Pillow Talking’s Interview with actor, director, producer, author ROBBY BENSON
Someday Productions and Pillow Talking are proud to present this exclusive interview with ROBBY BENSON.
Robby Benson is a multi-multi-hyphenate. Most people know him as an actor who appeared in such films as One on One, Rent-a-Cop, Ice Castles, Running Brave, Modern Love, The Chosen, Tribute, and many more. Others know him as the voice of the “Beast” in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and its progeny — Beauty and the Beast spinoff videos and games. But he is so much more than that. Robby is a producer, director, screenwriter, best-selling author, still photographer, composer, singer, musician, teacher, devoted husband and father. He also is the survivor of four open heart surgeries. Who is the real Robby Benson? We hope that our interview sheds light on this complex question and this fascinating man.
Robby’s full bio can be found on his official website (see link below).
Robby, thank you for speaking with us! This is a tricky interview as you are one of the few interviewees who has written an autobiography. In fact, we wanted to read I’m Not Dead Yet before we came up with our questions for you. After we read your fantastic, inspiring book, we feel as if we know you pretty well. It’s somewhat hard to ask questions to which we may already know the answers but our readers do not, so we tried to address some standard background areas and then possibly some different ones that might interest even people familiar with your life. And we plan to throw you some curves as well. We hope that’s okay!
PT: We know you were born into a show-business family. But at what point in your childhood did you know or decide that you wanted to pursue it as a career?
RB: I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be in the arts. I would have the time of my life when my mom, Ann Benson, worked at the Red Barn Theater in Saugatuck, Michigan. I was given true responsibility and was proud to be working with adults in this whimsical environment. Sometimes I sold lemonade during intermissions or parked cars before the show (I was eight so I would guide the cars into symmetrical parking); I’d work the follow spot (light) and I’d have jobs striking the sets and getting the new sets up for the following week.
And, it’s also where I got the bug to act. My mom is a great actor. My dad is a great writer. My sister is a great artist and designer. I could sing and take directions – and most of all I had a photographic memory. One year I wanted to play Prince Chulalongkorn in The King and I but I didn’t get the part. Everyone thought I was too young – but that motivated me, and the following years, I would audition for anything.
Then one day I heard they were doing Oliver and my mom was playing Nancy. I wanted a shot at playing Oliver. My mom and dad never wanted me to get a job I didn’t deserve or as a result of nepotism, so instead my folks gave me the album and the book from the musical to study. Everyone thought I was being silly or a dilettante, thinking I’d get the part because my mom was going to play Nancy. I knew that because my mom was a star at the theater, it would actually make it harder for me to get the job. I came out of my room in less than an hour and my folks thought I was kidding. Then I recited and sang the entire show for them – all of the parts. I took it very seriously and I wanted that job. What makes it all funny is that I think I was ten years old (my parents took me to see the Broadway version when I was about seven or eight and from that moment – the moment the curtain went up and I saw the kids on stage working I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life. Even though I was young, it might have been the best decision I’ve ever made until asking Karla DeVito to marry me…that was the best decision I have ever made!
PT: You were such a hard-working and self-motivated young man from all that we’ve read. And you were born Robin D. Segal. Why did you decide to take your mother’s maiden name?
RB: There was a lot of anti-Semitism back then. They would say, “…he’s too Jewish and makes funny faces.” This wasin New York! (For) Madison Avenue commercials! So, my parents sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do. They came up with the solution that I could change my name to my mom’s maiden name. I thought it was all silly – but then I started booking almost every commercial I went up for after I became Benson. It was sad and a bit too real to think that just because I had a Jewish name I would not get jobs as an actor, but I booked jobs the moment my name was changed.
PT: Yes, truly sad. But as a result you then were noticed for your ability, not your name. Tell us what and where was your first audition and what was that experience like?
RB: My first audition was for theater. I loved it. Probably because I am blind. So I would take off my coke-bottle glasses and I was free! The lights shining in my eyes made me forget about the audience and just stay focused on the performance. It seemed very, very real to me.
PT: When you talk about your acting technique, it would seem that you are a proponent of the method school of acting. Would you agree? Have you had formal training as an actor?
RB: I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for about two seconds. I just feel that in my work as an actor and writer, now director and producer – if I’m honest, the work is good. I try to never give a dishonest performance or write a dishonest scene for a film (that would be a scene that only exists to satisfy the story, rather than making it work for all parts of the project; the satellite issues as well).
PT: We definitely would agree. So tell us, out of all of the films in which you acted, what do you consider your best work?
RB: My best work…? I don’t think I’ve come close to doing my best work. I hope I eventually get the chance.
PT: Great answer. We can’t wait to see what that is!
So tell us, what was the best advice you’ve ever received?
RB: Keep working. After you get publicly slaughtered, get up as fast as possible and begin again, only then, with new knowledge of what took you down.
Resiliency. Be a decent and giving soul but wrapped in Kevlar.
Don’t become cynical – it’s far too easy.
Never be the victim – it’s far too easy.
And just do the best work possible. Understand that you are only on a set or in a theater to do the best work possible. And what I loved about doing eight shows a week (in theatre) was always working on giving the best performance for a new and very different audience every night (or matinee).
PT: What was the worst criticism you’ve ever received?
RB: Someone once said I couldn’t play basketball…so I set out to prove them wrong. And I did.
PT: What advice would you give a young actor today?
RB: Do as much work as you possibly can, in all forms – theater, film, video, features, TV, writing, composing music. Never stop creating. Learn from everything you do. Learn from all of the pros around you. And check your ego at the door!
PT: That is so true! We know you’ve directed countless television shows including major hits like Friends. What attracted you to directing television?
RB: I directed because I could no longer pass the insurance exam as an actor because of my heart. So, I reinvented myself and ironically chose a much more stressful, heart-unhappy job – but I love taking care of the writer, the actors, and my crew. I’ll take a bullet for anyone working behind me when I direct. No one ever gets hurt…
PT: How do you believe the proliferation of media outlets (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) has affected the business?
RB: It has made our business much healthier. Competition is always a good thing. Now the big networks must deal with anyone who can produce and distribute shows. It’s a very good thing for everyone except maybe for the marketing departments who have to find a new way to make money. But it’s much healthier than what happened to the music industry. The labels and the big money have already found a way to lock down their absurd quantities of money while the composers and even the singers have a harder time getting their music out there. “Out there and making a living from it…” But, I still love music more than any other way of expressing myself.
PT: You are an actor, singer, songwriter, composer, musician, author, teacher, producer, director. You’ve done just about everything there is to do in the business. Is there one hat out of all of the hats you wear that is your favorite?
RB: My favorite always has had to do with the actual journey of a project. If I’m working with people I respect, it doesn’t matter which hat I’m wearing. I love to work!
PT: Instead of playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” people should be playing “Six Degrees of Robby Benson.” You’ve worked with everybody – legends, icons, award-winning actors, up-and-coming actors, and even amateurs. Let’s play the lightning round. Out of everybody with whom you’ve worked (excluding your wife, Karla), answer the following:
- Most demanding: Me. Weird answer, but I’m so hard on myself and the reason is because I believe our work lives on forever – and it is important. Take for example a truly silly film that tries to be funny but it isn’t. To me, if it isn’t, then it is my job – all of our jobs – to be as demanding as it takes to make the film come back around to a place that rewards its audience. No one ever should treat their audience with contempt or do something else I’ll never understand; when they say “I don’t care.” There are people who work in the arts and say those words – the worst words any creative person could hear. Just get that person off my set. Off of any set. Put that person in accounting, not the arts.
- Most laid back: People who think their work in the arts is their second job. In other words, they are hungry – they get a job – they become incredibly successful – then they completely forget what got them there in the first place and become laid back…or a much more intolerant word: lazy!
- Most giving: There are too many to name but they all come from behind the camera and are in departments like grip, sound, gaffer/light, d.p.’s, camera ops, props, wardrobe – the people who actually “work” for a living are always the most secure and thus, the most giving people I’ve ever worked with.
- Most intimidating: Famous actors when they are stoned, intoxicated, drunk – high and are behaving irrationally. I don’t get it.
- Most inspiring: Walt Frazier and Secretariat. They inspired me in everything I ever did.
- Most conscientious: George Schaeffer. He directed a few things with me and if it were not for him, I would not have gone into teaching. He gave me my first teaching opportunity when he was the Dean of Film and Theater at UCLA
- Most artistic: Shelli Segal. If I cannot use Karla DeVito, then it goes to Shelli. The most artistic person anyone will ever meet…
- Most charismatic: Pat Finn. Probably the most underrated talent in the business.
PT: Wow! Very insightful.
So, we know you wanted the part in King of the Gypsies (Eric Roberts got it). Are there any other roles you really wanted but did not get?
RB: I’d never tell!
PT: Damn! So more about your teaching work…you have taught directing, acting, and writing at many colleges. What attracted you to teaching?
RB: George Schaeffer of course, and the fact that every single time I went to work on a project, there was always someone on the set who would teach me what they do for a living. I’ve found that the best people in the arts are usually people who can communicate what is on their mind and by doing so, they are really teaching…for me it’s a natural fit.
PT: So true. Ralph Waldo Emerson is quoted for saying, “Shall I tell you a secret of a true scholar? It is this: every man I meet is my master in some point and in that I learn from him.”
Now, here is your first curve: Name your five favorite films of all time.
RB: 1) The original All Quiet on the Western Front; 2) Dr. Strangelove; 3) Network; 4) anything written by Paddy Chayefsky 5) The Godfather & The Godfather Part II (it doesn’t get any better than those two films); and 5a) The Wizard of Oz!
PT: LOL…seems like it was hard to keep it only to five! We probably couldn’t either!
We know you have injured yourself countless time (sometimes as you say in your book as a result of your own stupidity) like flipping a tractor (ball hoot) or doing stunts that even stuntmen won’t do like jumping forty feet into ice-cold water. Some reasonable people may say you have a death wish. What do you say about this risk-taking?
RB: I’m actually very safe. I only do things I’ve been taught to do by very good teachers. There is always a chance that even when trained properly something will go wrong, but I’m never taking the risk most observers might think I’m taking. Every one of my stunts was taught to me by great people in the business. But flipping the Kubota tractor – okay, that was really stupid.PT: As long as we are talking about dangerous experiences, let’s talk about the fact that you are very open about having been a survivor of four open-heart surgeries. You describe the surgeries in-depth in your autobiography, I’m Not Dead… Yet!. You speak frankly of the fear, anxiety, pain and the many mistakes. Can you tell us what’s it like now – being at the other side of these experiences and looking back over the operations?
RB: The only reason I’m having a tough time with the last open heart surgery (the most remarkable surgery – the surgeon was a miracle worker!) is because I have a plastic valve for the first time. I have to take a lot of blood thinners and I can hear it beat/click so it’s hard to forget about it.
Writing the book was interesting in the respect that I wanted to give my cardiac brothers and sisters, their families, and their loved ones something that might help them get through this pretty brutal procedure. I wanted to provide the most powerful tools to help those who were similarly vulnerable, so I made the book multi-media; I thought that making it for the iPad would give people a full experience. Foolishly, I didn’t consider that many who need open heart surgery might not have iPads. So I quickly had to self-publish – but now it’s something anyone can get at Amazon.
PT: I’m Not Dead… Yet! is touted as a “medical memoirs” book. After reading it, it seems to be more of a cautionary tale about the fallibility of doctors and of medicine. What advice would you give to anyone facing a major, life-threatening procedure?
RB: Always bring a “significant other” because we all need an advocate; a helper of some kind who is thinking clearly during visits with a doctor or surgeon. Karla would take notes; ask questions…she taught me how to be a good patient, but was a good friend and advocate, too.
PT: Okay, here’s your second curve: What book(s) do you presently have on your nightstand?
RB: I love non-fiction. It’s hard for me to read fiction…
PT: Like we believe about the two of us, you have found your soulmate in actress, singer, songwriter, performer extraordinaire, Karla DeVito. You have been married for decades (which some may see as very “un-Hollywoodesque”). How do you keep the relationship exciting, fresh, romantic, and passionate, especially in view of your both being in the business?
RB: It’s impossible not to keep things fresh with Karla. Karla is the most remarkable human being I’ve ever met. And I got to marry her, too!!!!!!!!!! I’m the luckiest guy on the planet! I know that. Anyone who knows Karla, understands what I mean. She is absolute perfection. Karla is perfect in any and all and every possible way…simply because she is “Karla.”
PT: And because of your amazing union, you and Karla have two children, Zephyr and Lyric. You area devoted husband and father. You often say in your book that decisions were made in terms of what was best for the family (also very “un-Hollywoodesque”). To what do you attribute the underpinnings of your strong and steady moral compass?
RB: I’m sure it was because I was raised by two phenomenal parents: Ann Benson and Jerry Segal. They gave me a completely different definition for the word “success.” It has nothing to do with fame or money. It has everything to do with having peace of mind because you are trying to be a good, decent person and adding to this planet, not bleaching it.
PT: And your third curve: One would think you would be a gazillionaire with all of your projects, films, songs, etc. (you even had a hit song with Miss Ross). Yet, in your book, you say you are not. How come?
RB: Well, this is a very interesting question…I never cared about how much money I made. I felt that if I kept being creative and the jobs kept coming, I’d work and I’d be able to raise a family. My “time” was back in the day when young people did not get paid very much money and all I cared about was the work. When that is the case, you’re basically telling your representatives, “Don’t blow this over money – it’s not a ‘deal’ it’s a great project!” If you or anyone knew what I made for some really huge films, you’d fall to your knees in laughter. And, that is a good thing! Any way I can make you laugh is okay by me. Even if it shows you how I made choices that most business people might say is pretty pathetic…to this day it’s all about the work, it’s not about the almighty dollar. It’s just not.
PT: Most of the people we’ve interviewed are phoenixes of sorts – those who have reinvented themselves and risen from the ashes. You are a true phoenix, being figuratively and literally dead and coming back to fight again. Would you agree? To what do you attribute your resilience and zeal for life?
RB: We are all lucky to be alive. I love what I do and I’d do it for free. I don’t believe in retirement and in the arts, you can never know too much; there is always so much more to learn. Yes, I love to find new ways to tell stories and because of health issues, I’ve been forced to re-invent myself many times over. It’s fun and I’m extremely lucky.
PT: You did the voice of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. The part garnered you a whole new generation of fans and fame. Why do you think it was such a hit?
RB: Beauty and the Beast was so successful because it was the perfect storm: the writing, the music, the lyrics, the artists, the producer, the directors. It was never a “cartoon” – it didn’t read like a “kids’ movie,” it read like a Broadway show. And because almost everyone in the cast had a Broadway and theater foundation, the film was always on the right trajectory. With all of that, we got lucky. At least we earned our luck in this case.
PT: You talk about the “D” word in your book and that you suffered from cardiac depression. Winston Churchill called depression the big, black dog. How did you tame the black dog – or do you still battle it?
RB: I don’t believe it’s in my stars to ever tame the big, black dog…
PT: Throughout your inspiring book, you plead the case that life is precious – every breath, every moment needs to be cherished. What advice would you give to people on how to live in the moment?
RB: Well, start by putting down that damn electronic phone that attaches to the Internet and make loving one another your source of entertainment. There seems to be an urgency and panic in people’s eyes if their electronic device isn’t keeping them up-to-date on just about everything…now! Right now! This millisecond – wait! That was too long! My connection is bad – I only have 3 of 5 bars! Aaaahhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!
Let me hold Karla’s hand and everything is okay in the world. And for the things that are not okay – I feel like Karla and I can figure it all out as long as we do it together.
PT: Your book was written and copyrighted in 2012 – three months after your last open heart operation. Can you bring us up-to-date on what you and your family have been doing since then?
RB: Our son, Zephyr (Benson), wrote, acted in, and directed a feature film called Straight Outta Tompkins. Our daughter, Lyric, wrote a book of poetry called French Kissing God. She also has an album of her music called Lyric’s Love Light Revolution. I’m writing and recording a lot of music with Karla. This is my last year of teaching (27 years…actually, 28 by May); I think Indiana University (IU) is a fantastic university and anyone interested in the arts must know how tremendous IU is when it comes to creativity and the arts.PT: We like to ask this question in every interview. Does anything remain on your bucket list? (Other than, of course, kicking the bucket, which you have successfully done, or rather, not done, at least four times!)
RB: I’d love to get back into flying. It’s expensive and of course, there is the problem with getting past the “yearly medical” but I’m healthier than when I got my pilot’s license (I was about 20) and I can fly what is called LSA (light sports aircraft). So if I happen to make any money, Karla and I would love to fly just to be up in the air together enjoying and sharing the miracle of flight!
PT: If you had a time machine and could go back in time, what, if anything would you change?
RB: I would stop horrific acts of violence. I believe in nobility, character, and treating people the way I’d like to be treated. My time machine would be very specific – set only to dates where terror and torture destroyed innocent people’s lives.
PT: Last question and last curve: if you could sum up your life in only one word, what would it be?
Not in that order or else it sounds like advice I’m giving to another man! No. I think honestly, in my world, the word “Karla” sums up love and trying, and just about everything I believe in. So that one word would be: Karla!
XO, WITH LOVE, RESPECT, PEACE AND HOPE…ROBBY
PT: Thank you for an amazing interview! We’re beyond inspired!
For Robby’s bio, please see Robby’s Official Website
Coming Soon: Show Business is a family Affair with the Benson/DeVito clan. In the coming weeks, Someday Productions and Pillow Talking are thrilled to be reviewing Lyric Benson’s newly released book, French Kissing God: A Journey to Enlightenment