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Dyan Cannon and Richard Benjamin fondly look back at ‘The Last of Sheila’

Richard Benjamin and Dyan Cannon
Richard Benjamin and Dyan Cannon meet before their Sunday appearance at a screening of the 1973 film mystery “The Last of Sheila.”
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The delicious 1973 murder mystery “The Last of Sheila” has an unusual pedigree.

It was co-written by the legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim and “Psycho” star Anthony Perkins, who based it on their penchant for game playing and throwing clever puzzle parties for the rich and famous in New York City. Among the participants were Richard Benjamin and his wife, Paula Prentiss.

Benjamin was one of the stars of “The Last of Sheila” along with Dyan Cannon. The two are reuniting for a screening of the film on Sunday evening at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The screening is the latest in a yearly series honoring the late casting director Marvin Paige, who worked with the Cinematheque to help preserve Hollywood’s legacy.

Film historian Foster Hirsch will moderate a Q&A with the performers after the screening.

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Directed by Herbert Ross and shot in the French resort town of Nice, the film revolves around a widowed movie producer (James Coburn), who a year after the death of his wife Sheila, summons six of his friends aboard his yacht — also named Sheila — for some fun and games. Benjamin plays a screenwriter married to a wealthy, alcoholic wife (Joan Hackett). Cannon plays Christine, a character based on the famed and colorful agent Sue Mengers; James Mason is a washed-up director; Raquel Welch is a sexy wife; and Ian McShane is her rather sleazy husband.

Cannon and Benjamin recently sat down at the Beverly Hills Women’s Club to talk about their careers and memories of the movie.

Cannon, an ageless and vivacious 82, began her career in the late 1950s and hit her stride in 1969 with Paul Mazurky’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” earning a supporting actress Oscar nomination. She also was nominated for directing and producing the 1976 short “Number One.” She earned another supporting actress nomination for 1978’s “Heaven Can Wait.” In 2011, she wrote “Dear Cary: My Life With Cary Grant” about her 1965-68 marriage to the actor. The couple have a daughter, Jennifer.

The 81-year-old Benjamin, who is currently writing his autobiography, starred with Prentiss in the cult 1967-68 sitcom “He & She.” He made his film debut in the 1969 classic comedy “Goodbye, Columbus,” earned a supporting actor Golden Globe for 1975’s “The Sunshine Boys” and began his successful directing career with 1982’s “My Favorite Year,” guiding Peter O’Toole to a richly deserved Oscar nomination.

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This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

The year 1969 was such a watershed one for both of you. Richard, you made your film debut opposite Ali MacGraw in the hit comedy “Goodbye, Columbus,” and Dyan, you earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Paul Mazursky’s first film, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” How did you get cast in these classics?

Cannon: I was working in theater in Chicago, summer theater. I got a call from my agent to come and see him on Friday. They sent me two scripts. One was “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” and the other was for a Don Knotts comedy he was doing at Universal. They made a firm offer for a five-picture contract at Universal Studios on that day or I could do a screen test for “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” My agent said, “A bird in the hand, you do the five-picture deal because out of those there’s bound to be choices.” But I read “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” and I just thought, “This is so exciting. I’m going to do the test.”

Benjamin: “He & She” had gotten canceled and we were driving back to New York where we lived. On the way, Paula said to me, “You know, you‘ve got to read this book, ‘Goodbye, Columbus.’” I said, “I’m not reading any damn books. I’ve got other things to do like watch TV!” So we get back to New York and I get a call — they are casting the movie ‘Goodbye, Columbus.” I was on the phone and I put my hand on the phone and said, “Paula, where’s the damn book?”

There’s been a lot of attention recently for “The Last of Sheila” because it was one of Rian Johnson’s inspirations for “Knives Out.”

Benjamin: There’s a difference in [“Sheila”]: There’s no detective. You can figure this out [the murder] if you played the game. The answer to all of it is in the title, like a crossword thing.

This wasn’t the easiest film to do. I read a terrorist organization threatened the production because they said there were too many Jews in the film.

Benjamin: Black September. We didn’t realize it at first. Cars were following us when we left the set. That was security people they hired. However, the Israelis on the crew, they quit. They said, “You’re kind of not taking this as seriously as you should. We’re out of here.” The Israelis knew what these people could do. The French police said, “We can’t quite guarantee your safety.”

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I am sure everyone was a wreck when you discovered what was going on.

Cannon: I was into primal therapy. I just screamed my way out of it!

And didn’t the yacht burn up?

Benjamin: Herb [Ross] came on the first day and said, “We’ve got a little problem.” The boat that they were going to use burned up. Then [Warner Bros. executive] John Calley got us one.

Cannon: [Producer] Sol Siegel’s boat.

You also were shooting at the Victorine studios in Nice at the same time François Truffaut was making “Day for Night.”

Benjamin: We would leave each day and I’d see, as we’d go out the gate, there was this little guy standing there. It was Truffaut with a camera and maybe Jackie Bisset. We couldn’t tell what they were doing.

Cannon: I had a date with him. It was really interesting. It was for a premiere in Paris or London one night. I think it was arranged. He doesn’t really speak English. And I don’t really speak French. He was very kind. We saw each other several times. Even without speaking the language, I felt him.

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All the main characters were based on real people like super-agent Sue Mengers, who you play in the movie, Dyan.

Benjamin: When [Mengers] called me and told me about the picture, she announced I was going to be in it. I said, “Well, I have to read it.” She said, “Well, you know, honey, you can read it, but I already told them, and they’ll be mad if you say no.”

Cannon: She told me that too. She told me I was going to be in it.

James Coburn was the coolest actor. Was he like that in person?

Cannon: He brought a manservant. He went on vacation during the film because he had time off while they built the set. So he went to India and brought back a manservant.

Benjamin: I forgot about that.

Cannon: The manservant was someone who specialized in massage and bathing. I said to [Coburn], “He’s not coming to my house. He’s not bathing me. He’s not massaging me.” He said, “Dyan, he has been trained. There’s nothing sexual.” So, finally, because I trusted James, I let his manservant come to my place. You wanted to die and go to heaven.

You guys haven’t retired, have you? Are you still actively pursuing work?

Benjamin: Of course.

Cannon: I have been writing my musical for the last five years. We’ve got 25 songs. And my book just got optioned. They are going to make a four- to six-hour miniseries out of it. That’s exciting. I’m executive producer on it. Now I get to cast who’s going to play me, which is kind of interesting. And who’s going to play the other parts.

[Looking at Benjamin.] You know what you should do? Remember “My Dinner With Andre”?

Benjamin: Yeah.

Cannon: You and I should do that.

I love that 1981 film with Wallace Shawn and director Andre Gregory talking about everything over dinner.

Cannon: It just came to me, Richard. People would love it.

'The Last of Sheila'
Where: The American Cinematheque Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 6:30 p.m. Jan. 26
Tickets: $8-$12
Info: americancinematheque.com


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