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Film star ('Portnoy's Complaint') and director ('My Favorite Year') Richard Benjamin: No complaints

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Broadway and TV actor Richard Benjamin became an instant movie star opposite Ali MacGraw in the 1969 film based on author Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.

“My big break. There’s a lot of luck involved,” said Benjamin, who later starred in a second Roth adaptation, Portnoy’s Complaint (1972), and The Last of Sheila, a 1973 mystery co-written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins. Both films are now available on DVD ($18 each) from Warner Archive.

Benjamin’s wife of 50 years, actress Paula Prentiss, first told him about Goodbye, Columbus, the Roth novella about a nouveau-riche Jewish family.

“Paula said 'There’s this book, you should read it. It’s Goodbye, Columbus,'” Benjamin said. He didn’t. Then when the movie part came up, he said to Prentiss, “Where’s that book?”

“I told you to read it,” said Prentiss, a co-star of the 1960 Fort Lauderdale spring break classic, Where The Boys Are. The couple married in 1961 and have lived about 40 years in Los Angeles. Each is 74 years old.

The Benjamins waited 13 years to have children, son Ross (now 38) and daughter Prentiss (34). Both are actors and look a lot like their parents.

“One time when [Ross] was little, we were in a drug store here. Some woman walked by and said, ‘Look, a Xerox,’” Benjamin says. “[Prentiss] looks like Paula, which is a good thing.”

In the early 1960s, Prentiss frequently co-starred with actor Jim Hutton (Timothy's dad), who died of cancer at age 45 in 1979. The reason MGM put them in four films together: their height. According to Benjamin, the statuesque Prentiss (5-foot 10) still had to stand on a box to be photographed with Hutton, who was 6-foot 5.

In 1967, CBS offered Prentiss a TV series called He & She. She suggested the network also hire her husband. “They didn’t know who I was,” says Benjamin, then starring on Broadway in Neil Simon’s comedy, The Star-Spangled Girl. After seeing Benjamin in the play, CBS agreed to co-star him in He & She. The sitcom lasted one season.

In 1973, the Benjamins spent four months in the South of France while Richard filmed The Last of Sheila, an all-star whodunit also featuring Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Ian McShane and Raquel Welch.

The following year, Ross was born and Prentiss became a full-time mother. Benjamin segued into directing. His first film: My Favorite Year with an Oscar-nominated performance by Peter O’Toole. Later, Benjamin directed The Money Pit starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long; and Cher in Mermaids.

Prentiss didn’t mind walking away from her career. “She was never ambitious,” Benjamin says.

And he? “Ambitious. And wanting to do things and liking it a lot. Nothing is greater than being on a set and directing a movie — a movie you hope is good. And if not, and you got into it for the wrong reasons, it’s horrible.”

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