When Larry Drake was cast last season as "L.A. Law's" mentally retarded office boy, he befriended a 29-year-old retarded man who lives in a Malibu board-and-care home. Through observing him, Drake was able to add a dose of reality to his portrayal of the sympathetic Benny Stulwicz, the voice of honesty, warmth and common sense in the slick, upscale world of MacKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak.
Gentle Benny went on to become a surprise favorite on the NBC drama--so much so that Drake becomes an "L.A. Law" regular with a 4-year contract this season. In the season premiere at 10 tonight, Benny will try to vote for the first time.
The role also netted the 39-year-old actor an Emmy Award and an official commendation from the Assn. for Retarded Citizens.
But Drake and the young man aren't friends anymore--and therein lies a lesson that Drake hopes will also find its way into the series.
Although Drake and his friend at first were a popular interview team as the Benny character began to take off, Drake said the man reacted badly when the press began to lose interest in him and focused on Drake alone. The actor said that because of the man's mental handicap, Drake was unable to make him understand that Drake could not be responsible for bringing him back into the spotlight. The man continued to call him as often as five times a week, Drake said, and so he regretfully ended the friendship.
In a recent conversation, the Oklahoma native said he hoped that telling of the rift would not brand him as "too much of a creep," but would serve to illustrate that mainstreaming the mentally handicapped is not quite as easy as it looked last season on the show.
"I honestly think that this stuff has to be dealt with on the show," Drake insisted. "They (the retarded) are not easy. They're worth it, but they're not easy."
Now that Benny has been warmly received by TV audiences, Drake hopes that the "L.A. Law" writers will use the character this season to show the not-so-sunny side of life with the retarded.
"They're still segregated from society--mainstreaming doesn't happen enough, and I hope it will happen," Drake said. "But frankly, I don't think it's going to be what people expect. I don't think it's going to be as easy as it looks (on "L.A. Law")."
Last year, Drake said, both he and the "L.A. Law" writers had no choice but to make Benny "a little like Jackie Robinson trying to make the Major Leagues--he had to be just a little too perfect sometimes because it was the first time around.
"But I hope that they don't miss the third dimension, which is Benny being a little bit difficult," Drake added. "They have four years to explore this guy, and my deepest wish is that they not idealize him."
The "L.A. Law" writers did give Benny a few flaws toward the end of last season. In one episode, he was unkind to his date, impatient because she was more severely retarded than he and afraid she might embarrass him in front of his sophisticated law firm buddies.
And the lawyers' attitude toward Benny was put to the test when Benny was charged with rape and, because he did not understand the charge, confessed that he had "done something bad." After being prodded to discuss it by one of the attorneys, the terrified Benny explained that he had merely looked at a woman in a peep show.
Drake believes that just raising the issue of sexuality among the mentally handicapped was an act of daring. He hopes it won't stop there.
"I think sometime within the next few years, they're going to have to explore the issue in a more normal, everyday vein, what he actually does about it," Drake said. "Right now, I think he's just scared of it. The incident has probably made him avoid the whole issue for awhile."
Such extreme situations as the rape charge are not always necessary to raise ethical dilemmas about Benny, Drake pointed out. Even an ordinary situation such as Election Day puts Benny's role in society on the line.
"A friend read it (the script) and said: 'You mean, they get to vote?' " Drake said. "And she wasn't sure where she stood on it. Just bringing it (the issue) up makes a statement."
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound actor has also played literature's most famous retarded character, the hulking Lenny in "Of Mice and Men." Both Lenny and Benny have in common the contrast of a child's mind in a larger-than-life body. "Benny doesn't have to be my size, but it makes it more immediate--so big and yet so small," Drake said.
Drake, who said he was able to eke out only a lower-middle-class existence as an actor before the Benny role, has responded to stardom modestly by buying a little Diahatsu to replace his little Honda (and that only because the Honda was rear-ended) and moving from a tiny hilltop apartment in Echo Park to a three-bedroom duplex in the Wilshire district.
"I don't want my life to be about a house and a car," he said.
He does hope, however, that his performance as Benny will identify him simply as a good actor, rather than one who can only portray mentally handicapped characters. Because of his size, he has always had to fight casting directors who cannot see him as a leading man. He wants to portray Tom in "A Glass Menagerie" and covets the role of Cyrano de Bergerac--a man also misjudged because of his looks.
"This could be the beginning of a new phase of my career, or the end of it," Drake said. "If I get too type-cast, that's the worst possible scenario. I think most people are going to figure out that I'm an actor. If in three or five years people are calling me Larry, not Benny, I'll be enormously happy."