"I have eclectic fans because I've had a very eclectic career. When someone comes up to me, they may be from the days of 'The Chosen'; it may be completely from Broadway," says actor Robby Benson. "So I'm never sure what might surprise them the most. Maybe the fact that I'm still alive."
He laughs, but the more one learns about him, the more surprising it becomes that he's alive — after four open-heart surgeries to correct a congenital defect.
"People can learn from so many things I did wrong," says Benson by phone from his Cape Code, Mass., home, "that they're not alone when they think they shouldn't tell someone, they think they should pretend it's just indigestion or, if they're feeling blue, say, 'Naw, it's nothing.'"
Benson's new interactive iBook, "I'm Not Dead … Yet!," which is available from iTunes (formats for print, Nook and Kindle are soon to follow), is part celebrity memoir, beginning with his sometimes wild and woolly days as a youth on Broadway and his rise as a teen idol in films such as "Ode to Billy Joe."
His career has been truly eclectic: The "One on One" and "Ice Castles" star voiced the Beast in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"; he began his Broadway career at age 12; his screenplays include "One on One"; he's an accomplished musician, composer and bestselling author; and he has directed dozens of television shows, including a complete season of "Ellen."
His book also reads as a multimedia valentine to his wife of 30 years, Karla DeVito, whom he met in the famed Joe Papp production of "The Pirates of Penzance." Mostly, though, it's an amiably written primer for heart-surgery patients and their loved ones.
"It's not just the bad and good experiences I've had — and I've had some nightmarish experiences — but I've also mishandled things," he says. "I've also had cardiac depression and it took me forever to allow myself to discuss it."
The hyper-athletic Benson started experiencing shortness of breath and dizziness in his teens, but he hid the symptoms for fear of health problems ending his acting career. After such misdiagnoses as "too much stress" and "too much candy," the escalating problem was finally properly identified when he underwent an insurance physical as an adult. The diagnosis? Bicuspid aortic heart disease: He was born with two flaps on his aortic valve where there should be three to control blood flow.
"I'm Not Dead … Yet!" is filled with excruciating details, including an attempted removal of a still-inflated catheter, and nuggets of enlightenment, from the need for a patient advocate to the importance of simply having a pillow handy.
The digital work's enhancements include about 20 songs Benson wrote, slideshows of his photography, clips from his films, and live links to the Cleveland Clinic's website to illuminate some of the cardiac concepts he discusses.
"Let's say patients want to watch one of the slide shows that I scored and pictures I took — I thought maybe that could calm them down," he says. "But also for the person sitting in the chair at 4 a.m., the family member, the advocate who can't sleep — for them to read it and put on some ear buds to listen to some music, to go to one of the websites because they heard the doctor or nurse come in, in the middle of the night, and say something they want to check out before the patient wakes up — I wanted to give everyone the best tool possible."
Among the mostly rosy show-biz recollections are startlingly harsh assessments of certain well-known figures, such as producer Jon Peters and director Stanley Donen. The author insists he went easy on them, including the stories for something beyond shock value.
"I tried to show what I was going through medically and what I was dealing with professionally," he says. "You don't have to be in show business to understand that your boss may be giving you so much stress that you feel that tightness in your chest or you can't breathe, and something suddenly is becoming symptomatic.… I had this problem that I was trying to hide from everyone because I knew I would never work if I didn't. It just so happens that, working with them, the symptoms became immeasurably worse."
Today the 56-year-old Benson says he's "the healthiest I've ever been, thanks to the surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic who performed a miracle on me." He does continue, however, to wrestle with cardiac depression.
"But I have better tools now," he says. "One tool is, I don't feel like I'm crazy."
In the book, Benson adds, "there's a moment where we're all sitting around, waiting to see the surgeon. And everyone is so shy. All of us are open-heart patients. And some brave soul mentioned that they were depressed and it was as if, in 10 minutes… we were all friends. Unreal. We were like, 'I have that too! I thought I was nuts. What do you do to help?' That was one of the most helpful moments in my life, which was why I put it in the book. Maybe it will help someone."