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Monday, December 8, 2008

RIP Paul Benedict, Jefferson's Mr. Bentley

Paul Benedict, who gained fame as the quirky English neighbor of the family in the TV sitcom "The Jeffersons," but remained faithful to the stage throughout his long career, died Dec. 1 on Martha's Vineyard. He was 70. The cause of death was not known at press time.

Mr. Benedict was not English; he was born Sept. 17, 1938, in Silver City, NM. But with his long jaw, toothy smile and tweedy accent, he convinced millions of viewers of the "The Jeffersons" that he was more British than Jeeves. His character, Harry Bentley, was one of several oddball neighbors who frequently shattered the peace of the sitcom's upwardly mobile African-American family, led by the irascible George Jefferson. Bentley would sometimes ask the diminutive George to walk on his back to relieve muscle tension.

He began his acting career in the 1960s in Boston, where he grew up, at the Theater Company of Boston, alongside future film stars like Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. He was a member from 1963 to 1968 before moving to New York. Pacino remembered his old colleague when he revived Eugene O'Neill's one-act Hughie on Broadway in 1996. Mr. Benedict played the only other character in the play, a hotel clerk, who must listen to the forlorn gambler Hughie as he rambles on for the better part of an hour.

Mr. Benedict's final Broadway appearance was as Mayor Shinn in the 2000 revival of The Music Man. He made his Broadway debut (well, sort of) in 1968's Leda Had a Little Swan, a flop directed by Andre Gregory that never officially opened. He didn't get back until Terrence McNally's Bad Habits, in 1974.

In the 1990s, he directed the short-lived Broadway production of Frank D. Gilroy's Any Given Day, which starred Sada Thompson, and acted in a revival of Molnar's The Play's the Thing at the Roundabout Theatre Company.

At Circle in the Square, he acted in Little Murders in 1969 and The White House Murder Case in 1970. In 2007, in his final stage performance, Mr. Benedict performed Hirst in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

His connection to playwright McNally continued past Bad Habits. He appeared in It's Only a Play at Manhattan Theatre Club Off-Broadway. He also directed the original production of Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune and a 1990 revival of Bad Habits, both for MTC. He also directed Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney's The Cathy and Mo Show, which won an Obie Award.

His film career began in the 1960s. He appeared in the cult flicks "Cold Turkey" and "They Might Be Giants," and had roles in Sydney Pollack's "Jeremiah Johnson," Michael Ritchie's "Smile," and Billy Wilder's "The Front Page." Later on, he made appearances in the Christopher Guest "mocumentaries" "Spinal Tap," "A Mighty Wind" and "Waiting for Guffman." But his best-known role was in "The Goodbye Girl," where he played a pompous stage director who makes the life of the actor portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss miserable by insisting he play Richard III as a flamboyant gay man.

As a young man, Paul Benedict suffered from acromegaly, a pituitary disorder that affects the extremities and face as a young man, which accounted for his larger-than-normal nose and lower jaw.


Anonymous said...

RIP indeed Mr. Benedict! Outstanding obit, and yes to answer EEP's concern, this might shake out of the doldrums. I note that his one-time director, the late Sydney Pollack was a native of my adopted city, South Bend, Indiana.

Now, was the accent affected?


Anonymous said...

Exaclty HG! THIS is an update!

I had no idea Paul Benedict was not British. One of the finest, most detailed obits I've read this year.

RIP P.B. I always enjoyed your work.

Anonymous said...

he will be missed

Anonymous said...

Wasn't his co-actor Sada Thompson the Mom "Kate Lawrence" in the intense late 1970s ABC hit "Family"? I did not enjoy that show at all.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else think he looked a little like Mr. Immig

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