Robby Benson Interview: Confronting the Vicissitudes of Life with Courage, Candor and Karla
Image attributed to Robby Benson
Robby Benson’s films include Ice Castles, Ode to Billy Joe, The Chosen, Tribute, Running Brave, Harry and Son, his own screenplay One on One and the animated Beauty and the Beast (as the voice of the Beast). He is a two-time Golden Globe nominated actor and has co-starred with such Hollywood legends as Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Burt Reynolds, George Burns and Rod Steiger, just to name a few.
Benson’s four decades of show business versatility include producing and directing feature films and over 100 sitcom episodes and pilots including Friends, Sabrina, Thunder Alley, Evening Shade and Ellen. Most recently, he helmed Billy: The Early Years (2009) casting actor Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger, 2013) in his first starring role portraying Christian evangelist Billy Graham.
“I realized that this was probably going to be my last open heart surgery. When you think about it like that, many people think, ‘Well, that’s a great thing.’ What it did for me was it gave me this unbelievable sense of finality to my life, not just to the process, but I was like, ‘Wow! So that could mean like maybe I’ll die in a year or maybe I’ll die in two years.’ But there’s a finality to all of this when someone says, ‘This is the last time we’ll probably go in.'”
The versatile talent starred in Broadway in Zelda, The Rothschilds and the Joseph Papp production of The Pirates of Penzance where he met and fell in love with his co-star, Karla DeVito. He has composed film soundtracks and has been the recipient of several RIAA Gold Records for songwriting. For the theater, Benson wrote the libretto and score of his musical Open Heart.
Benson added author to his career accomplishments with the release of his first book, Who Stole the Funny? in 2007 and his memoir titled, I’m Not Dead … Yet! that came out in 2012. I’m Not Dead … Yet! is a funny, explicit look at surviving four open heart surgeries for a congenital valve defect while continuing a dynamic creative career in and out of Hollywood. He and DeVito have been married for over 30 years and have two children Lyric and Zephyr.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Robby, it’s great to speak to you! It has been about three years since the last surgery, so how are you doing now?
Robby Benson: I’m doing really well. They did a remarkable job at the Cleveland Clinic and actually performed a very complicated operation called the reverse Ross Procedure. At the time, only one man, one surgeon, actually could perform this operation, and I always add, “successfully.” Everything is pretty good.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you living and working in Indiana now?
Robby Benson: We just moved to Bloomington because I’m teaching at Indiana University, which is one of the most exciting schools I’ve ever taught at, and I’ve been teaching for 24 years now. They are so committed to the Arts. It’s just as thrilling as can be.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I found your memoir, I’m Not Dead … Yet! to be highly entertaining and quite informative. What were you thinking when you came up with the title?
Robby Benson: You know, I think what’s important is to never take yourself too seriously. Because this is a very serious thing to discuss, I wanted to make sure that people who might benefit from the information in the book weren’t turned off by a title that was a little stuffy. Everything I do, to be quite honest, has to include humor. Everything has to be funny to me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It’s obvious that in your acting career and life, you are a perfectionist and/or a Type A personality.
Robby Benson: Yeah (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So how does a person who always strives to be the best actually face the fact that it might all be over with?
Robby Benson: Wow. That’s a great question. The first surgery was easy. As a matter of fact, all of them, for my kind of personality, were easy for me because I felt like it was my job to make my family never worry. I felt like I had a job to do. I had something very important to do from the second I was in the hospital to the second I got out which was to get well as fast as I possibly could, show that I could handle the pain and show that I was making progress by doing all the right things. When you get out of open heart surgery, the last thing you want to do is sit up in bed, but that’s the first thing the ICU nurses want you to do. Back in the day, the scars and things were a little more brutal than they are today.
You know, that actually is a remarkable question because this last surgery, I guess everyone caught on to the fact that … well, I don’t know what happened. I really don’t know how this works, but I guess maybe I grew up, and in growing up, I realized that this was probably going to be my last open heart surgery. When you think about it like that, many people think, “Well, that’s a great thing.” What it did for me was it gave me this unbelievable sense of finality to my life, not just to the process, but I was like, “Wow! So that could mean like maybe I’ll die in a year or maybe I’ll die in two years.” But there’s a finality to all of this when someone says, “This is the last time we’ll probably go in.”
That was actually difficult for me to face for myself. It’s a great thing for your family members to hear, but when you’re alone and vulnerable, suddenly everything seems so final. All these jobs that I gave myself in order to conquer the world so that my wife, parents and children could think I’m okay … suddenly, I don’t have those jobs anymore. Now I have to somehow absolutely live life. It’s a very bizarre thing. I don’t know if you realize this, but you just hit on a remarkable question. It reminds me when I did the movie Death Be Not Proud. I don’t know if you ever saw that film.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, I did.
Robby Benson: There was a scene at the end of the movie where he’s in the hospital and someone asks if he can eat ice cream. Normally he wasn’t allowed to eat any sweets. When they said it was okay for him to have ice cream, there’s this moment in his eyes where he realizes that all of the chemo and all of the radiation was not working, and he was going to die.
It’s funny, but when they said to me, “This is your last open heart surgery,” I felt like, for some reason, a part of me just didn’t exist anymore. It was a very strange feeling. I’m probably not articulating this as well as I should, but you actually hit on something that very few people have ever spoken about. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about this except to my wife.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And your answer is very articulate. I understand that there must be a wide range of emotions and feelings as you go through this process.
Robby Benson: Absolutely, and it is fantastic because I’ve had open heart surgeries since my 20s, and I’m 57 now, so it’s very much a part of living toward the next hurdle that you overcome. Then someone comes in and says, “Well, there isn’t going to be a next hurdle for you.” You ask yourself, “What does that really mean?” Obviously, it’s good news. I don’t have to have another open-heart surgery, but what does it really mean? Does it mean that my heart can’t take another one?
I was as human and as vulnerable as possible whereas all the other times, I trained myself to try to be a superhero for my family. It’s very bizarre. Fortunately, I’m actually doing a lot better. I’m really doing well. The surgeon was a genius, so I think the Cleveland Clinic is probably the greatest hospital I’ve ever been to in my life. If it were up to me, it would be the template of medicine for our entire country. The way that they deal with patients and put families first is just remarkable. It’s just an incredible place. I don’t know how things would’ve worked for me if I didn’t have my last surgery there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, they truly saved your life. In the book, you mention, “praying to God.” Are you a deeply religious or spiritual person, Robby?
Robby Benson: I’m incredibly spiritual. Incredibly spiritual. I would say that if you look at 90% of religions, they’re based on the same tenets like the way we’re supposed to treat one another, the goodness that should come from us, how we should behave and treat our fellow humans, so I am extremely spiritual. I’ve never really been the kind of guy who’s been in an organized religion, but then again, I’m not good in anything organized (laughs).
I believe in individuality, and so I would never say that my spirituality is better than somebody else’s, and I also expect somebody else not to say that theirs is better than mine. I do believe that we’re very small. We have a lot of egos. We have a lot of indulgence, and I don’t think that we deserve all of that. I think the world is a much bigger place than we are, and it would be great if there were more humility. That’s how I look at the world.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I do love the line in the book, “I’m here to tell you, sometimes we have to be assholes.”
Robby Benson: (laughs) Yeah. I always turn to somebody, and I go, “Man, it is hard being the boss!” You can be the best boss in the world, but there is always that moment when you just have to say, “Argh!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I totally agree with you on the point that everyone should constantly ask questions of physicians and other medical professionals, but sadly, most people are programmed to believe that the doctor is always right. That’s certainly not to say that there aren’t many exceptional doctors in the world though.
Robby Benson: I think, especially in the United States, we’re really programmed to think that whatever doctors say, that’s the way it is, and we just do what they say without question. I really believe in doing your homework and getting many opinions and trying to figure out as much as you possibly can. Knowledge is power. We actually lost my wife’s mom based on the fact that a doctor was arrogant and wrong.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you still going through the depression that usually occurs after open heart surgery?
Robby Benson: It’s manageable, but it never goes away. I deal with it all the time. But I think because of my wife and kids, I feel like I’m pretty blessed, so it makes me take my head out of the sand a little quicker. There are all kinds of new information about patients who have been on the heart-lung machine and linking that to depression. It’s very true. I’m not ashamed anymore. I used to be very ashamed and I’m not anymore. I’d just like other people to know that’s what we go through, and now we need tools to help deal with it. Everybody needs those tools to come to some kind of peace with that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your wife, singer and actress Karla DeVito, was very instrumental in your recovery. How did you and she cope with the health issues?
Robby Benson: She’s amazing! She is literally the most amazing human being I’ve ever met in my life. The fact that I was lucky enough to marry her and be with her every single day is … I don’t know why somebody allowed that to happen to me. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but we figured everything out, you know? It didn’t really matter what was going on. We would just look at each other in the eyes. Literally to this moment, to this moment. We step back and just talk to each other.
When we’re together, and we look into each other’s eyes, and we have one another, we can handle anything. Anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. It means we’re okay. Just as long as we love each other, we’re okay. That’s so beautiful. I’m so thankful that we both feel that way. I’m just a very lucky man.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And that’s the key for your successful marriage of over 30 years?
Robby Benson: Oh, absolutely. It’s so basic and because it’s so basic, it has been there since day one. It’s still the same only, if it’s possible, I love her more every day that I’m allowed to live. But it’s still that basic. I look into her eyes, feel her heart and her soul. That’s what we do for each other. She reminds me. Sometimes she has to remind me every single day. She says, “Sweetheart, just look in my eyes.” I do. I listen to her because she’s my hero.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You two are both in the entertainment industry. How do you, as a couple, handle the ups and downs of show business?
Robby Benson: We help each other as professionals. It’s a tough business, so we help each other get through jobs and certain people we have to deal with. We just help each other that way, and we love working together. I think we’re lucky because we fell in love working together, so we want to work together. As a matter of fact, I really don’t want to work unless I’m working with her, so in almost everything I do, I make sure she’s a part of it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Robby, you have such a great, positive outlook on life. Did you learn that from your parents as a child?
Robby Benson: Absolutely. That’s definitely genetic. They love life, they have an incredible sense of humor, and they are giving and caring and wonderful people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your mom, known professionally as Ann Benson, stars with Betty White in the show Off Their Rockers.
Robby Benson: Yes, she is just great in it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The senior citizens “punk” the younger generation. She is very funny.
Robby Benson: (laughs) Thanks.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your daughter Lyric and son, Zephyr have the entertainment gene, correct?
Robby Benson: Well, I’m actually at the editor’s house, and we’re editing my son’s movie. He wrote, directed, is starring in it and is truly an incredible talent. It’s a feature film out in the fall called Straight Outta Tompkins. Lyric is a musician and a writer. She’s doing extremely well right now. For us, in our business, it means we’re expressing ourselves, and we have the chance to express ourselves through either on the written page or musically. At this moment, we’re all doing what we love to do. So it’s a good thing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Robby, all through the book, you discuss sports and your athleticism. Looking back on your life, if you had no serious health issues, would you have pursued a career in basketball or baseball instead of acting?
Robby Benson: I probably would never have made it as a jock, but I probably would have tried. If it were baseball, I’d probably end up in Triple-A someplace. If it were basketball, I’d probably end up in Europe. You name it. I would’ve ended up one place right before the big leagues. I get injured really easily, so I think I never would’ve been able to put it together and compete at the highest level, but I think I would’ve pursued athletics and music much more than I have in my life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): For you, what was the most memorable role of your career?
Robby Benson: It’s a tossup between One on One because I co-wrote that with my father, Jerry Segal, and The Pirates of Penzance with Karla on Broadway. Those are the two greatest things and right now working on my son’s movie. There’s nothing like working with your family and watching them blossom and just being with them when you’re working. It’s just incredible.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You and Burt Reynolds had a close friendship, co-starring with him in The End (1978), and you directed eight episodes of his sitcom Evening Shade. Are you still in contact with Burt?
Robby Benson: We have not spoken in about a year and a half. I tried to get in touch with him when I found out that he had surgery, but I haven’t been able to reach him, and it kind of breaks my heart.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are your upcoming projects, Robby?
Robby Benson: I’m trying to teach all year, and then in the summer get a film off the ground and use my students in the film. It works so beautifully because they get to go from being a senior in the most advanced film class to right into the business. I’m there with them because I know their strengths and weaknesses, and I’m there to help them. I did that with Modern Love, a movie I made when I taught at the University of South Carolina, and I’m trying to do that at Indiana also. I really do hope it works out.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very cool. Tell me what you’d say to patients suffering from heart disease or other serious health issues to assist them in surviving and leading a normal, happy life.
Robby Benson: I would say to never, ever give up and to physically, as many times as you’re knocked down, to get up as fast as you possibly can. Be relentless. Love the people you’re with because life is precious and you don’t know how much time you really have with them. Every second matters.
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