Thursday, September 1, 2011

Digging Up Some Dirk

When Star Wars came out in 1977, steamrolling its way to staggering success at the box office (I recall one local theater playing it solidly for well over a year!), it generated countless imitators, both in the movies and on TV. Today's featured hunk rode the wave of that sci-fi trend for a brief while before securing another round of success, only to all but disappear from our screens afterwards. At least it seemed like it! This one could almost be one of those “What Ever Happened to...?” articles, though the man's diehard fans have always known what he's up to. We're talking about Mr. Dirk Benedict.

First, let's go back to March 1st, 1945 in Helena, Montana where a baby called Dirk Niewoehner was born to an accountant mother and a lawyer father. Raised in a tiny town called White Sulphur Springs, as a young boy he took part in all the activities that such a place might suggest such as hunting and fishing. He also emerged as a competent athlete, excelling in particular with running and football (making the All-State team his senior year.) He had also taken up the habit of cigar-smoking at the tender age of ten!

His parents divorce when he was sixteen left a small wound in his heart, but paled in comparison to the gouge that came two years later when his father died (more on that later.) The eighteen year-old went off to school at Whitman College (in Walla Walla, Washington) where he continued to play football, becoming a popular, animated member of the student body. When, on a dare from one of his fellow players, he auditioned for one of the school musicals (Showboat), he was stunned to land the lead role of Gaylord Ravenal and soon was bitten by the acting bug, opting to pursue that line instead of a life in sports.

He changed his major to drama, eventually graduating with a degree in fine arts, and proceeded to study and work with a repertory company in Washington. In 1969, he reported for duty in the U.S. Army during The Vietnam War, but was prevented from serving due to a head injury he'd sustained during his football career. He busily continued working in many theatrical productions, even travelling to Michigan for stage opportunities. One day, over a breakfast dish I need not describe in any further detail, he decided to abandon the unwieldy last name of Niewoehner in lieu of the far more professional-sounding Benedict. Thus, Dirk Benedict was born!

Things finally clicked for him when he went to a New York audition and landed a role as an understudy in the upcoming production of Abelard and Heloise. After a six-week tryout in Los Angeles, the play headed for Broadway, with the young actor performing opposite no less than Keith Michell and Miss Diana Rigg! This opportunity led to the chance for a film role, so he was off to Sweden to film the movie Georgia, Georgia, a story about a black female singer living in Stockholm, Sweden who falls for an American deserter living there. He played the deserter and Diana Sands starred as the title character. It was written by none other than Maya Angelou!

While there, Benedict was given his first glimpse into the world of health food. The beef and venison-eating young man was introduced to healthy options that resonated with him unexpectedly. This approach to diet was ignited further when he returned to the U.S. and was cast in the Broadway play Butterflies Are Free, replacing Keir Dullea. The star of the play was Miss Gloria Swanson, a longtime health food advocate who thought nothing of bringing a small, brown-bagged meal with her to parties and industry functions regardless of the planned menu.

Benedict and Swanson, playing mother and son onstage (with costar Pamela Bellwood having taken over for Blythe Danner as the love interest), became close friends. Before the show was over, he had become a vegetarian and was avoiding chemicals in his food and sugar entirely. This shift in diet would later play an important, even controversial, part in his life. First, though, the young thespian headed to Hawaii to recreate his Butterflies role opposite a new star, Miss Barbara Rush. While there, he made his network television debut with an episode of the popular series Hawaii 5-O.

In it, he played a young man who may have unwittingly given a sexually transmitted disease to a girl he was seeing. This being 1972, it was a daring, unusual subject for a television series to broach. The episode, titled Chain of Events, actually chronicled the passing of the STD to and from several people, quite a dash of spice for the time!

When the father of the infected girl finds out that Benedict might have given her the disease, he and a pal rough the young lad up tremendously (off-screen), resulting in some unintentionally hysterical bruising makeup! Dirk's beautiful face was coated down with enough pink and purple color to make Grimace of McDonaldland jealous! (Of course his perfectly layered hair is scarcely out of place!) Nevertheless, this was a key point in his career and is a perfect illustration of the domino effect of acting jobs.

TV director Bernard Kowalski was attempting to make a leap into feature films, having already helmed Krakatoa: East of Java, Stiletto and Macho Callahan. His next effort was a horror opus called Sssssss, all about a scientist (Strother Martin) who decides to use a human guinea pig as part of his research concerning King Cobra venom. He needed someone to play the young male lead and after he and his wife saw the aforementioned episode of Hawaii 5-O, he had found his man.

Benedict played an insecure college student who is hired as Martin's assistant, meanwhile beginning to fall for his daughter (played by The Sound of Music's Heather Menzies.) Without his knowledge, he is given injections thought to be protective medicine which are actually King Cobra venom, eventually transforming him into a human-sized snake!

With Sssssss freshly in the can, he proceeded to another role in a feature, this time opposite Twiggy, the slender former supermodel who was embarking on an acting career in the wake of 1971's The Boy Friend. He played her explosive ex-boyfriend who may or may not be stalking her in the obscure thriller W.

With a few screen credits under his belt, along with his stage experiences, Benedict now had the confidence necessary to press on as a working actor. He was cast as one of the stars of a weekly TV series, produced by Aaron Spelling, called Chopper One. In it, he and Jim McMullen played helicopter-flying police officers (reporting to their superior Ted Hartley) on the hunt for snipers, burglars and the like. Ultimately, the copter itself emerged as the negligible star of the show and it was cancelled after 13 episodes. He then worked on the TV-movie Journey from Darkness, one of a couple of projects that featured Marc Singer as a blind man (something about those pale blue eyes seemed to make him right for that!)

Just as Benedict was at the threshold of a career in Hollywood and at the age (twenty-eight) when his looks were near their peak, he was dealt a staggering blow, one that sent him packing for home and, perhaps, signalling the end of everything he'd worked toward. In fact, he had to face the fact that he may not be alive at all! Benedict was diagnosed with a tumor on his prostate, believed to be cancerous. He was advised to undergo surgery, but balked, instead turning to his close friend Gloria Swanson and her associate, Michio Kushi, a leading macrobiotic diet specialist, for help.

Through a regimen of strict macrobiotic dieting alternated with fasting, he spent three years concentrating on curing himself. With input and support from Kushi and Swanson, he followed this plan until he had conquered the illness. (Years later, he would write a book about this experience which underwent scrutiny similar to that of Suzanne Somers, who claimed to have taken a similar approach to her battle with breast cancer. I do not affirm or deny the legitimacy of any of this. Just relaying the info!) During his sabbatical in Montana, he turned to writing as a creative outlet and penned two screenplays.

Now healthy again by 1977, he sought to regain a foothold in the ever-fickle show business world of Hollywood. First, he went on tour (in one of the most unlikely combinations imaginable!) in the stage musical Li'l Abner opposite Lucie Arnaz! Next, his old friend from Chopper One Aaron Spelling came to his rescue and gave him a guest role on Charlie's Angels. This was followed by a part in the hooty Spelling telefilm Cruise Into Terror, where he rubbed elbows with John Forsythe, Christopher and Lynda Day George, Hugh O'Brian and Ray Milland, among others. A second guest role on Angels in 1978 cemented his return.

By now we've come to the advent of the Star Wars era, when science-fiction was seeing a resurgence it hadn't enjoyed in many years. TV producer Glen Larson was planning a series about humans in a far-flung corner of space whose home has been obliterated by war and whose survivors are journeying to a planet previously settled by their ancestors, Earth!

For the show, called Battlestar Galactica, he cast Bonanza veteran Lorne Greene as the commander of the title vessel, a gigantic spaceship escorting many other, smaller satellite ships. Richard Hatch (not the guy from Survivor, but a handsome soap actor who'd moved into primetime, ironically enough with three Hawaii 5-O appearances of his own) played Greene's stalwart son. There was also a part based somewhat on Harrison Ford's Han Solo from Star Wars, a dashing, charismatic, sarcastic rogue who would be a good counterpart to Hatch. Larson wanted Dirk Benedict for the part.

Trouble was, the network execs scoffed that Dirk Benedict “wasn't sexy enough!” (I'm right here to tell you as someone who lived through it that he WAS!) Don Johnson was a favorite for the part, but couldn't shake his southern accent enough to please the casting directors. Somehow, cooler heads prevailed and Benedict was given the part. He rose to the occasion, incorporating his beloved cigars into the characterization now and again and was part of the saturation publicity campaign for the project. His own personal inspiration for the part was said to have come from James Garner's Maverick and not Harrison Ford.

In a rare move, the two-hour pilot (at $7 million the most expensive ever produced up to that time) was edited into a feature film (also starring Jane Seymour, who was not to be a series regular) and was released in Sensurround, the final movie ever presented that way. This gave the producers a chance to make back some of that incredible expense as the movie was shown in countries around the world and later in the U.S. as well.

When the pilot aired on American TV in 1978, it was a success (even though it was interrupted on the East Coast by a special news report on the signing of the Camp David Accords by Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat, as witnessed by President Carter.) Teenagers (and adults) eager to absorb as many space-age special effects as they could lapped up the gadgetry, the firepower and the creepy (and campy, to be honest) Cylons, led by villainous John Colicos. Meanwhile, the hunkitude of Hatch and Benedict, offering up contrasting “types,” was appreciated by connoisseurs of such.

In this, the era of Farrah Fawcett's mega-selling, red-swimsuited poster (along with others that depicted bikini-clad Cheryl Tiegs and a busty Lynda Carter), Benedict dove into the action on the distaff side with one of his own, a shirtless picture of him unzipping his already short shorts. He swiftly started making the pages of all the teen magazines of the day, sometimes fully dressed, sometimes (thankfully) barely dressed!

No one who's ever seen it is likely to forget the Battlestar Galactica episode featuring the game Triad, a space basketball type of sport in which two men in red and two men in blue compete against one another. The costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorleac, who was French and a relative of Catherine Deneuve and her sister Francoise Dorleac, concocted jaw-dropping uniforms consisting of a sports bra and Speedo-like panties, fitted out with various padding, a helmet and basically nothing else!

Benedict confessed that Dorleac (who was also later responsible for “designing” Christopher Atkins' abbreviated loin cloth in The Blue Lagoon!) was gay and was interested in making sure that the guys looked sexy and that their packages weren't too skimpy-looking. If only he'd also made sure they didn't look like complete buffoons! Oh, those hip pads. But, oh well... it was a terrific opportunity for the guys to show some skin as they were usually quite buttoned-up and covered up from neck to wrist to toe on the series.

Incidentally, George Lucas did sue the producers for similarities to his own work, Star Wars, but he was countersued by 20th Century Fox (who owned Galactica) for his own possible infringement on products of theirs such as Silent Running (which had included droid-like robots.) Eventually, these suits came to nothing. In any case, Galactica was different enough, thanks to the infusion of certain Morman philosphies from writer/creator Larson.

Not long after the premiere episode, CBS counter-programmed All in the Family and Alice in order to beat it in the ratings and that strategy worked. Galactica wasn't able to win its time slot any longer. Because it was an expensive series to produce, it was given a shorter leash when it came to performance in the ratings. After only twenty-four episodes, the series was canceled.

What ABC didn't expect was that the program had a deeply-invested core group of fans who then staged a massive write-in campaign to have the show reinstated. (Even NBC and CBS recognized the value of the show and made overtures to pick it up for themselves, but this never came to pass.) After cancellation, Dirk took a role in a feature film, believing Battlestar Galactica to be toast, so that when it was decided to reinstate the show, albeit in a retooled format, he wasn't available!

Since Benedict wasn't free to take part in the revamped series (to be called Galactica 1980), Richard Hatch was skeptical of how he would fit into it (nearly all of the supporting players he was familiar with had been written out), so he declined to participate. Thus, when the series came back on the air, set a generation later than the original, confused and annoyed viewers abandoned it to be cancelled again after only ten episodes. Benedict even made a last ditch guest appearance toward the end, but it was too late. Nevertheless, fans of Hatch and Benedict continued to adore them and their rendition of the characters. Hatch never stopped trying to reignite the concept, even after an entirely new approach to the material hit the airwaves without him in 2004.

The feature film that Benedict signed on for in 1979 was Scavenger Hunt, an all-star ensemble film in the vein of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World about an oddball game inventor (played by Vincent Price) who dies and leaves his greedy relatives scrambling for his sizeable estate. The one person who wins the title competition wins everything while the losers get nothing. Other stars in the cast included Richard Benjamin, James Coco, Ruth Gordon, Cloris Leachman, Roddy McDowall, Scatman Crothers, Cleavon Little, Tony Randall and a certain bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger. I must say I like his jeans in this lobby photo.

He then did a pilot movie for an unsold series (thank Jesus) called The Georgia Peaches, all about his moonshine-running character and two sisters (one played by Tanya Tucker) with the last name of Peach who are coerced into working for the right side of the law. It was an obvious rip-off, in a feminine way, of The Dukes of Hazzard. This was followed by the low-budget Ruckus, a veteran-in-turmoil action flick that was a precursor to Sylvester Stallone's First Blood and which costarred a now-grown and no longer bankable Linda Blair. His pretty face was covered for part of the film by a scraggly beard. Underground Aces was a lesser comedy about parking garage attendants that costarred him with Melanie Griffith (prior to her own career resurgence) and Welcome Back, Kotter's Robert Hegyes. That's them enjoying a jacuzzi with some friends in this shot!

Another unsold pilot was the drama Family in Blue, about relatives devoted to police work in which Efrem Zimbalist Jr. played his father. There was also Scruples, a failed pilot for a series based on the successful miniseries that had starred Lindsay Wagner. In this version Shelley Smith had her part while he inherited Barry Bostwick's. These and some guest spots on The Love Boat kept him going until another hit project could make its way to him. One finally did, but almost did not!

Stephen J. Cannell, producer/writer of The Rockford Files and other successful TV shows, was developing a new series about a quartet of ex-soldiers, Vietnam veterans, who band together to work as good guy vigilantes, writing various wrongs around the globe while being hunted for a crime that wasn't their fault. For the pilot, a cast was assembled including former movie star George Peppard, outre bouncer and bodyguard personality Mr. T and lanky Dwight Schultz. The fourth member of the team was played by Tim Dunigan, a young actor with dark feathered hair.

When the show, called The A-Team, was picked up as a series, it was determined that Dunigan was too young to have been a Vietnam vet since he was a sophomore in high school when the war ended! So a new actor was sought to play Templeton Peck, nicknamed “Face” for his attractive mug. Who better than handsome Dirk Benedict to take on the role? He did and the show was a rousing success, especially among boys and young men, containing countless displays of combat, firepower and explosions. The charismatic, (again) cigar-chomping Benedict endeared himself to another raft of fans with his work on the show.

During the course of his tenure on the series, which ran from 1983 to 1987, he met and married actress Toni Hudson, who had guested on The A-Team. They proceeded to have two sons together. (When the couple divorced in 1995, he retained custody of his boys and took them to Montana to be raised in the same environment he'd loved so much as a child.)

After the cancellation of The A-Team, Benedict's workload decreased significantly. He guest-starred on Hotel and the revamped Alfred Hitchcock Presents and starred in a couple of TV-movies (one each with ex-Dynasty actresses Catherine Oxenberg and Emma Samms.) In 1991, he paired up with fellow hunk Ted McGinley and Patsy Kensit to make the straight-to-video film Blue Thunder, about a pilot who feels as if he's had an encounter with UFOs.

After some other TV gigs (like guest shots on Walker, Texas Ranger and the obligatory Murder, She Wrote), he did the family adventure movie Alaska in 1996. A pilot himself in real life, he kept a plane of his own to transport him from Montana where he resided to Los Angeles or other locations where he was working. He chose to raise his sons in a rustic atmosphere (reportedly a 900 square foot log cabin!) away from L.A. and on the same dietary regimen he had adopted long ago.

In 1998, he got the shock of his life when he was approached by a twenty nine year-old man who turned out to be his son! He had no prior clue to the existence of a child born in 1968. The two established a relationship with one another and both were interested to find out that the young man had graduated college with majors in both communications and theatre, the fields of each of his biological parents.

In 2001, he directed one of the screenplays he'd written while treating himself for cancer in the mid-'70s. Cahoots starred Keith Carradine, David Keith, Wendie Malick and his one of his old Galactica costars, Anne Lockhart (daughter of June.)

Having worked only sporadically during the rearing of his boys, interest in him returned when a new version of Battlestar Galactica was aired in 2004. Attending a sci-fi convention in Germany, he was offered a role in a project there. Since that, he has continued to work in lesser-known film projects. More importantly, he has penned two books. One, 2005's Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy, covers his career, illness, lifestyle and other matters in his trademark amusingly brazen style. The other, 2007's And Then We Went Fishing, examines his own experience with fatherhood contrasted with the death of his dad when he was eighteen (revealed to be at the hands of his own brother, by gunshot during a harrowing domestic dispute, and witnessed by him firsthand.) Benedict has gone on record as having said that the only things he is truly proud of in his life are his sons and his first book.

He took part in the 2007 edition of the U.K. Series Celebrity Big Brother, finishing third. The winner that year was Indian actress Shilpa Shetty, who encountered a degree of racism from some of the female housemates, but who Dirk found completely captivating. (The actress, who seems to be a lightning rod for controversy, is the same one who was involved in the Richard Gere debacle during which he kissed her publicly, leading to a firestorm of anger.)

Benedict's lifelong love of cigars (something that seems at great odds with his otherwise healthy lifestyle!) came full circle when he accepted the role of Lieutenant Columbo in a 2010 London production of the stage play Prescription: Murder. The material was the basis for the long-running Peter Falk detective series Columbo. He also made a brief appearance at the tail end of the 2010 movie, The A-Team, one of the countless updates/remakes of old television shows that have clogged movie theaters in recent years. His original part was played this time by Bradley Cooper.

Dirk Benedict rode a rollercoaster of personal and professional ups and downs. He worked through an ugly family tragedy to excel at his chosen craft, then was cut down by the threat of cancer. Coming back to work again, and finding great success, he then found himself the single parent of two children and the unexpected father of a grown man. Through it all, he kept his rogue-ish sense of humor and his optimistic outlook. In The Underworld, of course, he is prized mostly for that cute face and captivating body. Thus, we end this tribute with a few more shots of them!


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