By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Maybe all you need to know about Benton is this: Paul Newman, Jeff Bridges and Sally Field dialed their own phones to offer kind words and fond memories for this story. The assistant to Newman's publicist, reached by phone two weeks earlier, said that Newman was shooting a movie in Maine and not doing any interviews. A note was faxed explaining this was for a lengthy profile of Robert Benton. Newman's publicist called back within an hour, asking when was the absolute latest his client could be interviewed to make the story. Newman, without warning, phoned two days before the drop-dead date offered. Anything for Benton.
"Benton's a kind and gentle man with the will of a barracuda. Don't kid yourself," Newman begins, with a small laugh. "If he wants something, he doesn't let go of it. He's very deceptive that way--a very, very strong, tough personality. I don't think he had to display that particular gift while we were working. It showed itself in other ways. If you were trying to steal the pig knuckle off his plate or something, you were liable to end up with fork marks in your hand."
--Robert Benton, 2003
On a warm fall afternoon, Robert Benton walks the streets of downtown Dallas and points out the spot of the old Telenews theater on Elm Street, where he remembers seeing Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. He used to walk over to Fitzhugh Avenue, where the long-gone Coronet screened European exotica, such as Marcel Carné's 1945 Children of Paradise, a tragic romance between a mime and an actress. "It's an astounding movie," Benton says, "a picture that wiped me out." On Main Street was the clothing store where his Aunt Rosalie's husband worked. And over at Fair Park, he took art classes at the long-gone museum, where he met kids who would become lifelong friends.
Nearly every story ever written about Benton contains at least one enormous error; the popular Internet Movie Database also has it wrong. He was born in September 1932 not in Waxahachie, but in Oak Cliff, where he lived till he was 13, before moving to University Park. He did not move to Waxahachie till he was in his teens, for reasons, he says, "I don't even begin to understand." His father, who worked for Southwestern Bell, remained behind. Again, Benton doesn't know why, because you did not ask his father such questions.
Benton talks often of his father, in contradictory terms: The old man was dangerous. The old man saved my life. His father, whose family had come from Palestine, Texas, was pulled out of school after the fourth grade, presumably to work for his father, who owned a saloon in Palestine. Benton's father was one of seven children, and the only son who was not gunned down.
One brother, so the story goes, was a traveling salesman having an affair with a young woman in a town near Palestine; he was playing in a domino parlor on a Sunday, and the girl's father came up and shot him. The other brother was a bootlegger in Oklahoma City, where he lived with a common-law wife. One day a man came to the door when Benton's uncle was away and said to the woman living with him, "Is James here?" She said no, and the man asked if she minded if he waited on the porch. When James returned, the man sitting on the porch pulled out a gun, shot him and walked away. "It was a liquor war, I was told," Benton says. For two years, he tried to make a movie about his uncles; Nicole Kidman had agreed to star.
"My father's family were all absolutely crazy," Benton says. "My father and one aunt were the sanest people among them. And my father was an extremely loving man, but he was also disconnected. He just couldn't talk. He was just isolated. I was his best friend. We would go for long car rides, and we wouldn't talk."
When Benton arrived in Waxahachie, he loathed it. Worse, he was dyslexic long before anyone had given it a name. He made it through high school, he says, only because his mother played bridge with his teachers. He got out of Waxahachie as quick as he could and headed to Austin and the University of Texas, arriving there as "the most hapless person you've ever seen." He was determined to reinvent himself like every kid who goes to college a boy and pretends to be a man, and like every boy who tells such stories, his reinvention came about because of a girl.
She smoked Lucky Strikes, so Benton started smoking Lucky Strikes, hoping she'd bum one off him. One afternoon she spoke to him, told him she was from Highland Park and asked where he was from. He was afraid of seeming ordinary, quite literally the boy next door. So he said he was from a little town called Waxahachie, believing there to be more mystery in it. She bit.