“The next 58 years will be a breeze”: An interview with RiverRun Master of Cinema awardees Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin

The RiverRun International Film Festival has been held since 1998. Originally held in Brevard, NC, the festival now takes place in Winston-Salem. Held this year from April 4 – 14, 2019, the festival is screening 172 films from 47 countries—71 features and 101 shorts.

Each year, a pillar in the film industry is recognized with the Master of Cinema award. This year, that award goes to husband and wife Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, and film producer and head of Orion pictures Mike Medavoy.

Prentiss and Benjamin have been married for 58 years. Paula Prentiss is best known for her 1960s and 1970s roles including “Where the Boys Are” (1960), “The Honeymoon Machine” (1961) and “What’s New Pussycat” (1965). She co-starred with Jim Hutton in three films. Her film “Man’s Favorite Sport?” (1964) with Rock Hudson will screen at the festival. Richard Benjamin both acts and directs. His directorial debut was the Peter O’Toole film “My Favorite Year” and he also directed “The Money Pit” (1986) and “Mermaids” (1990). His acting roles include “Goodbye, Christopher Columbus” (1969) and “The Sunshine Boys” (1975), which is screening at the festival. The two acted together on the TV show “He and She” as well as “Catch-22” (1970), “Saturday the 14th” (1981), and the Broadway play “The Norman Conquests” (1975).

I had the opportunity to interview actress Paula Prentiss and actor/director Richard Benjamin via phone on Sunday, April 7:

Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin in the 1960s

Comet Over Hollywood: Tell me about how you two met.

Richard Benjamin: We met at Northwestern University. Paula had transferred from Randolph-Macon College. And Paula had transferred from Randolph-Macon. She was a year ahead of me and I came from New York, New York City, and that’s where we met. And the first second I saw her, I thought, that’s it for me, so … I don’t know how long it took her to feel the same way exactly, you can ask her, but I knew that was it.

Paula Prentiss: Well let me see. I was at a women’s college beforehand and the dating that we had was off to other universities. I was at Randolph–Macon Women’s College, I went to the University of Virginia, went to Yale one time. But I thought to myself, I have to find some guy that I really like. These individual dating trips are a little … I don’t know what I thought. But anyway, that’s one of the reasons I transferred from Randolph–Macon Women’s College.

And when I saw Dick … He was very cute. Tall and thin and stuff like that, and I thought, I didn’t know much about acting, but he was supposed to be a director so perhaps this will work. I tried out for a play, even though I was very inexperienced in acting, and he liked me. So then when we had rehearsals, we were left alone in the rehearsal room…

COH: What made you go into acting?

Benjamin: I always wanted to. I grew up in New York City, and I did from the time I was a little kid. I went to all public schools and never thought about anything else, really. I went to the High School of Performing Arts … In NYC you have to decide what you want to do, because you audition or take tests for schools to get into any schools, if you don’t get into one of these schools, you may go somewhere not so good. I always knew what I wanted to do.

Prentiss: When I was at Randolph-Macon, I had a lot of friends and you had to do a lot of plays. I played Demetrius in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the guy’s part. And then we did a draft of a play based on “Little Woman” and a friend of mine told me I should be Amy. So I did that and that sort of got me interested. Also, I was the kind of person that went to the movies a lot and worshiped the movie stars. I went to see “Rebel Without a Cause” I don’t know how many times, to see Natalie Wood and James Dean kiss. I wanted to see what that was like. And then I went to “Fear Strikes Out” with Tony Perkins. I saw that many times. And eventually, in my life, I got to meet those two lovely people and became friends with them. That’s sort of how I edged into it.

COH: How did you get from Northwestern to Hollywood?

Prentiss: Dick and I were in theater at Northwestern and we did plays there. We took a class with an acting teacher named Alvina Krause. She had an MGM talent scout visit her classes, he had come there before.

Benjamin: I think he discovered Patricia Neal. In those days they still had talent scouts that went around the country … His name was Dudley Wilkinson, and he came to Northwestern in blizzard in February, and our teacher said anybody who wants to audition for Mr. Wilkinson, put your name up on the blackboard. People thought, “Well we only want to do theater, we’re not interested in movies.” Well everybody put their names up on the board there because somebody from the movies was coming.

So I convinced Paula to do a scene with me from the play “A Hat Full of Rain” for him. She was a bit reluctant because she wanted to do theater and she was going to do theater that summer and all that. But she did it, and we did the audition for him. He paid no attention to me at all, and I could see he only wanted to see her. He talked to her, Miss Krause said, “Paula, tell Mr. Wilkinson about yourself,” so he could see her. And that was in February, and then in June she got a call and said, “Would you come out here for a screen test for a movie?” You gotta be lucky. Luck plays a big part in this thing and you can’t make any of this up. I mean, how did all of this happen, you know? So they flew her out to California and tested her for the movie Where the Boys Are, and she signed a seven year contract with MGM.

Paula: It was just wonderful. You have to sometimes go along with good luck. If you hesitate, maybe that’s it, you know?

COH: What was that like going from being a college student to starring in a major film?

Prentiss: I felt like a fish out of water – fortunately in my first movie, there was Dolores Hart, Yvette Mimieux and Connie Francis. We all were Catholic so we had that feeling there was a kindred thing there. I kept up their friendships and talk to Dolores and see Connie from time to time. It worked out and I had good friends in the movie.

And sometimes I thought, are Dick and I still together? Then I was sent on a publicity tour, because that’s what they did back then. Under Howard Strickland, you went (on publicity tours) to each city and you were on the radio and television. That’s how the spread your name and the upcoming movie. But I think I was lonesome for the real thing again.

Dolores Hart, Connie Francis, Yvette Mimieux and Paula Prentiss in “Where the Boys Are”

COH: Weren’t these publicity tours the reason you got married? Can you tell me about that?

Benjamin: I was working in a play as an assistant director called “The Gay Life.” The director got fired, so I got fired since I was his assistant. Paula was coming through Toronto on her way to London to publicize “Bachelor in Paradise” with Bob Hope. They routed her through Toronto so she could see me and as soon as she got off the plane, I told her I’d just been fired. So, we came back to the hotel where we had a wonderful friend, Jules Munshin. He knew about MGM about what they could do. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you go with her? Call them up and say you want Dick to go with you.’

So Paula called the west coast and was told London MGM was handling the trip. So she called Arthur Lowe Jr., and he asked if we were married, because he knew we were living together. He said, ‘Well this is MGM, we can’t have you get off that airplane together and go to the Dorchester Hotel as boyfriend and girlfriend.’ You realize this was 1961 by that time, and it’s a little different today I’m sure you know. But they said, ‘We can’t have that. MGM cannot have a couple go into the hotel and not be married.’ So we said what if we got married. And he said, ‘Then we would be happy to have Dick with you and we will give you a trip.’ So we got married, and I got a nice trip out of it.

Prentiss: We went to London, Paris and Rome.

Benjamin: And we went back to New York where my folks were and my dad got the three day blood test somehow waived. I don’t know how he did that. And we called Paula’s folks in Tulsa, Oklahoma and they flew in. And my uncle, who was New York State Supreme Court judge, married us, and what’s fun is that … well, the whole thing was fun, but when we were about to leave to go to his chambers to get married, Howard Strickland, who was the head of publicity MGM, called Paula and said, “Are you married yet?” And she said, “No, we’re on our way.” He says, “You cannot go and get married until you call Luella Parsons and Hedda Hopper.”

And in those days, they had such power in the press that they said, “You must call before you get married. You have to tell them you’re going to get married in a few minutes, but they want to know before.” So that was how the press and publicity worked in those days.

Prentiss: And the very first thing those two ladies said to me was, ‘Tell MGM you want a diamond necklace.’ Of course I didn’t ask them, but I thought that was very cool.

COH: It seems like everything was a bit of a whirlwind when you started out:

Prentiss: It was a whirlwind the whole time. Dick was starting “Barefoot in the Park” in New York, so he was moving around too and I was doing my thing in Hollywood. We kept in touch, the best we could.

Benjamin: I had jobs before getting acting work. She actually got me screen test and tried to help me in Hollywood. When that didn’t work, by that time I realized I had to make money. I worked for American Airlines in New York on the phone taking reservations … Meanwhile, my wife was a movie star. It was difficult. It would be one thing if we were both in New York or somewhere, struggling and commiserating with each other. I was pounding the pavement with my picture in my hand looking for jobs, and I would go by billboards 50 feet high and see my wife everywhere.

Prentiss: Somehow we hung in there. And we found we have to hang in there for the rest of the time.

Benjamin: The next 58 years will be a breeze.

COH: How were you able to make it work all these years? Is it because you were both in the business?

Prentiss: It’s amazing I found someone in college. I think it is (because we were both in the business).I think the best part of being together is there are ups and downs in the business. He’s so funny and very kind, and we have huge arguments. We know we have been there so many times, including on the honeymoon in Rome. But somehow you know there is an end to the argument. You hang in there.

Benjamin: Also being together and the business, you know all the little ups and downs, and you have a shorthand what it’s really like; what are the little parties really about. Real life, that’s Paula, she wasn’t ambitious the way some people were. She was interested in the real things.

Prentiss: I still am. Home and family. You have to have a rock base

Richard Benjamin directing Peter O’Toole in “My Favorite Year”

COH: For Richard, what made you switch to directing?

Benjamin: I always wanted to direct. I always wanted to direct theater or movies, but to get that going is very difficult. For an actor, you walk into a room, audition and get cast. For directing, how is anyone going to let you, how is that going to happen? They aren’t going to let you direct a multi-million dollar film without knowing. Fortunately, Phil Gersh (Hollywood agent) knew about the directing thing and his sons, Bob and David, got me a job directing a television pilot, so I had directed something. Luck with a capital L comes in. David Gersh sent me the script for “My Favorite Year” and wanted to meet me for it. I thought it was really great, grew up with this whole idea of the “Show of Shows” and Sid Cesar. That piece of luck, you can’t make it up. None of that would have happened had we gone back to Phil and asked for his help. Directing is what I wanted to do in the first place.

COH: You worked together on a few projects. What is that like performing with your spouse?

Benjamin: We acted together on the TV show “He & She,” which was kind of lucky. CBS wanted to do a show with Paula. Paula said she wanted to do it with her husband. I was on the road with “Barefoot in the Park” with Myrna Loy. CBS said ‘We don’t know who that is.’ But fortunately, producer Leonard Stern’s wife Gloria, before any of this came up, saw me in a show and mentioned my acting to Leonard. He was aware of me. CBS said ok, but the day before we started shooting the pilot and all the deals were made, we got a call and they wanted to see if I was an actor. We had a great time making the pilot. At first I didn’t want to make television, but once the pilot sold and I came back out to Hollywood, I never wanted to do anything else after that. It was a tremendous amount of fun. I loved doing that together.

I had never directed Paula before, but one thing I learned is never tell her what to do. Like Woody Allen said, with her it all goes in wrong and come out right. Whatever is going on in there is mysterious and special.

COH: What is a highlight of each of your careers? Do you have a favorite role?

Benjamin: That’s hard, because there is the outcome of the project and then there is the doing of them. You may love a situation, but maybe it isn’t success. You can’t say your best things are all the hits. I never can quite answer it, because all projects are filled with different people

Prentiss: During our career, we also did plays along the way. My favorite thing I’ve one was with my daughter in Lansing Michigan, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” by George Bernard Shaw. I was so lucky to work with my daughter in a play. That was a highlight for me.

Benjamin: Acting with our children was really special.

COH: Do you have a favorite film collaborator?

Benjamin: One of the best experiences was working with James Mason in The Last of Sheila (1973). He was a consummate actor and that was a pretty big treat. Also directing Peter O’Toole and everyone else in “My Favorite Year.”

Prentiss: I just loved working with Alan Arkin in “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers.” Arkin is just a great actor and great man.

What is the biggest change you saw in films from when you started to now?

Prentiss: The first change that I saw was the change in film type. After the type of movie that “Where the Boy Are” was, that was last of that era. Then “Easy Rider” came out and everything went in that direction. That was a change.

Benjamin: One big change to me is the way films are marketed. It used to be that a film would open in six cities in downtown theaters in what was called a “first run” and then expand out across the country. Today, it’s all box office, but it’s all or nothing in just a weekend. So you have to reach the most people right away. Trying to reach the most people right away, starts to make things not so special. Also now, everything competes with what’s on television, your computer or phone, and there’s no stopping it or going back. Some special movies do break through, because I think audiences are smart and find the things of quality. The big machinery of releasing films in the same weekend is tough to compete with. They have to make money.

When we did it, it was more about what does a film say? That’s how we gravitated to certain projects, because they meant something. In some ways, it’s different but all the same.

Howard Hawk’s Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964) starring Paula Prentiss will screen at the RiverRun International Festival on Wednesday, April 10, at 5 p.m. at the Hanesbrands Theater with Paula Prentiss introducing the film.

Herbert Ross’s Sunshine Boys (1975) starring Richard Benjamin will screen at the RiverRun Festival on Wednesday, April 10, at 8 p.m. at the Hanesbrands Theater with Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss introducing the film.

For more information about the festival or the Master of Cinema Award, visit RiverRunFilm.com.

 

 

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