Houston, Texas. March 2016.
The strangers had come from far and wide to reach the eating establishment in the cowboy town of Houston, Texas. Some had traversed many an arduous mile; others, like tumbleweed (sadly absent from the streets), had rolled into town.
At the door they spoke the name given to them and were ushered through the dimly lit bar to a private back room. The doors rolled shut behind them and they waited, eyeing each other warily as they coveted the pictures of a handsome stranger that lay, along with an Alias Smith and Jones word-search, on the table in the centre of the room.
Like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, the seconds ticked slowly by.
And then a woman appeared. She greeted them with a smile and urged them to choose a seat at the table. The photographs were for them. The strangers…
Sheesh, will you just tell us what happened at the dinner?
But I thought you wanted me to set the scene?
You’re in a restaurant in Houston waiting for Ben…we get it….now just get on with it.
If you insist.
Ben arrived, wearing, as had been subtly requested by the hostess, a blue shirt and tan trousers (pants). He looked relaxed and asked where he should sit. As there were a few spare seats around the table Ben was told ‘Wherever you want’. Ben crawled under a table to stand in the gap in the middle of the tables. He thought he could see everyone from there. We had already considered this possibility when I did a recon visit to the restaurant in the afternoon and with a smile I offered him the use of a swivelling office chair so he could rotate like a lazy Susan. He pondered this.
Nope, maybe not. Tables were moved and Ben was happy. He sat between me and his girlfriend, Becky.
Taking each person in turn Ben went around the table identifying who was who and where they were from.
As drinks and food were ordered Ben was happy to answer questions. He was asked about driving horses in Dr. Quinn Medicine woman, Monty Laird and all he’d taught him. Ben recounted how he would say ‘Petchew ‘when practicing his fast draw and how they would have to reshoot the scene when he forgot and kept doing it on the set as the cameras rolled.
Who had Ben enjoyed working with over the years? Robert Mitchum apparently had a wealth of stories you could listen to all day. Walter Brennan had needed cue-cards on the set to help with his lines. He enjoyed working with Robert Conrad on Battle of the Network Stars. Leslie Neilsen worked briefly on The Winds of War and was a good laugh.
The photographs prompted recollections of Ben’s time working in Yugoslavia in the set of The Dirty Dozen and how some of the young actors would forget that the guns they used expelled rounds that could hit you in the face if you were not careful.
Other photos were of Kid Curry, Will Chisholm and Warren Henry from The Winds of War.
We talked about Ben’s role in Griff and how we could not get the series on DVD. Apparently Lorne Greene was not happy in the role. We discussed the way TV show themes changed from Western to Cop/Detective series to eventually Space.
Did Ben do much stage work over the years? Yes, he had. Which did he prefer? He enjoyed the immediate response and ensemble work of being in a play. Everything took so much time in film or television. Had he ever been in any Shakespeare plays? No.
Ben asked who we would like to have dinner with and why. Ben was obviously everyone’s first choice but others included John Wayne, Michelle Obama, Steven Spielberg and Chris Hadfield the Canadian astronaut. Ben listened intently as people explained the reason behind their choice.
Food arrived but how much people managed to eat and if they even remember what they ate I do not know. There were a lot of nervous people at the dinner to start with but once encouraged to get their cameras out and ask any questions they had longed to everyone seemed to relax.
After the meal Ben moved around the table giving each attendee time with him as he signed one of the photos I had provided with a personal message. Everyone had a photo or two taken with Ben thanks to the expert photography skills of one of the attendees.
When Pete Duel was mentioned Ben told us he felt he was here representing Peter as he could not be there himself.
After an evening of laughter and for many a dream finally come true, it was time to say goodbye. Ben and Becky headed back to their hotel and slowly the attendees went their separate ways. Many had made new friends and all told me they had had a wonderful evening.
Conference Call with Ben, Saturday 13th September 2014
The number was dialled. The ID entered and anticipation hung in the air as the sound of one beep after another heralded the arrival of a listener or speaker to the Conference call. Names were announced into the void and we waited…
Then, before the allotted time, there was Ben happy to chat for a bit before we officially started. He talked in general about his ‘pack of dogs’, tennis and travel. He said he was ‘functional’ on the internet, lived in the hills above Malibu and was in a ‘world of training’ when he was at home. His house was warm because he does not have air-conditioning.
Jane, then got us organised and announced the first caller.
Ben has played a lot of military types in his career and he was asked about working on The Dirty Dozen and JAG.
He said his first role was as a Lieutenant in a film (1000 Plane Raid) and he played the same rank in The Dirty Dozen, so after all those years he hadn’t gone up a rank. He remembered that they were a ‘motley crew’ and one ‘young kid’ on the show was now about 46 and doing well in the series Mad Men (John Slattery). Ben said The Dirty Dozen was shot in Croatia before the break-up of Yugoslavia. He said it was interesting to be there at that time and that the shoot was tough for someone who wanted to be home in California.
Ben said he has always played physical roles, cowboys and military types, because of the way he looks. He said ‘Pete and I would jump on the horses and go lickety-spilt’ but he had become more conservative as he got older. In Yugoslavia they did not have the same constraints as they have in the USA, safety wise. Machine guns would be firing, the young actors were full of enthusiasm and he wanted to get through the day with his life intact!
The next caller remembered Ben from meeting him in 1971 and he commented that we (Ben and his fans) have all been ‘aging together’. He said he did so many events and publicity things back then that he cannot remember individual events. He appreciated the connection with his fans and it was nice to ‘see you when you were young and we’ve made the journey together’. At this point Ben got choked up. He said ‘if Peter were here he’d feel that way too’. Ben said that in the UK there were only one or two channels at the time ASJ was on and the whole family sat around to watch it together. He appreciated how it brings back so many family memories too for his fans.
The question moved to what would Ben do if, heaven forbid, he couldn’t play tennis again? Ben said ‘I’d read.’ His interests vary from ‘science, history to whatever goes on in the world’
Ben was next asked if he actually drove the horses in Dr Quinn when they were in a buckboard or buggy. Yes, he did. He had one of his ‘proudest moments on Dr Quinn’ when they were shooting a buckboard shot. He said that driving the horses was not that tough because the horses are well trained. ‘Usually the actor does the driving unless it’s a far away shot’ in which case someone else may do it to save time. He said Dr Quinn was ‘filmed near my home in Malibu and there was a scene where I had to drive the buckboard around a curve, talk to Jane’ (Seymour) and then pull out with the buckboard. It was 5 minutes before sunset so there was no time for rehearsal. He drove the buckboard, stopped, talked to Jane ‘yadda yadda’ and ‘we got it in one take and the entire crew clapped’.
The next caller commented that she watched ASJ in the evening to help her relax and she would often fall asleep to the programme. Ben said ‘I have that effect on people’.
The conversation moved on to Ben’s tennis. He follows the tour of the major tournaments in the over 70s age group around the United States. He was asked how he first came to play tennis. Ben said a young actor invited him to do a celebrity tennis tournament Desi Arnaz Jr was organising. Ben said he was ‘so bad, embarrassed and humiliated’ that he went out and started practicing. He got lessons and ‘spent 20 years playing the tournaments’. He got to be one of the best actor-tennis players. However, when he got out in the real world of tennis they killed him. Embarrassment made him want to overcome it. In the process he became a better and better player and got to be in the top 8-20 players in the over 70s age group. Ben said that he is in ‘constant training and I’m lucky’ because he has not always lived the most healthy life and it is a blessing that he can go out and play now.
The next question: Would Ben act again?
Ben said he was ‘definitely not acting anymore and can’t conceive any possibility where I would.’
‘Alias Smith and Jones’ has recently been re-run on television in the United Kingdom and has gained a lot of new fans. It had been introduced as the iconic western of the 1970s. What did Ben think about that?
Ben said he didn’t have a great emotional connection to the past. He is always ‘forward thinking to my tennis’ but he loves the connection to his fans and their enjoyment of the show. He said ‘it’s your joy I feel, rather than me reconnecting to it ‘cos it’s something I did.’ He likes that the fans ‘inner children’ are all laughing and having a good time. Grown men have even hugged him as they reminisced about their childhood as it brought those memories back. Ben ‘appreciates’ the connection and ‘honours your connection to the show’.
Would Ben get to the United Kingdom in the future?
He has no plans to. He finds it hard to travel ‘in my old age’. He says it is ‘hard to get me to the highway. I’d stay here (his house) for a week if I didn’t have a work-out to go to.’ He does however, want to ‘take a river trip down the Rhine, to sit on the ship and watch it leisurely go by.’
As Ben had said he was reclusive by nature the next question was why did he do the autograph shows and fan events?
‘Ten or twelve years ago someone suggested I do an autograph show and I met fans and began to sense their joy….and connected with that.’ He has done a series of dinners and now considers many of the fans he met his personal friends. He thinks of them as his family. ‘Most of my friends now are fans I’ve met in the last 10 years.’ He said he is not ‘someone by nature who likes to be on the stage in front of people’ (and he recognised the irony of that) due to his shyness but meeting fans has opened up his life and let him know that his acting had ‘some merit’ and that it is important to people, makes them smile and feel good and that makes him feel worthwhile.
Ben cannot respond to emails/letters from fans. He receives too many things to be able to respond. He said he is ‘Happy being a tennis player’ and asks ‘for your forgiveness upfront...I have a life to live. I may never get to it (fan letters)...it just piles up…I don’t toss it, so one day...you never know…’
Ben says meeting fans at dinners is like ‘seeing distant relatives’.
Speaking of relatives Ben has relatives in Arkansas and New York State.
Ben then thanked Jane for organising the dinners and the phone calls. It is her we have to thank for these connections as he wouldn’t be doing it on his own. He reiterated that it is ‘her personal endeavour which over the years she’s kept going’.
I am sure everyone out there will second his thanks to Jane.
Ben was also happy to do more dinners with fans but asks that they contact Jane on the website to get things organised before making plans.
Asked about his admitted lack of confidence Ben said ‘I did a lot of seminars at different stages of my life searching for meaning and what’s it all about, how to be more positive’ and admitted that it helped. ‘My life revolves around the goals I want to reach.’
Ben was then asked about his dogs.
Corgi was found on the streets of South Los Angeles when he was filming about 10 years ago. She was the ‘funniest dog I’d ever seen, tiny legs, long body’. She ‘hung around the set and people fed it’…’all the kids on the show lived in apartments and it came home with me’. She had no identification and has turned into a beautiful dog…with a pit-bull’s head on a golden retriever’s body with short legs.
Schnapps was from a rescue centre and is now 15 years old. Ben said they were ‘in total sync’…each needing to ‘get up to take a leak after 5 hours’. If Ben slept through it, Schnapps would clink the blinds against the window…gotta take Schnapps out.
The conversation moved on before Ben could say anything about his other dog Missy.
Ben told of his trip to New Zealand back in the mid-1970s. He took part in a telethon in Auckland. He thought the country was ‘gorgeous’ and the people ‘very hospitable’ and they made him feel ‘right at home’.
Although the call was scheduled to be only 1 hour and Jane explained that they should stop then as she was concerned about people’s cell phone bills and didn’t want anyone to be disappointed that they had to leave and would miss anything…Ben talked on for another 30 minutes.
I am sure everyone would like to thank Jane for setting up the call and Ben for being such a good sport, taking time to reminisce with us and to give us an insight into his life.
And just to reiterate...
Ben has said he is happy to do more dinners with fans but asks that you contact Jane on the website to get things organised.
From a personal viewpoint I would ask that no one turns up uninvited to his tennis matches. You will all have heard/read how important Ben’s tennis is to him and we would not want anyone to inadvertently cause a problem at one of the clubs, most of which are private members only venues, which might lead to the end of such wonderful gatherings.
In no way am I speaking for Ben on that but I think it needs to be said.