Robert Benton and Paul Newman on the set of Twilight

On the Occasion of Robert Benton's 76th Birthday, Paul Newman's Kind Words

Writer-director Robert Benton turns 76 today, a birthday worth noting for two reasons. One, as we documented in the paper version of Unfair Park five years back, the Oak Cliff-born filmmaker possesses an accomplished and acclaimed résumé: co-creator of Esquire's Dubious Achievement Awards; co-author of the Bonnie and Clyde screenplay; Oscar-winner for Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart; director and writer of many other films of note, including 1977's brilliant The Late Show. Benton, who also lived in University Park before being shipped to Waxahachie at 13, is easily the most decorated Dallas-born director.

Benton also directed Paul Newman twice: in 1994's Nobody's Fool, for which Newman was nominated for an Academy Award; and, four years later, in the underrated Twilight. Newman, who died Friday at the age of 83, so adored Benton and his experience making Nobody's Fool that when I profiled the director in 2003, he responded to an interview request with great haste and effusive praise:

"Benton's a kind and gentle man with the will of a barracuda. Don't kid yourself," Newman said, laughing. "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."

Newman would eventually lose the Best Actor Oscar to Tom Hanks in 1995, for Forrest Gump. But he regarded Benton as one of the few directors who got him, and for the experience, he was enormously grateful:

"When Benton is working best and when the actor's working at his peak, it's not that he leaves you alone; it's that he allows you the freedom to experiment and to go into odd places without crippling you before you get the words out of your mouth. The biggest gift I think that he has is when you're in trouble and are kind of lamely holding up your hand for instruction, he knows what to tell ya. Usually the problem with most directors is when you hold your hand up and they got nothing to say, or they have some kind of result-oriented thing: 'Well, look to your left,' or, 'Don't put your face so much into the camera.' That's no help when you're really, desperately trying to figure out why the scene isn't working. Benton would probably give you an active verb, like, 'Crowd her.' Or, 'Measure her.' Or, 'Bait her.' Or, 'It's not important.' You can play those things, or at least I can. I know what he's talking about."

The end result was a film that ranks among the best on both of their mighty filmographies -- and one that has served as the inspiration for a thousand headlines that have appeared since news of Newman's death began circulating Saturday morning. --Robert Wilonsky

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