Benjamin recently fielded a telephone call at his Beverly Hills, Calif., home to talk about working with O’Toole and about his own iconic movie roles in films such as “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.”
O’Toole was no longer a tippler in 1982 because he’d undergone surgery for cancer and had half his stomach removed, Benjamin said. The circumstances did nothing to reduce O’Toole’s enormous charisma.
“You knew when he came into a room,” Benjamin said. “He did light up that room.” He was also a focused light. Though O’Toole was playing a dissipated alcoholic, he was a workhorse. “He set the tone for the actors in keeping up with him,” Benjamin said. “He was letter-perfect every day and was right on time.”
Like Flynn, O’Toole wanted to perform his own stunts, which included riding a horse, fighting with a sword and swinging from ropes.
The fencing scenes required daily training, even while the crew was staying at the Essex House, in New York, which meant that O’Toole and his instructor would awaken early, retreat to a main ballroom, and pursue their exercises.
Other guests at the hotel were treated to daily displays of swashbuckling, and would ask the concierge, “Is that Peter O’Toole? And he seems to be in a fencing match with somebody?” It was, said Benjamin, “like an out-of-body experience for them.”
In another scene, O’Toole was required to fall head-first against a tile wall. The shot was a close-up, and the wall couldn’t be padded, so Benjamin was concerned about possibly braining “Lawrence of Arabia.”
“I told him, ‘I may have to shoot this more than once,’ and he said, ‘Shoot away! Shoot all day! I can do this.’”
Benjamin’s wife, the remarkable Paula Prentiss, had filmed “What’s New Pussycat?” with O’Toole in the mid-1960s and suggested him for the role in Benjamin’s movie.
Benjamin and Prentiss, who met while studying drama at Northwestern University, have been married for 55 years, which may be some sort of Hollywood record. “The next 55 years are going to be clear sailing.”
His first role was as Ali MacGraw’s love interest in 1969’s “Goodbye, Columbus,” based on the Philip Roth short story, cementing Benjamin’s image as the midcentury troubled Jewish intellectual.
That story’s class conflict between the spoiled upper-middle-class girl and the hardworking boy resonated in Benjamin’s life.
“I grew up West Side of Manhattan,” he said. “My father worked in the garment industry, in wholesale, selling infants’ and children’s dresses. … We never had enough money. We got along fine, but just.”
A different Jewish experience was revealed when he went out with a girl who lived on the East Side, whose family had a house on a lake. “Hell, I didn’t know what any of this was,” he said. “Roth kind of quantified this.”
He returned to Philip Roth material again in 1972 when he played the lead in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” a movie that wasn’t received as generously by critics.
Benjamin, on the other hand, scored a winner in his first effort as a director. “My Favorite Year” won a seventh nomination for an Academy Award for O’Toole. In all, O’Toole would be nominated eight times and never win. In 2002, he was informed he would be given an honorary award, for his body of work and he was reluctant to accept it, sending the Academy a letter saying he’d like more time to “win the lovely bugger outright.”
“My Favorite Year”
Richard Benjamin and Mark Linn-Baker will appear at 7:50 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28, at the UA Tara Cinemas, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Road, Atlanta, at a screening of Benjamin's directorial debut, "My Favorite Year," as part of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Tickets: $13; $11: students and seniors. For more information about the festival: ajff.org.