The Wanderers: Paul Benjamin

It's been a while since I've done a Wanderers post so for those unaware, it's a feature here at Cinema Styles celebrating actors who aren't generally known to the casual movie-going public (although the last one I did was Robert Forster who's probably as big a name as you'll ever get on this feature but that's the point). So many writers, critics and movie fans in general (myself included) spend an inordinate amount of time celebrating the stars and major character actors who filled the big supporting roles that the journeymen, I call them the wanderers, get overlooked. They're the actors who appear in movie after movie and fill various small roles on television but never become familiar by name to too many people.

Regular readers are probably already well aware that I love celebrating uncelebrated actors, and write about them often, whether it be for this feature, the short list or just a particular actor I want to single out, like Len Cariou.

Well, recently, when thinking about an actor I wanted to write about for The Wanderers, one actor kept popping into my head: Paul Benjamin. Despite most of his roles in movies being small enough to barely qualify as minor supporting, he stands out and when you show him to someone unfamiliar with his name they immediately recognize him, or at least his voice, his marvelous, inimitable voice.

Paul Benjamin first made an impact on me in the late seventies in Don Siegel's Escape from Alcatraz. I can still hear him talking about the "counts" at the prison:

"Sometimes I think that's all this place is. One... long... count. The prisoners count the hours, the bulls count the prisoners and the king bulls count the counts."

It was that voice of his and his undeniable screen presence that stuck with me and years later, he's still the main thing I remember about the movie, despite the participation of Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan and Fred Ward (all very good, of course).

He continued to pop up in movies and on television through the eighties, always a welcome sight, before landing the role most would associate with him forever, the street corner commentator known as ML in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Joined by the late Robin Harris in the middle and Frankie Faison (an easy contender for another Wanderer post) on the right, Benjamin was the philosopher of the group, the de facto leader and brains of the outfit. While Harris and Faison provide the reactions, Benjamin provides the substance they are reacting to, and does so exquisitely, bringing to his statements an underlying tension that is mirrored by other characters throughout the movie.

Here's one of his more famous scenes from the film, which starts here (click for first part) and finishes here (click for second part).

After Do the Right Thing Benjamin found more work on television, playing a recurring character, homeless man Al Ervin, on E.R. and even took time away from his acting to write plays as well. Benjamin continues to work steadily and even if his name is not as well-known as it should be, one thing is certain: Once you've seen him perform, you never forget him. His talent and presence won't allow it.