Last Monday I went back again to the Hollywood DMV office on Cole, this time to get my regular Class C driver’s license. I had flunked the motorcycle driver’s written test for the sixth time three days earlier, and I just couldn’t stand the feeling of failure any longer. I hadn’t felt that badly about myself since I was flunking history and science exams in high school. (I’ll try to get the motorcycle license again after I return from Europe next June.) Anyway I was waiting for my number to be called when a guy who looked a lot like Richard Benjamin walked in. He seemed older than I expected (wanted?) him to look and a wee bit haggard, but it was Benjamin, all right. I checked his Wiki bio and realized he’s now 76.
The last time I had spoken with Benjamin was during a 1982 New York press event for My Favorite Year, which was the first film Benjamin directed and which is still arguably his best ever. During our chat I remember telling him that I liked his performance in Paul Sylbert‘s The Steagle (’71), which was kind of a wipe-out but which had, at the time at least, a certain cult following.
Benjamin walked right in front of me on his way to the DMV bathroom, and on the way back I was seized by a very slight impulse to say “Yo! The Steagle!” but I suppressed it, thank God. A voice told me this wasn’t the right moment. The DMV is not for socializing. It’s for sitting around and filling out forms and feeling grim.
Benjamin had a hot run as a leading actor between ’69 and ’75 — Goodbye, Columbus (’69), Catch-22 (’70), Diary of a Mad Housewife (’70), The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (’71), The Steagle, Portnoy’s Complaint (’72 — the peak), The Last of Sheila (’73), Westworld (’73) and The Sunshine Boys (’75). During this time Benjamin was the proverbial “interesting guy” or more particularly one of the main “Jew Wave” guys along with Dustin Hoffman, Elliot Gould and George Segal before the Italian-Americans moved in. Donald Sutherland was also on a roll back then.