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The odd career twist of a former screen heartthrob

How Robby Benson, the Jewish-born '70s Tiger Beat fixture, found himself directing a feature about Christian evangelist Billy Graham.

October 12, 2008|Tom Roston | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — "It WAS one of those wonderful phone calls," Robby Benson says, recalling February when producer Larry Mortoff dialed him up and asked if he wanted to direct "Billy: The Early Years," a new film about evangelist Billy Graham being released in late October. "It's why so many people are in show business. Because, mostly, you don't get the good phone calls."

It wasn't always this way. Benson, best known for his Windex blue eyes and wispy voice, starred in a trifecta of feature films between 1976 and 1978 -- "Ode to Billy Joe" (in which his sexually conflicted character throws himself from a bridge), "One on One" (a triumphant tale about his scrawny basketball star) and "Ice Castles" (about his hockey tough who melts for a blind figure skater). His cloying sensitivity in over-the-top roles may have made him a whipping boy for critics, but he won the admiration of teenage girls and nice guys everywhere.

And then Benson's lightfooted leap to success took a stumble. The good calls turned to bad, as Benson scored a string of box-office and critical disasters (probably the film least mentioned in the recent obituaries for Paul Newman was 1984's "Harry & Son," costarring Benson). And around that time, the tender heart he'd worn so many times on his shirtsleeves literally gave out on him, necessitating major cardiac surgery.

It has been 30 years since his moment at the top. "I'm still as naive as I was then -- in certain respects," says Benson with a strained smile, wearing a green vintage New York Jets cap low on his forehead, shadowing his once-brilliant baby blues. "I never learned how to protect myself. And that has never changed in my life."

When he received Mortoff's call for "Billy: The Early Years," he had been biding his time on his small farm in North Carolina with his wife, Karla DeVito, an actor-singer (best known for singing backup to Meat Loaf), and their children, 16-year-old son Zephyr and 24-year-old daughter Lyric. The offer seemed like a godsend. But in a two-hour interview punctuated by deep sighs and long stares out the window of his office at New York University's film school, where he is teaching an advanced production course, the 52-year-old admits to being "at odds" with himself over his latest effort.

In and out of showbiz

Benson, A Jewish-American showbiz kid raised in New York City who has never had much to do with organized religion, would seem like a strange choice to direct "Billy: The Early Years," but Mortoff insists he was "looking for the best director" he could find. "Maybe being Jewish helped," Mortoff says, "because he wasn't preaching -- he was making an entertaining movie."

Benson's first question to Mortoff during that phone call was: "Are we making a religious film or a feature film?" When Mortoff, a producer who made the unusual leap from horror films ("Hellraiser") to Christian-themed fare ("The Omega Code"), told Benson it would be a feature, it was the answer he wanted to hear. He signed on the next day.

"I had no business being in those circles," Benson says. "I simply had an opportunity to make a movie -- and it wasn't a slasher." But it was more than that. Benson had known Mortoff since the two worked together on 1993's straight-to-video "Deadly Exposure." Mortoff was clearly throwing a hail-Mary pass by calling Benson -- two previous directors had recently left the project, and filming was set to begin in two months.

"I said yes to this because Larry needed me," Benson says. "I said yes because I wanted to help make the movie good."

Early on, Benson learned to serve the project above all else -- his father was originally in the cotton business in Dallas, but he'd also write satirical skits that Benson's mother would perform in local nightclubs. The family moved to New York City, where Benson's father became a comedy writer. Benson followed his father into show business at age 6, quickly landing roles in commercials, soap operas and on Broadway.

He sold his first screenplay, "One on One," at age 17, and his film career began taking off. Benson would sit behind the Panavision camera on set, learning from cinematographers about the creative process. He enjoyed his teeny-bopper stardom but avoided the Hollywood scene and instead spent his time writing scripts, learning the trade, and acting in increasingly high-profile films.

And although Benson takes responsibility for the later downturn his career -- "I don't feel like I did my best work when I should have" -- he also feels the need to share blame. "I had a couple of films where I really was very much a team player," he says. "And that's been a fault of mine. If a scene weren't working, I'd sacrifice myself to save the scene. And I'd watch other actors be selfish and protect themselves. And they would look much better."

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