Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Golden Anniversary: The Enduring Love of Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin

The Golden Couple
Seldom do we see celebrity couples in Hollywood who can withstand years (let alone decades) of commitment along with the pressures of their respective careers. Often cited as having succeeded in that challenging arena of their lives have been couples like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. I recently noted the well-sustained marriage of Sam Elliot and Katharine Ross here on Retro Active Critiques.

Meanwhile, Katharine Ross' costar in the fabulous original version of 'The Stepford Wives', the enormously talented actress with a knack for playing goofy ladies, Paula Prentiss -- whose finely-tuned comedic timing I've loved in 'What's New Pussycat', 'The World of Henry Orient' and her numerous other film roles -- has had an even longer marriage to equally talented actor-director Richard Benjamin, who starred in two of my favorite films (both featured here) 'Goodbye Columbus' and 'The Last Of Sheila'. As individuals, they've both been significant to me in terms of their films. Together, they have appeared in at least three of my all-time favorites.
Richard Benjamin with Ali MacGraw 
in the wonderful 'Goodbye Columbus'
Richard Benjamin in the fabulous 'The Last Of Sheila'
Paula Prentiss with Katharine Ross 
in the equally fabulous 'The Stepford Wives'

The Stepford Wives' sad conclusion as they 
convene at the grocery store
Paula Prentiss with Peter Sellers in 'The World Of Henry Orient'
I have also recently ordered a very rare DVD copy (of a video copy) of a short-lived but groundbreaking TV show they starred in together called 'He And She', which has also had a mention here. I'm excited to watch it and will report back on that later!
"He And She" CBS promotional photos
Two decades into their marriage, in 1980, the funny couple even hosted Saturday Night Live together. There have been many couples who've appeared on SNL together, but I hadn't heard of a couple who shared hosting duties on that stage, equally.
Sharing hosting duties on Saturday Night Live
What I discovered in looking deeper into this magnificently lengthy marriage is there are aspects to their commitment to one another I couldn't have imagined. It's an incredible story, a saga of sorts, that really shook and surprised me.

Prentiss and Benjamin met at Northwestern University in 1958 before either of them had started acting professionally, before they became famous. This had to have helped in their longevity, since they were able to evolve with their relationship and fame and see one another from a perspective beyond their romantically-challenged profession. Prentiss, born Ragusa, was from San Antonio, Texas and it's been said that she wanted to become a doctor. Richard Benjamin was from New York City (born and raised) and had always wanted to be an actor. They both studied acting at school.
Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss in the early days
I found a People magazine article from 1976 that speaks volumes –– and opens up this story to new interpretation (not to mention my noticing how much more politically correct even writers who write for entertainment publications are today than they were back in 1976.) Here is one excerpt I'd like to share from the article that chronicled their life together until that point, having already been together for 15 years (they were married in 1961) because only this piece in its own time can capture the real graveness of how Hollywood can be a frightening place to exist. Or even coexist, as in their case (from People Magazine, 1976):

Their present plateau of success and serenity would have seemed unforeseeable just a decade ago when Paula experienced her harrowing mental breakdown. At the time she was in Paris filming What's New, Pussycat? while Dick was touring with Barefoot in the Park in Cincinnati. "One day during shooting," she recalls, "I just climbed up the ropes to the catwalk and started walking the beams. Very loudly and clearly I called down to everyone on the set, 'I'm going to jump.' A French technician grabbed me, and there I was, hanging by one arm."
Paula Prentiss in 'What's New Pussycat'
She came to in a Paris hospital and later transferred to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York. "It was horrendous. You're crazy because they say you're crazy," she says. "It was especially horrible because I couldn't figure out how to do what they wanted me to so I could get out." Dick took her to lunch once a month but usually found her so drugged up that "she wasn't Paula. I'd make believe everything was all right, but it was like taking a carrot out to lunch. What did I know about psychiatry? I was a Jewish boy, and in our house, if someone had a headache, no one worried about brain tumors or neurosis. It just meant you hadn't eaten enough."
Paula's crisis may have had some of its roots in the celebrity shock she sustained during her first years out of Northwestern University's drama school. She and Dick met there while studying under noted acting teacher Alvina Krause. Prentiss was born Paula Ragusa, an Italian from San Antonio who at a reedy 5'9" loomed over her classmates like a stork. Dick, a sardonic New York kid whose parents struggled in the rag trade, wowed Paula because she claimed on an earlier occasion he was the first New York Jew she'd ever seen. They started housekeeping together "before the pill," notes Dick, "when things were dangerous."
New York meets Texas
An MGM talent scout auditioned them but, ignoring Dick, signed Paula to a seven-year contract in 1960. "It was a life I hadn't picked," she says. "It was terrifying. I just allowed myself to be driven along." In less than a year, Paula cranked out three dizzy frivolities, beginning with Where the Boys Are. "I was such an idiot," Benjamin groans. "I accepted it all to be with the girl I wanted to be with." Even their marriage was arranged by the studio: Paula had to make a promotion junket, and in 1961 an unwed traveling companion was considered a no-no. They were forced to delay the ceremony before a New York judge for one hour so that the bride could log publicity mileage about the wedding with long-distance calls to Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. "The only thing that woke us up," she reflects now, "was that crash landing in Paris."
She dropped out of films and into analysis, while Dick began his breakthrough as Ali McGraw's schlemiel in Goodbye, Columbus. Along the way, Paula found her best therapy was co-starring with him in a 1967 CBS series called He and She that approached an almost Lear-like level of sophistication before its time. It died after a single season. Still, Paula believes, "It was worth it after what we'd been through. By working together we learned to live with each other again."
These two go way back
Despite situations that would have been too much for most couples endure, they seem to have always persevered. I can only speak for myself here, but I find the idea of Prentiss having been signed to a seven-year contract with MGM –– at the start of the 60's, before so many social mores and messages in life (and subsequently, films) were about to change –– then being forced into marriage (ironically) to the man she loved to keep up appearances in terms of publicity, and where society still stood, and then being trapped in a mental institution because of a supposed 'breakdown' on set (I'm hesitant to believe she actually had one since she may have been temporarily immersed, as actors can be, in her role as a kooky, suicidal chick in the film 'What's New Pussycat'.) It's altogether terrifying. Seems like they managed to keep their heads, while keeping their feet planted on that shaky ground, to get past those heady times together and not fall apart. There are very few couples who made it through the multitude of changes happening in the 60's, 70's & all the way back until today. Let alone film stars.
Jack and Paula and Dick
Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss may not be considered 'stars' today. They may never be featured in People magazine again. I, for one, have gone from enjoying their work individually to having the utmost respect and admiration for them as an unsinkable pair who've navigated this world (and Hollywood) together, despite whatever they may have faced. It is now 2011, so they have been together for exactly half a century! Apart from their list of professional accomplishments and their marriage milestone, they have two grown children: Ross and Prentiss. 
Happy golden anniversary to Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, an inspirational Hollywood couple if there ever was one.
The golden couple. Still solid, still smiling.
And an update: here is the opening for the absolutely wonderful 'He & She'. I've received the series (not the best quality, but okay) and I've been watching it with fervor. I am really excited to report back on this fabulously sophisticated 'one season wonder' in an upcoming post. Stay tuned...!

32 comments:

  1. I am a big fan of Paula Prentiss and happened across this blog entry. It is very well written and I wish you the best!

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  2. Thank you and I'm so glad you found it, then. I like to appreciate people here who might not be receiving as much as attention as they could or should elsewhere. Their story really impressed me. Whatever has happened to them (and I know they've had their fair share of troubles) they've stuck together for five decades. Not many people can say that...! :)

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  3. Thanks for a well-done tribute for two actors who deserve to be mentioned for their meaningful life together as well as their roles.

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  4. I agree - and thank you for enjoying it... stay tuned for a follow up post on their wonderful show 'He & She' :)

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  5. Love Prentiss. The moment you realize her character Bobbie from STEPFORD WIVES is now a 'Stepford Wife' is truly heartbreaking.

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  6. Found your blog when Googling "He & She". How great to discover another Dick and Paula fan out there!

    Several years ago, I was fortunate to see them in an off-Broadway production of "Power Plays," written by Elaine May and Alan Arkin. What a treat to see these talented performers on stage.

    I've heard rumors that "He & She" will be getting a much-deserved legitimate DVD release, but so far, nothing has come of it.

    Looking forward to checking out more of your blog!

    John in Philadelphia

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  7. I certainly hope so, John in Philadelphia, that show is a real gem! Even in the poor quality copy I managed to find, I was thrilled to watch each episode. 'He & She' is such a lovely short-lived series and it offers a nice glimpse into late 60's life via TV... I would love to see it in its intended quality!

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  8. Dick and Paula's 50th Anniversary TODAY! Hooray for Hollywood!

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  9. Wow, so the Golden Anniversary is here, great to know. Thanks for reading!

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  10. I'm waaaay to young (23) to really know much about them. I recently saw them hosting SNL together when I saw it repeated in the middle of the night on some obscure cable channel that shows vintage SNL in the middle of the night for some reason. I had no idea who the were but I could tell that they really loved eachother. I asked my mom (age 55) who Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss are. She told me and I went and did some googling. I was so happy to come across this and learn that they are still married.

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  11. @Anonymous –– I'm so glad you came across them & this post :) even at such a young age, it's great to be inspired by a couple like this... people who have successfully & lovingly navigated life together, despite whatever difficulties. I felt the same way when I read more about them. And their hosting SNL as a couple kind of blew me away :)

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  12. I too love Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin. They really have their act together to have survived Hollywood intact. Congratulations to both of them, they are an inspiring and admirable couple.

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  13. Thanks for this post! Would you believe I was named after Paula Prentiss? I never knew much about her. Such a fascinating and romantic story.

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    1. Happy you found it, Paula! It really is a special story and I enjoy featuring some lesser known (and lengthy) Hollywood relationships here. Big fan of both Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss... so their marriage story was a great discovery.

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  14. Just watched "Where the Boys Are"...always a favorite around spring break--my, how times have changed! Felt a kinship with Paula in the movie--I am just as tall and totally understood her predicament! I have been fans of both of them for as long as I can remember--their movies bring me back to catching up with them. I hope they have another 50 years together--how great that is!!!!

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    1. Thanks for your comment! I'm just seeing it now for some reason! It really is great how they've been together for over 50 years, isn't it :)

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  15. Thank you for this great blog post. I have always been very fond of this pair. I especially admire Prentiss' irresistibly lovable, "warm fuzzy" sometimes slightly goofy/ quirky and soft/ vulnerable/ sensitive/ adorable "vibe" juxtaposed against her height - a uniquely wonderful onscreen presence/ persona.

    Another Paula Prentiss favorite film of mine is "Man's Favorite Sport" (1964) with Rock Hudson. Co-starring w Warren Beatty in "The Parallax View" (1974) was also big.

    Both Prentiss & Benjamin were wonderful in 1970's classic "Catch-22" (starred Alan Arkin as Yossarian - see also "Wait Until Dark"; still going strong! - see "Little Miss Sunshine" & "Argo")

    Otto Preminger recollection of Paula Prentiss in "In Harm's Way" (1965)(according to The Cinema of Otto Preminger by Gerald Pratley) [In] Paula Prentiss's final scene in the film (she plays Bev McConnell, the newlywed wife of Tom Tryon's character). "...She so much wanted to be good that she kept unconsciously kicking herself in the ankle. When the scene was over, she suddenly couldn't walk, and she was taken to the hospital. She had broken her ankle, but she was concentrating so hard on the scene that she didn't realize it."

    Altho not his "best" film, Richard Benjamin (much like James Brolin) may be most widely familiar for his role in the 1973 camp/ sci-fi classic "Westworld." (& he IS good in it; this role for him is somewhat parallel to what Stepford Wives was for her...)

    Richard Benjamin has also had (still ongoing) a very major career as a director - starting w "My Favorite Year" (Peter O'Toole, Mark Linn-Baker, Joseph Bologna, Lainie Kazan... - 1982). Many MAJOR films (see list at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000907/#Director)

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  16. Thank you for this great blog post. I have always been very fond of this pair. I especially admire Prentiss' irresistibly lovable, "warm fuzzy" sometimes slightly goofy/ quirky and soft/ vulnerable/ sensitive/ adorable "vibe" juxtaposed against her height - a uniquely wonderful onscreen presence/ persona.

    Another Paula Prentiss favorite film of mine is "Man's Favorite Sport" (1964) with Rock Hudson. Co-starring w Warren Beatty in "The Parallax View" (1974) was also big.

    Both Prentiss & Benjamin were wonderful in 1970's classic "Catch-22" (starred Alan Arkin as Yossarian - see also "Wait Until Dark"; still going strong! - see "Little Miss Sunshine" & "Argo")

    Otto Preminger recollection of Paula Prentiss in "In Harm's Way" (1965)(according to The Cinema of Otto Preminger by Gerald Pratley) [In] Paula Prentiss's final scene in the film (she plays Bev McConnell, the newlywed wife of Tom Tryon's character). "...She so much wanted to be good that she kept unconsciously kicking herself in the ankle. When the scene was over, she suddenly couldn't walk, and she was taken to the hospital. She had broken her ankle, but she was concentrating so hard on the scene that she didn't realize it."

    Altho not his "best" film, Richard Benjamin (much like James Brolin) may be most widely familiar for his role in the 1973 camp/ sci-fi classic "Westworld." (& he IS good in it; this role for him is somewhat parallel to what Stepford Wives was for her...)

    Richard Benjamin has also had (still ongoing) a very major career as a director - starting w "My Favorite Year" (Peter O'Toole, Mark Linn-Baker, Joseph Bologna, Lainie Kazan... - 1982). Many MAJOR films (see list at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000907/#Director)

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Tica. I also love Man's Favorite Sport, definitely on my list of Paula favorites! And thanks for that great story from when she was in 'In Harm's Way'. Very telling about her focus and unusual manner –– her combination of strength and fragility only makes her more endearing.

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  17. Here's an interesting link to Neuropathy News/ The Neuropathy Association - an organization w a star-studded list of supporters including Prentiss and Benjamin, and w a fascinating spokesperson in Rev. Mother Dolores Hart (who, after a film career that included starring in 1960's "Where the Boys Are", at age 25 left stage and screen to take her vows and become a nun. Photos at this link include one of Hart with Prentiss & Benjamin.
    http://www.neuropathy.org/site/DocServer/NL24.pdf?docID=1001

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    1. Great! Thank you for sharing the link! :-D

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  18. He always looks at her with love in his eyes.

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  19. I am 70 to and still a big fan. Not only what you do (fabulous acting and comedy) but even more of who you are. Just checking up on you guys. I have a lot of great inrellect, artistic ability, and bi-Polar disorder in my family as well, so I know the dance. What a wild ride. What a great job you guys did with the gifts,trials and tribulations. Qudos from a LONG time fan.

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  20. I remember Paula Ragusa's Texas accent and Dick' NY Humor at NU. "Super Drunk" was brilliant.

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  21. I saw He and She when it originally aired. It was extremely ahead of its time, was great and so, of course, was cancelled... also had Jack Cassidy in it. Just a great show.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Candace! I can imagine it was frustrating to watch & enjoy the groundbreaking show back then –– only to have it get canceled.

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  22. "Where The Boys Are" was showing on TV today with a cast of fantastic actors. And I was trying to remember the name of one of the actors (Frank Gorshin) so I googled the movie. And that led me to search on Paula Prentiss and Dick Benjamin. I always adored this couple and the way they played together on and off camera: so cute. And I was drawn to the pleasant flutter in her speaking voice, especially when she was mentoring Rock Hudson in "Man's Favorite Sport". Thank you for recognizing this couple. They are still big to me and always will be because I love them.

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    1. She's wonderful! They both are :) thank you for your comment.

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  23. In addition to all the obstacles mentioned above, this can't have been an easy one to overcome: http://mediafunhouse.blogspot.com/2010/07/sisterly-menace-deceased-artiste-ann.html

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    1. Hi @The Wrong Box! To be honest, I considered including the equally sad and strange saga of her sister's mental illness. There was so much to cover with Paula and Richard, themselves, I refrained from talking about Ann Prentiss for this particular post. But she certainly presented another challenge they've had to endure together.

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