Benson is alive and talking — about health

Actor/director’s memoir details heart problems

- Scott Bowles

STUDIO CITY, CALIF. Robby Benson lost the stomach for Hollywood around the second time his heart gave out.

In 2000, Benson, then 44, was recovering from his second open-heart surgery when a “doctor to the stars” sat him down, recalls the former teen movie idol and voice-over artist.

“He said he wanted to have a talk with me about recreation­al drugs,” says Benson, 56. “And I thought, ‘You’re talking to the wrong guy here.’ I’d seen so many people throw their lives away for the stuff. I wasn’t doing drugs. I was trying to breathe.”

Benson had been born with a congenital heart valve defect. He ultimately left Los Angeles and moved to Cape Cod, Mass., where he has become an outspoken health advocate. He returned to L.A. recently to promote his new multimedia memoir,

I’m Not Dead . . . Yet!, which chronicles the literal heartache of trying to succeed in a business that not only encourages stars to ignore their health but hide it if it falters.

“This is going to sound cold, but if a director dies halfway through a movie, the studio will just replace the director,” he says. “But if your star dies, you either shut it down or shoot it over. So studios don’t want to hire anyone they perceive as being sick — especially with a heart condition.”

Yet that condition plagues the industry. Oscar nominee Michael Clarke Duncan died this month from a heart attack, and Rosie O’Donnell survived one last month.

Benson’s book is part Hollywood diary, part medical journal; the electronic edition includes pictures and songs related to his surgeries.

“A lot of it is what not to do,” Benson says. “I’m a very stubborn guy and did some stupid things.”

Like keeping up his marathon training and swimming regimen two weeks after surgery. “I kept pushing,” Benson says. “One of the things I hope people get (from the book) is to take the time to let yourself recover. Maybe double the time doctors tell you. You’ve got to keep in mind you just had your chest sawed open.”

In Benson’s case, it has been sawed open four times. His last surgery came in 2010 at the Cleveland Clinic, a leading heart research facility.

Since the operation, Benson says, he feels stronger than he did as a heartthrob anchoring movies including 1978’s Ice Castles, 1981’s The

Chosen and 1983’ s Running Brave. The Chosen would prove a pivotal film for Benson’s career and health. The adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel paired Benson with Rod Steiger. But three days before shooting, Benson says, Steiger had emergency heart surgery. When he returned to the film, he gave Benson advice that would take the young actor years to shake.

“He said that if anything were to happen to my heart, to never let anyone know,” Benson recalls. “It’s career suicide.”

Benson says secrecy nearly became literal suicide. He says he never looked further than his early doctors’ misdiagnos­es, which included advice such as cutting down on stress and candy.

“I was raised old-school in the theater,” says Benson, son of Broadway singer Freda Ann and writer Jerry Segal. “You did eight shows a week. You didn’t miss rehearsal, let alone a show. So I kept it secret.”

Benson told colleagues he was tired or had indigestio­n and confided his health fears only to his wife of 30 years, Karla DeVito.

“She helped me find doctors. She made sure I was getting the best treatment, the right medicine,” he says. “I’m alive because of her.”

Though Benson ultimately left Los Angeles to focus on health, he has reinvented himself in the business. He provided the voice of the Beast in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast and directed dozens of TV shows.

Now, the father of two focuses on speaking up. A staunch advocate of organ donation, Benson says the book’s message is simple.

“Attitude is everything,” he says. “It’s not easy, but you have to remember that every moment is precious. When it comes to your health, you don’t have to keep it secret. And you’re not alone.”

 ?? KARLA DEVITO ?? Robby Benson, who was born with a heart defect, kept his surgeries and fears secret while in Hollywood.
KARLA DEVITO Robby Benson, who was born with a heart defect, kept his surgeries and fears secret while in Hollywood.
 ?? WARNER AMEX ?? Teen idol Benson with Annette O’Toole in 1977’s One on One.
WARNER AMEX Teen idol Benson with Annette O’Toole in 1977’s One on One.
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