Robby Benson began his career at the age of 12, on the Broadway stage, and became a teen heartthrob in the '70s, starring in films such as Ode To Billy Joe, Ice Castles and One on One, which he co-wrote. He was also the voice behind the Beast in the 1991 Disney film, Beauty and the Beast.
But many of Benson's fans may not know that over the past three decades, he's also survived four separate open heart surgeries. He chronicles his journey in his new memoir, I'm Not Dead ... Yet! And as he tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, the title was deliberate. "I have had people come up to me and say, "I haven't seen you for a while, I thought you were dead," Benson says.
On surviving show-business as a child actor
"I was one of the fortunate ones because I grew up in the theater. So there's a huge difference between growing up in the theater or, let's say, growing up on TV, where you're supposed to look cute, memorize some lines, hit a mark and then you get paid thousands and thousands of dollars. And you lose perspective."
On how he hid his heart condition while acting in Hollywood
"My best acting was always in the doctor's office when I would get an insurance check-up. When I was in the room — and I was in the room alone, let's say putting on a gown — I would be doing push-ups and sit-ups so that when they came in it was like, 'Whoa.' They hardly even listened to my heart."
On why he never shared his secret with anyone
"John Marley, Rod Steiger, both of these men would take me aside and we'd have long conversations about this, about that, and it would eventually get very personal and they would tell me that they had heart problems. But they could never say a word about it, and it's a secret. And they said, 'You know, Robby, if by any chance you ever run into this, make sure you never tell anyone. You must keep it a secret because it's career suicide in Hollywood.' "
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. If you opened up a teen magazine, say, anytime between 1975 and 1982, there's a pretty good chance you'd find a large photograph of Robby Benson. You name it, he was in it: "Ice Castle," "The Chosen," "One on One." And then in 1991, he was the voice behind the Beast in the Disney film "Beauty and the Beast." Do you remember the words, by the way, to the Beast?
ROBBY BENSON: No, I don't.
RAZ: I could do your part for you.
BENSON: If you start it, I bet I could...
(Singing) She glanced this way...
BENSON: All right.
(Singing) She glanced this way, I thought I saw, and then we touched you didn't shudder at my paw. No, it can't be na-da-de-de.
RAZ: (Singing) But then she's never looked at me that way before.
There you go. Robby Benson still has it. I spoke to him this week about his new memoir. It's called "I'm Not Dead...Yet!." And why did he pick that title?
BENSON: I have had people come up to me and say, I haven't seen you for a while. I thought you were dead. So...
BENSON: So for me...
RAZ: That's a very nice way to introduce oneself.
BENSON: Well, actually, that's one of the nicer ways. But I just find that to be a funny title.
RAZ: Yeah, because people haven't seen you in film. I mean, you were, at a certain point, easily one of the biggest stars on screen. I mean, you were in everything. And you started out as a child actor. Why do you think you were able to kind of reinvent yourself as a writer and a director and a musician?
BENSON: Right. I was one of the fortunate ones because I grew up in the theater. So, there's a huge difference between growing up in the theater or, let's say, growing up on TV, where you're supposed to look cute, memorize some lines, hit a mark and then you get paid thousands and thousands of dollars. And you lose perspective.
RAZ: Robby, I want to talk about the second meeting of this title to your book, "I'm Not Dead...Yet!" because it's actually about something quite serious, which is your heart condition. You were born with a heart murmur...
RAZ: ...but it really wasn't until your late 20s that you sort of realized something was wrong. What happened?
BENSON: Little by little, I would be working, and I would become symptomatic. And those symptoms for me were shortness of breath, dizziness, some of the same symptoms that you'll always hear when it comes to any problems with your heart. And at the same time, I'd be working with phenomenal actors - John Marley, Rod Steiger. Both of these men would take me aside. And we'd have long conversations about this, about that, and they would eventually get very personal, and they would tell me that they had heart problems. But they could never say a word about it and it's a secret. And they said, you know, Robby, if by any chance you ever run into this, make sure you never tell anyone. You must keep it a secret because it's career suicide in Hollywood.
RAZ: But why would it be a problem?
BENSON: It's a problem because of insurance. When you're an actor, you have to go through the insurance process in order to be insured for a film, especially if you're starring in the film, but - all parts that last more than one day. And the reason is because it's very, very expensive. And this sounds absolutely so cold, but if you're halfway through the movie and something happens to an actor that is predetermined, the insurance company could have known about it and not given you insurance. But you're onscreen and they've already shot half the movie, and now, you cannot continue. That is remarkably expensive for the studio.
And so my best acting was always in the doctor's office when I would get an insurance checkup. When I was in the room, and I was in the room alone putting on, let's say, a gown, I would be doing push-ups and sit-ups so when they came in it was like, whoa. They hardly even listened to my heart, so.
RAZ: So you managed to get away with it each time.
BENSON: I would. And it literally was some of the best acting I've ever done.
RAZ: You were 28 when you had your first open heart surgery.
RAZ: That was the first of four open heart surgeries.
BENSON: The first of four.
RAZ: What about your heart? I mean, do you have to constantly monitor? I mean, is there - I hate to even ask this question, but is there a risk that you could, you know, have a massive heart attack?
BENSON: Well, there's always a risk. And I think that I'm so lucky because they've educated me so well. I do, because of this last surgery, have a mechanical valve, which means that I'm on Coumadin, which is warfarin, which is a blood thinner. So every week, I have to have my INR checked to make sure that my blood levels are in the right place so I don't throw a clot. But that's absolutely nothing. They've given me life.
RAZ: That's Robby Benson, the actor, writer and director. His new memoir is called "I'm Not Dead...Yet!." Robby Benson, thank you so much.
BENSON: Oh, man. Thank you. It's an honor to be on this show. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.