Family & Companions
A professional child actor, Robby Benson became an internationally recognized teen idol in the era of David Cassidy and Donny Osmond with lead roles in such youth-market films as "Jory" (1973) and "Jeremy" (1973). Savvier and seemingly more grounded than many of his Tiger Beat contemporaries, the actor branched out from his popular cute guy turns in "Ode to Billy Joe" (1976) and "Ice Castles" (1978) to embrace edgier, more mature roles in the grim made-for-TV movie "The Death of Richie" (1977), the LA gang saga "Walk Proud" (1978) and the well-regarded period piece "The Chosen" (1981). Denied a lead role in "Star Wars" (1977) and opting out of "Apocalypse Now" (1979), Benson began actualizing his own film projects by 1977, beginning with the college basketball drama "One on One" (1977), which he co-wrote, and "Die Laughing" (1980), an Alfred Hitchcock pastiche that he produced in partnership with Jon Peters. Born with a congenital heart defect, Benson underwent open heart surgery for the first time in 1984 and dropped out of the high pressure life of a Hollywood leading man to focus on playing character parts and on directing his own films. A much in-demand TV director, a professor of filmmaking at New York University, and a busy voiceover artist - including that of the Beast in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" (1992) - Benson weathered an almost 50-year career in the industry, his endurance and positive attitude turning on its head the accepted wisdom that nice guys always finish last.
Robin David Segal was born in Dallas, TX on Jan. 21, 1956, the son of playwright Jerry Segal and Ann Benson, a nightclub singer and actress. Raised in New York City, his interest in acting was sparked when his parents took him to the original Broadway production of Lionel Bart's "Oliver!" The five-year-old hopeful made his stage debut in a summer stock production of "The King and I" starring Ann Benson. By age 10, he had secured a theatrical agent and was acting professionally using his mother's maiden name, having experienced blatant anti-Semitism when auditioning for commercials. Benson made his feature film debut as a street urchin in Stanley Donen's "Wait Until Dark" (1967). He made his Broadway debut in Delbert Mann's staging of Sylvia Regan's comedy "Zelda," which ran for only three performances in March 1969. Benson fared better among the ensemble of Michael Kidd's multiple Tony Award-winning production of "The Rothschilds." During the show's 14-month run, puberty caused Benson's singing voice to change from tenor to bass and he celebrated his bar mitzvah on the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Between 1971 and 1972, Benson appeared as Bruce Carson, the young ward of series heroine Joanne "Jo" Gardner, on the long-running daytime drama "Search for Tomorrow" (CBS/NBC, 1951-1986). The following year, he returned to the big screen with starring roles in a pair of films aimed at young moviegoers. Shot in Mexico, the Western "Jory" (1973) found Benson in revenge mode as an inexperienced rancher's son who becomes a man as he tracks those responsible for massacring his family. In the United Artists release "Jeremy" (1973), Benson was matched with Glynnis O'Connor in her film debut as teenage lovers taking their affection to an adult level against the high-pressure backdrop of Manhattan's Professional Children's School. Lauded by critics for its innovative camera work and nonjudgmental depiction of teenage sex, "Jeremy" won an award for Best First Work at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, where it was also nominated for a Palm d'Or. Benson also received a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer.
Disinclined to wait for star projects to filter his way, Benson returned to supporting roles on television. In the ABC telefilm "All the Kind Strangers" (1973), he played one of a family of orphans who have a murderous method of whittling down potential adoptive parents. During the heyday of TV movies about terminal illnesses, Benson played a brilliant student suffering from a brain tumor in "Death Be Not Proud" (1975), an Emmy-nominated adaptation of journalist John Gunther's bestselling 1949 memoir. Required to shave his head for his final scenes as the dying Gunther, Benson wore a wig for "Lucky Lady" (1975), Clive Donner's troubled box office bomb about Prohibition-era rum runners. Patterned after George Roy Hill's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) and "The Sting" (1974), "Lucky Lady" attempted to mix comedy with graphic violence, riddling Benson's character with machine gun bullets on the way to a downbeat ending that was reshot after negative feedback from test audiences.
On his 20th birthday, Benson auditioned for the role of Luke Skywalker in George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977). He lost the part in that surprise blockbuster but achieved his own measure of cult stardom as the star of "Ode to Billy Joe" (1976), Max Baer, Jr.'s feature film adaptation of the Bobbi Gentry chart-topper. Cast again opposite Glynnis O'Connor - with whom he was romantically involved for a time - Benson attracted more than his fair share of publicity for agreeing to etch the character of Billy Joe McAllister as a troubled youth who jumps to his death after a drunken homosexual encounter. Distributed by Warner Brothers with an ad campaign suggesting the film was based on true events, "Ode to Billy Joe" earned back a $27 million return on its original $1.1 million investment. Although he had been a working actor for more than a decade, Benson was included that year in a roundup of Promising New Actors in John Willis' Screen World annual.
On location for "Ode to Billy Joe" in Mississippi, Benson occupied his downtime by outlining an original screenplay set within the world of competitive college basketball. The script for "One on One" (1977) marked the first collaboration of Benson and his father, Jerry Segal. Before the project received the green light from Warner Brothers, Benson had accepted a role in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979), given the go-ahead from Warners, Benson bought out his contract for the Coppola film and headed for Colorado to begin preproduction for "One on One." Patterned after John Avildsen's "Rocky" (1976), the sports drama's box office receipts were boosted by the cross-marketing of the title track "My Fair Share," a hit for the soft rock duo Seals and Crofts. That same year, Benson played a drug-addicted high school student in "The Death of Richie," an NBC TV movie based on a tragic true account published originally in LIFE magazine. In May 1977, he and Glynnis O'Connor acted together for the last time in an Emmy award-winning telecast of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" on NBC.
Benson reteamed with his "Lucky Lady" co-star Burt Reynolds for the morbid farce "The End" (1978), in a bit as a comical priest. That same year he scored another popular success with "Ice Castles" (1978), as the love interest of blinded Olympics skater Lynn-Holly Johnson. The blue-eyed Benson drew derisive snorts from critics for playing a Chicano gang member attempting to go straight in "Walk Proud" (1979), released by Universal; the actor contributed a song to the soundtrack, written by Jerry Segal. Benson co-produced the madcap "Die Laughing" (1980) and starred as a San Francisco cabbie chased by killers when he comes into possession of the formula for constructing a plutonium bomb. In Bob Clark's "Tribute" (1980), a 20th Century Fox film adaptation of the Bernard Slade stage play, he was the son of dying press agent Jack Lemmon, who recreated the role he originated on Broadway.
Benson received some of the best critical notices of his career for playing a Hassidic Jew in Jeremy Kagan's "The Chosen" (1981), which concerned cultural differences within Brooklyn's Jewish community during World War II and was based on the popular 1967 novel by Chaim Potok. In Disney's "Running Brave" (1983), he was Lakota Sioux long-distance runner Billy Mills, who overcame prejudice to capture the gold in the 10,000 meter race at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Benson beat out 35 other young actors to co-star opposite Paul Newman in "Harry and Son" (1984), despite the fact that his character was described in the original script as being a blonde surfer type. Having sprained his ankle the day before the start of principal photography, Benson offered to give up the part but Newman, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, stuck by the young actor, shooting around his injury until he could stand on his own.
Born with a congenital heart deformity, Benson underwent cardiac valve repair in 1984 and later underwent several more surgeries. Although he continued to act, he gradually drifted away from lead roles following the swift cancellation of his short-lived sitcom "Tough Cookies" (CBS, 1985-1986). In 1992, he provided the unlikely voice of the Beast in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," which led to an enduring sideline as an in-demand voiceover artist. In 1988, Benson directed his first film, the independently-financed "White Hot," which went direct to video the following year. He followed this with "Modern Love" (1990), in which he cast family and friends, including his wife, singer Karla De Vito. In 1993, Benson added TV director to his résumé, beginning with eight episodes of Burt Reynolds' "Evening Shade" (CBS, 1990-94). Through the decade, Benson helmed episodes of such popular TV series as "Friends" (NBC, 1994-2004), "Dharma and Greg" (ABC, 1997-2002), "8 Simple Rules" (ABC, 2002-05) and an entire season of "Ellen" (ABC, 1994-98). The author of a novel and a memoir about life after open heart surgery, Benson devoted much of his time in later years to teaching, including at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
By Richard Harland Smith
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Broadway debut in "Zelda" aged 12
Had bar mitzvah on stage of "The Rothschilds," in which he was appearing (date approximate)
Was regular on the CBS daytime drama "Search for Tomorrow"
Film acting debut in "Jory"; first lead
Had role in the NBC TV-movie "Remember When"
Co-starred as the dying Johnny Gunther in the ABC TV-movie "Death Be Not Proud"
First collaboration with Burt Reynolds, "Lucky Lady"; also co-starred Liza Minnelli
With his father, co-wrote the script to the basketball drama "One On One"; also starred
Played George Gibbs in an NBC TV adaptation of "Our Town"
Played a novice priest in Burt Reynolds' "The End"
With his father, composed music score for "Walk Proud"; also starred
Debut as a producer, "Die Laughing"; also co-wrote and co-starred
Returned to Broadway to play Frederic in the revival of "The Pirates of Penzance"; met future wife Karla DeVito
Underwent heart surgery to replace a congenitally malfunctioning heart valve in October
Starred in short-lived CBS TV series, "Tough Cookies"
Feature directing debut (also actor, songwriter and song performer), "White Hot/Crack in the Mirror"
Reteamed with Burt Reynolds and Liza Minnelli for "Rent-A-Cop"
Provided the voice of The Beast in the Disney animated film, "Beauty and the Beast"
Directed episodes of popular CBS sitcom, "Evening Shade", starring Burt Reynolds
Began teaching at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City
Reprised voice of The Beast in the direct-to-video release "Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas"