moral depravity on such a subject for a movie, and by the time the film opened, it was dead in the water.
The thing is, as the movie neared release, I got hired to write TV ads for it, and I was sent a copy of the film to watch in preparation. I was, of course, wary about what I was going to watch -- and to my utter shock, what the public "word" was on the film had...absolutely nothing...to do with what it actually was about. In fact, the movie is very charming and sweet, and funny.
naked There is a sequence near the beginning of the movie where a group of these 10-year-old boys from the suburbs pool their money, so that they can go into the city and see a naked woman. After numerous turn-downs from any woman they pass on the street, despite their generous offer of $103.62 in a bagful of change, the boys get held up at gunpoint, when a prostitute, played by Melanie Griffith, interrupts the robbery, and the boys give her the money as thanks for saving their lives. She only accepts because when she stopped the crime, her john drove off, so she's out $100, which her pimp will be furious about. The boys are so utterly terrified that (in a very funny scene) they do everything possible to avoid seeing her, including turning out the lights, as she removes her blouse. The main boy, at the center of the story, in fact is so freaked out that he covers his eyes and succeeds in seeing absolutely nothing.
That's the sequence that caused the uproar of Hollywood making a depraved movie that supposedly was all about a young boy who hires a hooker for himself.
What the movie is actually about is that Melanie Griffith's character is on the run from some thugs. She sees the boys as a way to escape, and convinces them to let her take them home. Once there in the safety of the suburbs, the main little boy -- who adores Melanie Griffith -- tries to set her up with his lonely, widower father (played by Ed Harris), who has no idea what she does for a living. (His son says she's a math tutor.) THAT'S what the movie is about, this offbeat love story, as the hoods are trying to track the woman down. It's really sort of adorable, and enjoyable, and might even be worth adding it to your Netflix queue.
Anyway, I told Richard Benjamin all this, that I totally got what the movie was about, and how really good it was, and how horrible it was to be perceived SO incorrectly and unfairly. And the look of appreciation and relief on his face was a joy I'll always remember.
I also got the chance to tell him that the very first time I ever got to see him act was in another Neil Simon production -- in the stage play of The Odd Couple when it was in Chicago. It will not shock you to learn he played Felix. And it will not shock you to learn that he was about as perfect for that angst-ridden role as an actor could be. (The old film star Dan Dailey played Oscar, and was quite good. But Richard Benjamin as Felix was...well, he was perfect.) I got bonus points for that.
Richard Benjamin had a long, successful association with Neil Simon, and (with all due respect to Matthew Broderick) may be the quintessential Simon hero. He also starred in the national touring company of Barefoot in the Park, and starred in the original Broadway production of Star-Spangled Girl. He even was in the 2004 TV remake of The Goodbye Girl. And further, it was Benjamin who directed the TV version of Simon's wonderful play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, that starred Nathan Lane (in a role based on Sid Caesar).
By the way, the Benjamins have a daughter, Prentiss Benjamin, who also went to Northwestern, and is an actress. My folks went to a lot of student production at NU and saw her a lot, telling me often how wonderful she was. I finally got the chance to see in when I was visiting, and we went to see a student production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along. She was indeed terrific -- and her parents were in the audience that night to see her, as well.
Anyway, this tale all came about because Mark Evanier wrote about how the movie of The Sunshine Boys (in which Richard Benjamin plays the agent-nephew of Walter Matthau) is about the be released in Blu-Ray.
What you read above is called "going off on a tangent".
And what you'll see below to wrap things up is an episode of the wonderful, but short-lived 1967 TV series that Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss starred in, He & She. It was a fairly sophisticated show for its time, which alas was ahead of its time, leading the way to series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, yet winning an Emmy award for comedy writing. (The award was won by Chris Hayward and Allan Burns -- who together wrote for Get Smart, and Burns later went on to co-create...The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) Benjamin and Prentiss played a married couple (shocking, I know...), he a cartoonist, and she a social worker. It also featured a terrific supporting cast, including Jack Cassidy (who in the show played the star of a TV series based on Benjamin's comic strip), Hamilton Camp (from The Second City troupe and a great folksinger with Bob Gibson), and Kenneth Mars (who the next year would play Franz Liebkind in Mel Brooks' film,The Producers), as well as Harold Gould.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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