The Culture

Happy Birthday, Paula Prentiss

Paula Prentiss

You shrink as you get older,” says Paula Prentiss wryly in the book-lined living room of the Beverly Hills home she’s shared with her husband, Richard Benjamin, since 1974. Considering that she’s getting ready to celebrate turning eighty on March 4, it’s no surprise that Prentiss is more diminutive and less limber than the awesomely lanky San Antonio–born screen newbie whose gift for drollery added zest to Where the Boys Are, the original Fort Lauderdale spring-break romp. The movie did come out a couple of weeks before John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural, after all.

For that matter, 1961 was also the year she and Benjamin—together ever since he directed her in a play about Zelda Fitzgerald when both were undergrads in Northwestern University’s theater department—got married. The studio wouldn’t let them travel together on her publicity junkets otherwise, and seldom has a hidebound studio policy led to such an enduring union.

Her height aside, however, it’s uncanny how much this friendly grandmother resembles, well, Paula Prentiss, who just happens to be my favorite actress ever. So I’m hoping she won’t notice that her interviewer’s age has shrunk as well. Every time her smile goes from latent to tentative to giddy, she’s talking to a seventh grader who first became smitten with her while watching He & She, the short-lived CBS sitcom she and Benjamin co-starred in half a century ago.

Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin

Prentiss and Richard Benjamin in London on October 30, 1961.

Ron Case/Keystone/Getty

Only after it was off the air did I catch up on the movies that had kept Prentiss perched on the edge of stardom in the early sixties: opposite Rock Hudson in Howard Hawks’s arch Man’s Favorite Sport?; as a young Navy wife in Otto Preminger’s World War II epic In Harm’s Way; as a ditzy naïf having an a air with Peter Sellers in The World of Henry Orient. I also kept an eye out for her new ones—from Mike Nichols’s legendary misfire Catch-22 and the paranoid thriller The Parallax View to The Stepford Wives—by which time she’d become the kind of actress who reliably livens up a movie with a handful of terrific scenes before exiting the story line. But even those parts kept dwindling, until she virtually vanished from movie screens after 1981’s Buddy Buddy, director Billy Wilder’s final film.

Yet here she is, and as if looking like Paula Prentiss weren’t sorcery enough, she still sounds like her too. That twangy Texas warble was so key to her appeal that MGM didn’t even try to cure her of it after signing 22-year-old Paula Ragusa to a contract in 1960. “I talked just like my mother had,” she tells me. “But they seemed to think it went in one way and came out funny, so that was good! Do you know what I mean?”

“Do you know what I mean?” is her favorite conversational interjection, and I’m too charmed to admit that I’m batting around .500. It’s hard not to be aware that her knack for spontaneous intimacy can be a great substitute for genuine candor, particularly when I’m obliged to bring up potentially painful topics—most obviously the emotional breakdown that may help explain her absence from movie screens between 1965 and 1970, or her troubled relationship with her look-alike younger sister, Ann, who often popped up in sixties sitcoms as a sort of grade B Paula. But it doesn’t cross my mind that she might be tense about this interview until Benjamin ambles in to join us and she instantly grows serene.

She says her childhood was “always happy.” Her father, Thomas J. Ragusa, was teaching social sciences at San Antonio’s University of the Incarnate Word when his older daughter was born, in 1938. Once the family relocated to Houston and she was attending Lamar High, her classmates included future fifties crooner Tommy Sands, something she still sounds thrilled about more than sixty years later. “I used to say, ‘Oh. My. God,’ ” Prentiss breathes at the memory of seeing him in the school’s corridors. “But of course,” she goes on—inaccurately but delightfully—“I was about a foot taller than he was.”

Another infatuation presumably went unconfessed at the time to her very Catholic and Sicilian father. “I always wanted to marry a Jew from New York because I loved Tony Curtis so much,” she remembers. “And when I went to Northwestern, there was my Jew from New York.”

Benjamin’s other credential was being an attractive six two, making him taller than she was. But she was the one who got snapped up by a visiting MGM talent scout and rechristened Paula Prentiss.

Where the Boys Are did well enough that she was paired four more times with co-star Jim Hutton in a string of likably inane comedies. Even though her own taste ran more to Chekhov, Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw, she wasn’t one to fret that her talents were being wasted on flu. “We were getting paid!” she laughs. “It was $125 a week, which was great to me. I don’t really have that nature, I don’t think, where I wish something better was happening.”

Her prospering movie career in L.A. was uneasily counterpointed by Benjamin’s unsuccessful scrambles to get stage work back east. “He wondered what I had, you know?” she says. “It was difficult, because I was meeting people. I’d think, ‘Well, I guess I’m going to have a new life without him.’ But it didn’t turn out like that.”

One reason it didn’t was Benjamin’s 1964 breakthrough under Mike Nichols’s direction in the touring company of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. But what did the most to turn the marriage permanent was his steadfastness after Prentiss, in debauchery-friendly Paris filming What’s New Pussycat?— widely believed to be a send-up of Warren Beatty’s already notorious love life—found herself clambering onto a catwalk and threatening to jump. She was institutionalized for months, first in Paris and then in New York.

Understandably, she’s elliptical about what triggered her psychological crisis. “I was away from Dick, it was a very congenial group of people—to put it lightly!—and it’s just what happened. A bit of a breakdown!” she laughs, then gives up on minimizing it. “I guess there was part of me that wondered, ‘What’s that like, if you go that far?’ And then I knew.”

Ultimately, though, the experience deepened her appreciation of the stability provided by a marriage that neither of them had apparently taken altogether seriously. “There’s always a chance in this business to go running off with someone,” she says. “But where’s your home? You have to be able to go home again. I [realized I] wanted to make that part of my life, as well as all this other stuff, which I didn’t understand, which was way over my head in many ways—which I succumbed to.”

No doubt that explains why, when Prentiss was asked if she wanted to do a TV series after her recovery, she answered, “Yes, but with my husband.” The result was He & She, a genuinely innovative sitcom at a time when spoofs with aggressively zany premises—Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies—still ruled the ratings roost. Viewers weren’t ready for a relaxed and bantering view of a very modern marriage between sexual equals, starring Benjamin as a comics artist and Prentiss as his social-worker spouse (one of the first sitcom wives to have her own career outside of the home). Low ratings induced CBS to pull the plug exactly fifty years ago this month, after only one season. Yet He & She is widely credited as the forerunner to the humanistic, character-driven sitcoms of the seventies that began with The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

What enchanted He & She’s small coven of fans most was the impression that they were watching a facsimile of Prentiss and Benjamin’s actual marriage, something she readily confirms: “It used both of ourselves as we really were.” The show also benefited from their familiarity with each other’s acting quirks, dating back to their undergrad days. “And we had an audience,” Prentiss adds, meaning the studio audience that brought the taping of the series closer to the stage work she and Benjamin liked best.

In their later years, that’s become a family enterprise. They’ve performed with their son, Ross, and daughter, Prentiss, in productions of, among other plays, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Although Prentiss doesn’t say so, this coziness must seem a far cry from the rivalry that appears to have all but unhinged her sister, Ann, who not only followed Paula to Hollywood in the sixties but insisted on calling herself Ann Prentiss to trade on her older sibling’s fame. Estranged by then, the two never reconciled before Ann’s death, in 2010. “I tried,” Prentiss says, “but that wasn’t where she was at in her head.”

Prentiss has never formally retired. But she’s scarcely been seen on movie screens in almost forty years, which doesn’t appear to bother her a bit. She lacks the compulsion to stay visible that keeps so many actors panicking between jobs. “She never had it,” Benjamin says proudly. “Not from day one.”

To my ears, his wife never sounds more truly Texan than when she talks about valuing her identity more than box-office success. “I always kept a close . . . touch for what I really liked,” Prentiss tells me. “It’s very easy to lose it, because sometimes it’s ignored, who you are, so you begin to play other people’s games. I didn’t ever do that. Too big a loss if I had done that. To lose yourself—you don’t want that. That’s too scary.

“Do you know what I mean?”

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Comments

  • Dennis Humphries

    I envy you! I’ve had a crush on Paula Prentiss since I first saw Man’s Favorite Sport when I was 8. In all the years since, the passion has never waned. She’s the tops. I recently bought a copy of The Black Marble, one of her later and very best performances. She was outstanding.
    So glad you made the trip and printed her story. Let me know the next time you go see her. I’m coming too!
    Dennis

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  • Edgar Soberón Torchia

    I might make the trip from Panamá (in Central America) to join you two, lol! Since 1960 I am her #1 admirer as an actress and beautiful woman… at least, in the tropics.

  • Vanessa De Leon

    I recently discovered this great actress. I’m 36 years old and find her work to be timeless and relateable. I love “He and She”! Thank you for writing this, it is a real treat! ❤