New York Times
November 27, 1981
the Movies: An Actor Turns Into a Director
By Chris Chase
RICHARD BENJAMIN is a happy man. The
actor is directing his first feature film, called ''My Favorite Year,'' and he's
never had a better time. Richard Benjamin is also a man who is all keyed
up. He says even sleep doesn't do him any good, ''because I dream about
''My Favorite Year'' concerns a live
television show called ''Comedy Cavalcade'' in the year 1954 (if ''Comedy
Cavalcade'' reminds you of the old ''Your Show of Shows,'' it won't be
surprising) with Joseph Bologna playing the top banana, or Sid Caesar part, and
Mark Linn Baker as a young writer.
The producer Michael Gruskoff, who had the
idea for the project, says the character assigned to Mr. Baker, a young,
Yale-trained stage actor, is ''a combination of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen at
the age of 22, standing smack in the middle of television's most exciting
Before he was hired, Mr. Baker endured
three and a half months of anxiety. ''I met Richard,'' he says. ''I
met Michael. I met everyone who worked for M-G-M on the East Coast, and
everyone who worked for M-G-M on the West Coast. I did the screen
test. I even thought of inventing an obscure rule, and then invoking
it. The rule would be that, after you meet 30 people, they have to give
you some part.''
Work on ''My Favorite Year'' began in New
York in September. The company shot in Central Park, in Shubert Alley, in
front of Radio City Music Hall, in front of St. Bartholomew's Church, in front
of the Waldorf Towers. Then they went back to Stage 30, at M-G-M in
Hollywood, and created NBC. They built Studio 6B right over the tank where
Esther Williams used to do her trout act. ''You might as well create that
studio in Hollywood as in New York,'' says Mr. Benjamin. ''We had to build
it anyway. In terms of 1954, it doesn't exist anymore.''
Himself a transplanted New Yorker, Mr.
Benjamin worked at NBC as a page, while he was trying to get his first acting
jobs. (''I remember making rounds,'' he says. ''After I'd leave a
casting office, I'd stand outside the door, and hear a click; it was the sound
of my picture being thrown into the wastebasket.'')
For his maiden effort as a director, Mr.
Benjamin has imported a lot of talent from the big city. Not just Mr.
Baker, but Tony Di Benedetto, Anne De Salvo, Bill Macy and Adolph Green.
Mr. Green, who plays the producer of ''Comedy Cavalcade,'' finds it strange to
be back at M-G-M where he and Betty Comden worked on musicals like ''Singin' in
the Rain.'' ''We wrote nine movies here,'' he says. ''I used to know every
inch of this lot. This was our home.''
Jessica Harper is the film's leading lady,
and Peter O'Toole stars as a swashbuckling, hard-drinking movie star signed to
make a guest appearance on ''Comedy Cavalcade.'' The question then
becomes, can they keep him off the sauce long enough to get him on the tube?
On a recent morning, Stage 30 was aquiver
with activity. Actors huddled in small groups, running lines. Miss
Harper, dressed in baggy jeans and an old linen jacket, her hair in rollers,
waited patiently to be called and watched a scene that involved a tall young
woman wearing a cigarette box covering her head and trunk, so that only her legs
showed, and a short young woman wearing a matchbox covering her head and trunk,
so that only her legs showed.
Mr. Benjamin was smiling. He said the
trick was to hire terrific actors, and then listen to everything they
suggested. ''When an actor says, 'Suppose we try this or that,' '' said
Mr. Benjamin, ''it can be absolute gold.''