Richard Benjamin was a fairly - familiar figure to cinemagoers in the 1970’s. After a dynamic start in Goodbye Columbus (1969) he created a seemingly secure niche as l the family-fixated, angst-ridden ' urban survivor, a harrassed and dyspeptic participant in battle-of—the-sexes comedies like Portnoy’s Complaint (1972), House Calls (1978) and The Last Married Couple in America (1980). His fine 1 performance as Walter Matthau’s long-suffering nephew in The Sunshine Boys earned him a Golden Globe awared in 1976. However, that niche soon became a rut and just when his career appeared to have run out of steam he moved behind the camera and directed the hilarious and affectionate My Favourite Year (1982). That won an Oscar nomination for its star Peter O’Toole and Benjamin has hardly paused for breath since, making the transition from actor to director with a great deal more elan than many of his predecessors along this well-worn path. My Favourite Year was followed in quick succession by the appealing World War Two romance Racing with the Moon (1984), the Clint Eastwood-Burt Reynolds

Depression-era romp City Heat 6 The 5 18Sept-ember



i Allan Hunter talks to actor turned director Richard Benjamin, whose new film The Money Pit opens in Scotland this month.

(1984) and now, perhaps the ultimate accolade, a Steven Spielberg presentation - The Money Pit, which has grossed some $35 million in America. The Money Pit is an old-fashioned

slapstick farce about the numerous pitfalls and potholes awaiting an unsuspecting young couple when they purchase a dream house at a drastically reduced price. Little do they realise that nothing in the building works properly and this provides the basic ammunition for a host of physical gags involving faulty plumbing, exploding cookers and disappearing staircases. Much of the humour is as creaky as the building’s foundations but Benjamin was sympathetic to both the genre of comedy and a script that allows him to recreate the stunt-based clowning of silent screen idols like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. ‘I’m mostly interested in making comedies,’ he explains unapologetically. ‘Violence doesn’t interest me; I don’t understand those type of films and I don’t go and see them. Quite simply it makes me happy to hear an audience laughing. When Steven Spielberg sent methe script my first thought on reading it was of Buster Keaton. I told Tom Hanks that what we were trying to

capture was Keaton’s almost balletic grace in the middle of the most terrible disasters.’

Benjamin’s concept ofthe film meant the close participation of stars Tom Hanks and Shelley Long in all

but the most hazardous moments of the escalating destruction. Humour reliant upon split-second timing and meticulous planning entails numerous considerations that satisfied customers hopefully won’t even begin to contemplate, as Benjamin illustrates; ‘The original design and preproduction of the film are all prejudiced by the decisions you make about your jokes. For instance there is a moment when the staircase collapses and Tom is left hanging above the ground. Ifyou consider that Tom is six foot and his arms are two foot then if he dangles one foot above the ground you will need at least a nine foot high room. Asjust one foot offthe ground isn’t very funny you probably decide to go fora thirteen foot high room. Then you go looking for a house based on the requirements ofthese proportions. It took us three months to find the house. The next step is finding a person that will let you use their house. We found one on the north shore of Long Island, about thirty miles from New York City. Again, you have to take care because ifyou get more than fifty miles out then you’re on a different pay scale with the unions. This is all before you even get to shoot the movie!‘

Despite the trials and tribulations

of being a director Benjamin has

clearly relished the challenges of his newfound vocation. ‘I was very happy,’ he confirms, ‘because I was doing what I want to do, which is problem solving. People would come up after a horrendous day and ask if I was alright and I was really fine. The greatest attribute a director can have is patience. You have to be able to be extremely normal and calm when you’re anything but. You can’t be temperamental, unfortunately you leave that for home. Ifyou‘re an actor you can be temperamental and just blow off steam.’

Just in case the traumas of orchestrating the mayhem of The Money Pit became too much Benjamin could relax in the knowledge that his back-up team were some of the best in the industry. Producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy have worked on E. T. and the Indiana Jones films, cameraman Gordon Willis is a Woody Allen regular, production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein had just won the Oscar for Amadeus and executive producer Steven Spielberg was always available for expert consultations. ‘Spielberg was there for the first day to say hello and then he went off to make The Color Purple. He made some suggestions at the editing stage when I showed him my cut. We arrived at the same thing; if you show the cause and effect of a joke then once you have established a basic logic you can get rid of the cause element you don’t have to show how every single thing

happens} Although only at the helm of films

over the past four years Benjamin’s

directorial experience stretches back over two decades. The first professional assignment for the New York-born actor came in 1965 with the London stage production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. He had also directed his wife. acress Paula

Prentiss. in two plays in New York and worked in television before Mel Brooks secured his feature debut on My Favourite Year. Despite working with several major stars he has no horror stories to recount of temper tantrums or rampant egomania. ‘I seem to get all these people in their mellow times,’ he reflects. ‘Peter O’Toole was great because he liked the project and his character. The only thing that bothered him was when he didn’t work enough'in a

given day. The other thing was that if

you called him onto the set then you’d better be ready. Sean Penn is a chameleon. In Racing with the Moon he played a young, likeable kid and that’s exactly who he was during the filming so there was never any problem there. Blake Edwards and Clint Eastwood came to a parting of the ways on City Heat but there was nothing untoward when I was working on it. It was all set and already cast, all I did was add a little to the script. Clint is easy to work with; an interesting man and very smart.’

Benjamin’s own acting career appears to have withdrawn into the shadows as he gains increasing recognition as a director. ‘That’s not by choice,’ he claims. ‘I just haven’t had the time. Someone suggested

that ‘The Money Pit would have been ,

a good thing for my wife and myself to do and said that Tom reminded them of me. Tom was the first choice for the part but maybe I should have asked myself.’ As for the typecasting that dogged his acting days he admits, ‘I took the best things that were offered. Sometimes I waited it out but you’ve got to work. It was only later I realised that I’d fallen into some kind ofcategory. The first film I acted in, Goodbye Columbus, was made in New York away from any kind of studio set. It was like going to summer camp and then realising afterwards that you had made a movie; a quite wonderful experience. I thought they were all going to be like that.‘

Looking to the future Benjamin feels that he is ‘getting to the point where I might like to try and direct myselfin a film’, and adds that it’s a ‘real goal’ to try and find a mutual project with Paula Prentiss, his wife oftwenty-five years. More immediately he is scheduled to direct Little Nikita from a script by Bo‘ Goldman, Academy Award-winning writer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest fame. It could be along time before Richard Benjamin is unseated from the director’s chair and he probably wouldn’t want it any other way.

The Money Pit opens on September5 at the A BC, Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow and shortly at the A BC, Edinburgh.