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Arts & Culture Former Teen Heartthrob Finds Peace in Academia After Years in Hollywood

May 30, 2003
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For a man only in his 40s, Robby Benson already has had the career of a lifetime.

He also has had his fill of the Hollywood rat race. This month, the actor and director sold his home in Los Angeles and moved across the country to Boone, N.C., where he has accepted a faculty position as artist-in-residence at Appalachian State University.

“I’m seeking quality of life for myself, my wife and my two children,” says Benson, 47, who now lives on a 10.5-acre farm in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

“It’s not healthy being in a fickle business, where you’re only as good as your last job,” he says in a telephone interview with JTA. “You can be a more complete human being in a university setting.”

Rural Appalachia is also a far cry from urban Brooklyn, where Benson played the role that made him famous among Jewish audiences: Danny Saunders, the adolescent son of a Chasidic rebbe, in the 1981 movie version of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen.”

Benson has fond memories of that experience and of working with the late, legendary Rod Steiger, who befriended the young actor.

Benson also developed close relationships with other stars of the silver screen, including Burt Reynolds, Jack Lemmon and Paul Newman, who played his screen fathers.

“Being in ‘The Chosen’ meant a lot to me,” he recalls. “Although I’m not a practicing Jew, I am proud of my heritage, which has been handed down to me by my parents and grandparents.”

Early in his career as a child prodigy, however, he feared that his Jewish name — he was born Robin David Segal — was becoming a disadvantage. On an episode of A&E Biography, Benson recounted being typecast in auditions as “that Jewish kid.”

At the suggestion of his mother, actress Ann Benson, he took her maiden name. At age 12, Benson debuted on Broadway with a starring role in “Zelda,” and subsequently appeared on the New York stage with smaller parts in “The Rothschilds” and “Pirates of Penzance.”

Still a teenager, Benson set off on his own from New York City to seek fame in Los Angeles. His movie career took off in the 1970s, when the handsome Benson became a teenage heartthrob and a cover boy on fan magazines. In 1973 he earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in the movie “Jeremy.”

In 1977 Benson starred in the basketball movie “One on One,” which he co-wrote with his father, Jerry Segal, and which featured a then-unknown Melanie Griffith.

Segal told JTA that “One on One” was one of the most profitable films of all time for Warner Brothers, in terms of net earnings.

Benson had to bow out of the now-classic movie “Apocalypse Now” to make “One on One” — and now he’s leaving a recurring role as Professor Witt on the acclaimed NBC television series “American Dreams” so he can take a real- world faculty position.

“There are definitely trade-offs,” Benson says. “I will miss being part of intelligent productions like ‘American Dreams.’ And not a day goes by when I don’t think of my family back in Los Angeles.”

Benson’s close-knit family eventually followed him to Los Angeles, and they all lived near each other in the tony Los Angeles neighborhood of Toluca Lake. In addition to his parents, his sister, fashion designer Shelli Segal, and her husband, Israeli artist Moshe Elimelech also lived nearby.

Benson has been in demand as a TV director, especially of sitcoms, including pilots, episodes and seasons of such hits as “Evening Shade,” “Ellen,” “Dharma & Greg,” “Seinfeld” and “Friends.”

His most triumphant role, however, is one in which he neither directs nor acts, and in fact is not even seen: He does the voice of Beast in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the only animated motion picture ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture.

“Beast was a lovely role, reminiscent of a Broadway show, which it later became,” Benson says. “That movie touched so many young people.”

Now Benson is looking forward to helping young people in a more direct fashion. After teaching filmmaking part-time at universities for 15 years, Benson is proud of his appointment at Appalachian State, “ranked the number one small school in the country by Time magazine,” he notes.

Benson will teach in the theater and English departments, while his wife of 20 years, Karla DeVito — the former lead female vocalist for the rock band Meat Loaf — will teach voice.

Apart from screenwriting, Benson prefers not to give names to his other courses.

“As someone who has done it, and who wants to give back, I plan to teach how to survive in the world of filmmaking, and make students believe they can do it,” he says.

Benson does not see this transition as the end of his performing career.

“I still have a lot to do, a lot in me, and a lot to say,” he insists. His next project is the musical “Open Heart,” for which Benson wrote everything — the book, the lyrics and the music.

The musical had a workshop run in Los Angeles and is slated to open at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York in June 2004, he says.

“I wrote ‘Open Heart’ out of love for my wife,” Benson says.

But those who know Benson understand the deeper meaning of the title: Benson has undergone two open heart surgeries, the first at age 28.

After his second heart surgery, at age 42, Benson received an award from the Heart of a Child Foundation for his charitable work on behalf of research to cure congenital heart defects.

“Heart surgery does change your perspective in life,” Benson says with a touch of understatement, as he opens a new chapter in a career that is far from over.

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