Those who watched Sesame Street in the 1970s will recognize that face of the new Scrooge in McCarter Theater’s production of “A Christmas Carol,” playing through Sunday, December 24. Paul Benedict was the man on Sesame Street who went about painting numbers on everything. He is also well-recognized as the snobby British neighbor on the long-running television series “The Jeffersons.” And he has appeared in so many movies and television shows, that if you’ve missed him, you must have been living under the proverbial rock.
Now he is back on stage where he prefers to be. Little did he know when he was growing up, that the unfortunate events of his earliest days would prepare him well for this very play. Benedict was born in 1938 in Silver City, New Mexico, where his father was stationed in the army around the time of the outbreak of World War II. Six months later, his family moved to Massachusetts. When he was around five years old “everything kind of fell apart, and I went into state homes. I had a very Dickensian childhood,” he tells me in a phone interview during a rehearsal break. This was his life until he was 13. “I bounced around those places. Some of them were great; some of them were just awful.”
During rehearsals he has been surprised that when someone says or does something, he will have a “flash memory that I’d long forgotten, and it moves me very much.” But then he thinks the play itself is a wonderful and very moving story. “I don’t want to dwell on flashbacks,” he says but thinks “What a coincidence that the actor they cast as Scrooge had such a Dickensian childhood in foster homes and state homes. It’s turned out to be very useful.” He doesn’t remember any particular Christmas celebrations or gifts until his family got back together when he was high school age.
Benedict is the youngest of six children. Family is very important to him, and he gathers the clan about him every summer at his home on Martha’s Vineyard. He loves to cook and serves the local specialties: lobster, fish, and fresh corn from the farm. A number of the family came to see him when he played the role of Scrooge once before in a production in Boston. And since his is a very big family of nieces, nephews, and cousins, some of them will of course come to see this performance in Princeton.
“I’ve been on that island (Martha’s Vineyard) for 23 years. And actually stay there about seven months out of the year. Then I go and look at something else. It’s a wonderful place to live. I play with my raccoons. Different years I’ve had up to 20 who come and sit on the deck with me. And I feed them Paul Newman’s Fig Newmans, which they love. They sit around like a little orchestra waiting for me to conduct. They are very bright and friendly. Yes, I give most of them names.” He rattles off: D’Artagnan (named for the fourth Musketeer); James Cagney, “a little tough guy”; Grey Ghost, Brown Bear and Little Brown Bear, whom he describes as “cinnamon brown, which is unusual for a raccoon.” No other pets. “I’ve always wanted a dog but as an actor you get a call to do something and you’re off. Fly to LA. You just can’t do that to a dog.”
Over the years, he has made at least 50 films. My personal favorite was as the title character in the cult favorite “Waiting for Guffman,” directed and co-written by Christopher Guest. He has been in a number of Guest’s films, including “Spinal Tap” and “A Mighty Wind” but missed out on the current movie, “For Your Consideration,” as he was otherwise engaged.
His own personal favorite film was “The Freshman” with Marlon Brando and Benedict’s long-time friend Matthew Broderick. Though he had no scenes in the film with Brando, he was pleased to meet him as he “was ‘the man’ for all actors of my generation. When we saw him on film, or if we were lucky enough, on the stage, we all wanted to be able to do that.”
He remembers when he first met Brando, who identified Benedict as “the actor who doesn’t go to dailies” — the showings of whatever film was shot the day before. Benedict explained to Brando that earlier in his career he had, “but found I was always watching me act rather than seeing the character that the audience sees.” Doing his best Brando/Godfather voice, Benedict relates the following exchange: Brando: “You were very funny in that scene yesterday where you are talking to Matthew and you say this and Matthew kinda looks at you.” Benedict: “That’s Matthew’s laugh. I say the line, but it’s Matthew’s reaction that gets the laugh.” The punch line: “Brando looked at me and said, ‘Ah, then he’s very funny in the scene.’”
I had been told that Benedict could be a joker. At the start of “Christmas Carol” rehearsals, when the company sat in a circle with each member introducing themselves, Benedict said that he was Shelley Winters and had lost 60 pounds to do this job. “Oh, that was just a cheap joke,” he tells me. “Poor Shelley was the butt of a lot of theater jokes.” It seems that she is reported as always saying, “I had to put on 60 pounds to do this job,” no matter what the part was.
Back in 1965, during his early days in New York City, he became friends with Al Pacino, and they have worked together many times. Their most recent job together was in 1996 when Benedict played the hotel night clerk who served as the sounding board/foil for Pacino’s character in the Broadway production of “Hughie.” In the ‘70s, they were seen together in “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui” by Bertolt Brecht and Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” which played for a month at Broadway’s Cort Theater. Somewhere along the way, they discovered that they were both half-Sicilian, their families originating from two little mountain towns only about a 15-minute walk from each other. Therefore, they are sure they must be cousins of some kind.
Another particularly memorable experience was on location in Africa for the shoot of “Up the Sandbox” with Barbra Streisand. “We were the only actors with a crew of about 40,” he says. He remembers an occasion when the two actors, waiting for a scene to begin, were in the company of a number of local women singing Swahili songs. With only Benedict as her audience, Streisand to his amazement “in only a minute or two, picked up the melody and the lyrics, first humming, then singing along.”
Benedict came to his career as an actor almost by chance. Just out of college, with a degree in English from Boston’s Suffolk College, he walked by the Charles Playhouse, where he noticed a guy taking a smoking break in a doorway. For some reason he couldn’t fathom, he asked if there were any jobs available there. “‘We need a janitor. Fifteen bucks a week.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’” As he walked away, he tells me that he said to himself, “What are you doing? You just worked very hard to put yourself through school, and you just got a degree. Then I said to myself, ‘Oh, is that what you had in mind all those years, in the back corner of your mind?’” So much for his plans to become a writer and look for a job as a journalist.
The job as janitor soon led to helping with the sets, then to running the box office. Then a few months later someone said, “Hey you want to play a little role in this play?” With a walk-on role, he became an actor. “I guess it was fate.”
He remembers the very first play that he saw, a touring company in which his sister appeared. (She soon abandoned her stage career.) He was in the fifth grade and with his brothers went to Andover, Massachusetts, to see what he thinks was “Little Women.” In college he studied drama as an English major and attended some plays in Boston — “the few plays I could afford.” After his janitor to actor stint, he and some friends started their own theater in Boston but after about six years, he decided to try his luck in New York City. He was cast in a number of Off Broadway plays, one, “The Local Stigmatic” at the Actors’ Playhouse, was where he first appeared with Pacino.
His Broadway debut was in 1974, when he appeared in “Bad Habits,” a two-play evening by Terrence McNally. Benedict has also directed a number of theater productions, including a revival of “Bad Habits” starring Nathan Lane and Kate Nelligan.
After “Christmas Carol” he tells me that he is supposed to do a Pinter play at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then of course he would like to take a holiday to Venice or Rome or Paris. For now, he’s enjoying Princeton. “It’s a terribly pretty town.”
A Christmas Carol, through Sunday, December 24, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. $31 to $49. 609-258-2787.