The odd career twist of a former screen heartthrob

Special to The Times

“It WAS one of those wonderful phone calls,” Robby Benson says, recalling February when producer Larry Mortoff dialed him up and asked if he wanted to direct “Billy: The Early Years,” a new film about evangelist Billy Graham being released in late October. “It’s why so many people are in show business. Because, mostly, you don’t get the good phone calls.”

It wasn’t always this way. Benson, best known for his Windex blue eyes and wispy voice, starred in a trifecta of feature films between 1976 and 1978 -- “Ode to Billy Joe” (in which his sexually conflicted character throws himself from a bridge), “One on One” (a triumphant tale about his scrawny basketball star) and “Ice Castles” (about his hockey tough who melts for a blind figure skater). His cloying sensitivity in over-the-top roles may have made him a whipping boy for critics, but he won the admiration of teenage girls and nice guys everywhere.

And then Benson’s lightfooted leap to success took a stumble. The good calls turned to bad, as Benson scored a string of box-office and critical disasters (probably the film least mentioned in the recent obituaries for Paul Newman was 1984’s “Harry & Son,” costarring Benson). And around that time, the tender heart he’d worn so many times on his shirtsleeves literally gave out on him, necessitating major cardiac surgery.


It has been 30 years since his moment at the top. “I’m still as naive as I was then -- in certain respects,” says Benson with a strained smile, wearing a green vintage New York Jets cap low on his forehead, shadowing his once-brilliant baby blues. “I never learned how to protect myself. And that has never changed in my life.”

When he received Mortoff’s call for “Billy: The Early Years,” he had been biding his time on his small farm in North Carolina with his wife, Karla DeVito, an actor-singer (best known for singing backup to Meat Loaf), and their children, 16-year-old son Zephyr and 24-year-old daughter Lyric. The offer seemed like a godsend. But in a two-hour interview punctuated by deep sighs and long stares out the window of his office at New York University’s film school, where he is teaching an advanced production course, the 52-year-old admits to being “at odds” with himself over his latest effort.

In and out of showbiz

Benson, A Jewish-American showbiz kid raised in New York City who has never had much to do with organized religion, would seem like a strange choice to direct “Billy: The Early Years,” but Mortoff insists he was “looking for the best director” he could find. “Maybe being Jewish helped,” Mortoff says, “because he wasn’t preaching -- he was making an entertaining movie.”

Benson’s first question to Mortoff during that phone call was: “Are we making a religious film or a feature film?” When Mortoff, a producer who made the unusual leap from horror films (“Hellraiser”) to Christian-themed fare (“The Omega Code”), told Benson it would be a feature, it was the answer he wanted to hear. He signed on the next day.

“I had no business being in those circles,” Benson says. “I simply had an opportunity to make a movie -- and it wasn’t a slasher.” But it was more than that. Benson had known Mortoff since the two worked together on 1993’s straight-to-video “Deadly Exposure.” Mortoff was clearly throwing a hail-Mary pass by calling Benson -- two previous directors had recently left the project, and filming was set to begin in two months.

“I said yes to this because Larry needed me,” Benson says. “I said yes because I wanted to help make the movie good.”


Early on, Benson learned to serve the project above all else -- his father was originally in the cotton business in Dallas, but he’d also write satirical skits that Benson’s mother would perform in local nightclubs. The family moved to New York City, where Benson’s father became a comedy writer. Benson followed his father into show business at age 6, quickly landing roles in commercials, soap operas and on Broadway.

He sold his first screenplay, “One on One,” at age 17, and his film career began taking off. Benson would sit behind the Panavision camera on set, learning from cinematographers about the creative process. He enjoyed his teeny-bopper stardom but avoided the Hollywood scene and instead spent his time writing scripts, learning the trade, and acting in increasingly high-profile films.

And although Benson takes responsibility for the later downturn his career -- “I don’t feel like I did my best work when I should have” -- he also feels the need to share blame. “I had a couple of films where I really was very much a team player,” he says. “And that’s been a fault of mine. If a scene weren’t working, I’d sacrifice myself to save the scene. And I’d watch other actors be selfish and protect themselves. And they would look much better.”

The critics showed him no mercy. David Ansen famously referred to Benson as “cute as Bambi and twice as smarmy” in Newsweek. By the time the actor turned out an impressive performance in the 1982 adaptation of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” the industry was already turning its attention to the next improbably blue-eyed wonder, an 18-year-old Rob Lowe.

In 1984, Benson, who had been born with a weak heart valve, went through open-heart surgery that rendered him “uninsurable,” he says. “I couldn’t walk on a set.” He turned to writing music, including the iconic song-and-dance-on-desks sequence (which DeVito sings) featured in “The Breakfast Club.” And he receded into the world of voice acting, his most notable role being that of Beast in Disney’s animated “Beauty and the Beast.”

He also directed, mostly television sitcoms. Benson worked on a variety of shows, including “Friends” and “Ellen.” After the work became unsatisfying, he and his family left Los Angeles in 2002, abandoning the lucrative sitcom industry, which he gently pillories in a novel he published, 2007’s “Who Stole the Funny?” He did, however, return to direct Mel Gibson in the short-lived show “The Complete Savages” in 2004. It was an experience that confirmed earlier misgivings. “I found Gibson to be a man I did not want to be in the same room with,” Benson says.


Benson has found fulfillment in teaching, which he has done for more than 20 years, at schools such as the University of Utah and the University of South Carolina. Two more open-heart surgeries -- the replacement valves need to be replaced about every 10 years -- have given Benson and his wife a sense of perspective, according to DeVito. “You judge the universe and your own life in a different way,” she says.

Last year, the Benson family moved to their farm in North Carolina, which Benson and DeVito had purchased in 2003. They were “contemplating the future,” says DeVito, when “Billy: The Early Years” came along.

With a $3.6-million budget and just a 30-day-shoot before him in Tennessee, Benson rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He was happy with his cast: veterans Martin Landau and Lindsay Wagner joined a host of young actors, including Armie Hammer (great-grandson of tycoon Armand Hammer), who plays the young Graham.

Benson tore into the script, which had been written by William McKay, who is also a producer of the film and the guiding light of the project. Among Benson’s changes, he created a fictitious and humorous scene in which Graham faints at the birth of his daughter. “They wanted to make a movie about someone whose face could be chiseled into a mountain,” Benson says. “I said, ‘Let’s make it fun and funny.’ ”

Benson’s direction received mixed results from the Graham camp. Franklin Graham, a son of the pastor and the president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn., has issued a letter saying that the organization does not endorse the film because “it lacks my father’s greatest passion: to preach the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ” and that “it depicts events that never happened or are greatly embellished.” Gigi Graham, Billy’s oldest daughter, has supported the movie.

For general audiences

BENSON AND his producers all say that they wanted to make “Billy: The Early Years” for more than just a Christian audience. But they did not always agree how to accomplish that feat. Christian-themed films can make a significant impact at the box office; Kirk Cameron’s “Fireproof” is a recent example, Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” is the apotheosis. While “Billy” doesn’t seem to have the crossover appeal of either of those films, it does happen to be about the most famous evangelist of all time.


“Billy” follows a pretty standard biopic formula, including Graham’s “aw-shucks” upbringing on a farm, his early religious awakening, learning to preach and connect from the pulpit, and the genial courtship of his wife. It does, however, distinguish itself by being framed by Graham’s relationship with evangalist turned agnostic Charles Templeton, who, in his later years, is played by Landau. Many Christians, including screenwriter-producer McKay, believe that Templeton betrayed both Graham and Christ, but Benson took a more secular view of him. “In truth, I thought he was a very noble man,” Benson says of Templeton. “I thought I could put my fingerprints on this.”

Benson says he would receive “theological notes,” such as questions about if Templeton should be allowed to say “Lord, I’m coming home,” intended to appease Christian audiences. “I thought I could make a movie that was not just for the core audience,” Benson says. “And I fought that fight the whole way.”

Mortoff, who says he “couldn’t imagine anyone doing a better job than Robby,” concedes that he had to mediate frictions during filmmaking. For instance, Mortoff and McKay had chosen real-life pastor and Texas televangelist John Hagee to play early 20th century evangelist Mordecai Ham, whom many credit with inspiring Graham to become a minister.

Benson nixed Hagee, a controversial figure known for making anti-Muslim (and anti-Harry Potter) comments, and replaced him with another actor. Hagee had recently entered the national spotlight when he endorsed John McCain when the senator from Arizona was working to win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. This past spring, after Hagee made remarks that many felt disparaged the Catholic Church, McCain distanced himself from him.

Mortoff says McKay was “distressed” over the replacement of Hagee, but McKay claims his concern had more to do with the contractual issues. McKay praises Benson’s directing talent and, as for his working relationship with him, he says, “I pulled my hand back.” And although McKay says that he doesn’t recall giving theological notes to Benson, he adds, “out of the entire cast and crew, because I am a Christian, I had more understanding of subject matters related to Billy Graham. So everyone would call on me to help accurately reflect Christian contexts.”

To create buzz among the faithful, “Billy’s” producers made an early edit of the film to show to church audiences. Benson never saw that version, but he remains upbeat about the theatrical release.


Starting this Friday, “Billy” will be screened in 264 theaters across the Bible Belt states -- North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, etc. -- and will most likely make it to Los Angeles later in October. “It’s their film,” he says. “I’m just a work-for-hire. My own turmoil is my own tough luck.

“A life in the arts is a lifelong education. And ‘Billy’ really was that for me -- artistically and politically.”