By Gary Wien
You probably know him best as Bentley on "The Jeffersons" but Paul Benedict has had a truly remarkable acting career. His body of work includes films like "The Freshman", "The Addams Family", and "Waiting For Guffman". His stage credits include runs on Broadway in Eugene O'Neill's Hughie (opposite Al Pacino), Meredith Willson's The Music Man, Terrence McNally's Bad Habits, and William Shakespeare's Richard III. This December, Benedict tackles a role from one of his favorite novels of all-time, "A Christmas Carol" when he becomes this year's Scrooge in McCarter Theatre's annual production of the holiday classic.
I had a chance to speak with Benedict while the play was in rehearsals.
Tell me about playing a character like Scrooge. He's such a part of society and our history that everybody knows the character deeply. What is it like to tackle a role like that?
Oh, it's wonderful. It's always been a favorite story of mine. I'm a little long in the tooth - I'm 68 - and it's tough to take on a role this size with this much running around at my age, but I'm happy doing it.
It's a great story. It's one of those five or six great stories that have ever been conceived and will last forever. It's an interesting thing that everybody who comes except for the little children have heard the story before. And that's good, they're sort of prepared with it.
I had an odd early life where my family broke up when I was about five and I went into state homes with my brothers and sisters and I bounced around a bit. It was very Dickensian. It's very hard to get a Dickensian youth in this country, so I think that helps me a lot. There's a lot to draw on there. I keep running into things in rehearsals and the play that suddenly drive home a memory to me that I'd forgotten for sixty years! That's a wonderful thing when that happens. It feeds what's going on.
The trick about playing Scrooge that you find out when you play it is that it's basically the same as a Shakespearian role in that the language of Charles Dickens is very, very rich like Shakespeare's. And his journey is the most amazing journey from the worst man in the world to the best man in the world. The emotional flip flop that you go through is enormous. It's like playing one of the big Shakespearian characters. I was surprised to find that out.
Is it difficult for the cast of a play like The Christmas Carol to keep things fresh when most of the audience will likely have seen it before?
Well if you go on stage and do Hamlet you're telling a familiar story. I don't think there's any problem with that. I would just like to think that it's a great delight for the kids who may have heard about A Christmas Carol but never gotten the story before. I think it must be a great delight.
It's funny, I can still remember reading it for the first time. It wasn't that early, I was in the 7th grade when I first read it. It just knocked me out of my socks. It's wonderful.
It's one of the few stories that can be done in so many different ways - drama, comedy, musical, etc.
I like what Michael (Unger) has done because the blend of comedy and drama is really good. Some of it should make them cry, I hope; and a great deal of it should make them laugh. It's wonderful to do a piece like that where it isn't just drama or just comedy.
You've done a lot of work on stage, television and film. What is it like to be a character actor when you happen to stumble across a role like that of Bentley on The Jeffersons which lives on forever. Did you find people casting you towards that type of role or were cast opposite that of a Bentley?
No, unfortunately in this business if you do something that seems to work everybody follows. It's like when I first started acting on stage they found out I was good at comedy and then that's all they wanted to cast me in. And that's been true most of my career, I have to fight to get anything that's dramatic.
Well I thought you being cast for Scrooge was brilliant.
Well, God knows I'm old enough! Thank you for saying that, but what's right about it is my age and by cooincidence my life. It's terribly appealing to me. Any actor would love to play this role.
I don't know if you've heard about this or how much you use the Internet, but you'd be amazed at how many clips people have posted on Youtube of you from your days on Sesame Street as the Number Painter.
Somebody has been telling me about that and the director brought in a little thing and showed me a couple of them. I'd forgotten what they even looked like it was so long ago. We shot them in 1969 and they started showing them in 1970 - that's a long time ago.
And I don't do computers! I'm trying to get off the planet without ever using them or cellphones. I hope I make it, we'll see.
It's funny about the things that last forever.
Yeah, that's right. Most of them are very good things and some very bad things too.
One of the things I love about theatre is that it's very much dealing with the present or in the now.
Exactly! Luckily in a nice way, I'm stopped sometimes by people on the street and I think oh, they're going to say weren't you on "The Jeffersons" or I loved this movie or something. But then some of them will say 'do you know when you did that speech?' and they'll name a play from 30 years ago. Some of their remarks are wonderful. The feeling of something they went through when they went to see the play. That's always extremely rewarding. I'm always floored by that because it's so much better in a way than being told you were great in a movie five years ago.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.