From the Gridiron to the Stage to the Page
By David Theis
How to define Dirk Benedict ’67, given all the sides to him?
As an actor, he starred on Broadway; made his movie debut in Georgia, Georgia, written by Maya Angelou; and earned fame and fortune on TV in Battlestar Galactica (as Lt. Starbuck) and The A-Team (as Templeton “Faceman” Peck).
Benedict was also a professional musician—trombonist in a Dixieland band he had started in high school.
The Whittie further made a mark as a writer. His first book, Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy, tells stories from his life and career. Most memorably—and controversially—it details how, at age 29, he ignored orthodox Western medicine and embraced a Zen macrobiotic lifestyle to cure himself of prostate cancer, he writes. His second book, And Then We Went Fishing, interweaves two other personal stories: the darkly comedic 43-hour labor that resulted in the birth of his first son and the lasting impact of his father’s early death.
Further evidence of his wide-ranging interests: Benedict played on the Whitman football team, initially as a running back (at which he had excelled in high school), then as a middle linebacker, for three years before injury sidelined him. He majored in music, then switched to dramatic art. Benedict was senior class vice president and junior prom king. He directed the Phi Delts in the annual choral contest. Classmates knew him by his given surname, Niewoehner; prior to signing his first Broadway contract in 1970, “and tired of spelling and pronouncing it, I merely dropped ‘eggs’ from my favorite breakfast item and called myself ‘Benedict,’” he explained.
He’s also a private pilot, cigar aficionado, lifelong outdoorsman and savvy raconteur. Father of three sons and grandfather of two boys, he considers cooking and parenting his—or anyone’s—most creative acts. And no topic proved off-limits in a wide-ranging interview.
Many people know of you because of two very successful TV shows: Battlestar Galactica (1978-79) and The A-Team (1983-87).
I have my acting life, writing life, father dying prematurely life, surviving cancer life, divorce life and raising children as Mr. Mom life. My Hollywood life is the least interesting to me but I understand its appeal to others. More people go through divorce and/or cancer than star in movies or TV, though with reality TV, that’s changing. Soon everyone will be a celebrity.
Battlestar Galactica and The A-Team were so popular because they’re family shows, almost Disneyesque. There are good guys and bad guys. There’s action. And there’s a moral. The guy in the white hat wins, and he’s fighting for the little guy. Plus, The A-Team cast had amazing chemistry. Mr. T, George Peppard, Dwight Schultz and me. It’s like falling in love. You can’t plan it.
I make a lot of personal appearances around the world and they’re great fun. I get the usual questions. Was Mr. T’s gold real? Was I really a ladies’ man like the press claimed? Is my hair real? Did I do my own kissing scenes? I take those questions and turn them into something deeper, more philosophical. By the way, I didn’t do all my own stunts. Including the kissing.
You came to Whitman as a music major and a football player. That’s a paradoxical combination to some. You wound up a dramatic art major.
You might say I’m a man suffering from a multiplicity of half-talents. I was interested in composing. I create at the piano. I can sit down and make up stuff, but I have no idea how I do it. The music thing closed for me. Here’s what happened, and it’s the story of my life. You start music classes with theory, then ear training, then composition. I was a C student in ear training and a B student in theory. When it came to composing, the professor, after reading my piece, asked, “Who wrote this?” He was saying, “How could a guy who didn’t have perfect pitch write this?” I didn’t have perfect pitch. Other students did. But my pieces were more interesting. So where did it come from? I don’t know. All I know is that I hear sounds, hear melodies. If I sit at the piano and play one note, then something starts. If only that were true in my romantic life.
I never aspired to being an actor. Growing up in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, I rarely went to the movies. I grew up without TV until I was about 10, when my father finally bought one. I was only allowed to watch on weekends. During summers, I was out on some ranch working or out fishing or on a date. For all intents and purposes, I did not watch TV. At Whitman, when people asked what my favorite show was, I’d say, “I don’t watch TV,” and that was pretty freaky for all these kids from Los Angeles and Washington. I stumbled into acting as a freshman by auditioning on a dare and somehow won the lead in Show Boat. I thought I was one and done. The following year, Professor Jack Freimann, Harper Joy Theatre director from 1967 to 1992, put me in another play. What was he thinking? But it was wonderful. All those theatre nerds—I loved ’em. It was where I felt the least stress.
Most people who came to Whitman thought it was small. There were, what, 1,500 kids. But I came from a town of 900. There were 100 kids in my entire high school. And Walla Walla was to me a big city. It had streetlights, for crying out loud.
You were also dealing with family tragedy.
When I started college, my dad had been dead four weeks. And there I was, playing football, pledging a fraternity, studying—talk about acting! I started living in a parallel universe.
Higher education didn’t include much campus counseling then. Where did you get emotional support?
From Dr. George Ball, the beloved religion professor whose influence at Whitman spanned more than five decades. I’m one of thousands who went to him for counseling. Dr. Ball was remarkable. He could tell there was something in my life that was weighty. We became close. Most of all, he listened—I had somebody who knew my terrible secret. Eventually, I told my college sweetheart. Poor girl.
At one stretch, I got very far behind in my schoolwork. I went to Dr. Ball. He said, “Just take it one page at a time. Go back to your room, take one book and just read one page at a time.” It worked. It still works. Write a book or a play one sentence at a time. Live one day at a time—better yet, one moment at a time.
Here’s another story about him. I was working in high school in the cemetery where a month later my dad would be buried. It was a beautiful summer day and this car comes driving in. This short guy with a big smile gets out and introduces himself: “I’m Dr. George Ball from Whitman College. I know you’re coming to Whitman this fall and I just wanted to stop by and say how excited we are to have you. You’re going to be a great addition to our football team and I can’t wait to watch you. Please come to my office and say hi when you get there.”
It blew me away. “If that’s Whitman,” I thought, “I can’t wait to get there.”
Dr. Ball created joy wherever he went. Forget movies, books, sculpture; creating joy in people’s lives is the greatest accomplishment. Yet it’s an intangible. You don’t get Nobel Prizes for creating joy, but maybe you should. The Ball Prize for Spreading Joy.
You also revered Freimann.
He saved my Whitman life. If it hadn’t been for the Theatre Department, I never would have graduated. I dropped out January of my senior year. But Jack Freimann—and Rod Alexander ’41, director of Whitman Theatre for some 20 years—came and found me. Jack is a legend amongst any of us who knew him during his 30 years at Whitman. He brought a sense of what it would mean to be a professional in the theatre. All the posters from NYC productions, West End productions, etc.—it was a very professional place, with not only the quality but also the quantity of productions he did. Amazing.
When did you know that you wanted acting as a career?
What else was I going to do? John Deere offered me a job. I grew up driving tractors and could talk tractors all day long. If I hadn’t been an actor, if I hadn’t gone to that Show Boat audition, I would’ve wound up working on ranches. That probably would’ve led to a novel and I would’ve been a writer and played my horn in a band. Who knows? Anyway, after I graduated, I spent two years at the Academy of Dramatic Art at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Then I spent a season at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Richard Gere was there, also beginning his career. At the end, I’d saved $500 and Freimann had given me a letter of introduction to an agent in New York, so I moved there. A great agent, as it turned out. A couple of auditions and bingo, I was in a Broadway play, Abelard and Heloise, in 1970-71, with Diana Rigg. Then I got a lead in my first film, Georgia, Georgia, released in 1972, and became good friends with the screenwriter, Maya Angelou; we talked cooking, writing, philosophy. Then I starred in the Broadway production of Butterflies Are Free with Gloria Swanson in 1972. She and her husband, the author/activist William Duffy, became lifelong friends and introduced me to macrobiotics, whose principles, I believe, not only changed my life but also saved it.
Talk about your relationship with Hollywood.
I’ve always been an original thinker. Maybe not deep, but my ideas are my own. To be creative is to risk, with the possibility of failure. This makes Hollywood nervous. All those MBAs who run studios and networks want to operate show business like McDonald’s—eliminate risk. Everyone wants to eat a certain burger, see a certain film, not because it’s the best, but because it’s the thing to do. Start talking character, story, originality, and you see the look in their eyes: “Get this guy out of the room.” Give them Charlie’s Angels III and they’re happy.
Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy has been in print almost continuously for 30 years.
I wrote it in 1984. I was probably at my height as a celebrity, but 17 top publishers turned the book down. They said that it needed to be rewritten by a “professional.” That it was too anti-modern medicine. “Who does this TV actor from this stupid car-crash show think he is? Claiming to have cured cancer! This should be left to the doctors, the experts!”
Finally, in 1987, it got published. The story of the life of this book could be another book. I’ve done the outline. It’s been murdered, burned, banned. It sold 10,000 copies the first month. Then it disappeared. I called the publisher, and he said, “This happens sometimes. A book starts big and then fades.” Then I got a letter from a doctor asking, “What happened to the book? I give it to my patients, but now I can’t find it.” It turned out that lawyers from the sugar lobby and American Medical Association (AMA) wrote to the publisher, threatening to sue. The publisher got scared and burned the books. Eventually, other publishers came in. But when I would go out to promote it, the AMA would send a doctor and demand equal time. Still blows my mind. I have 400, 500 letters from readers saying, “Thank you, your book saved my life.” Makes the struggle worthwhile.
Had you previously seen yourself as a writer?
My earliest creative urges were to write. My dad was a lawyer. Always with a fountain pen in his pocket. By nature, he was a philosopher and writer. Very witty. I wanted to be like him. When I was 6 or 7, I’d write letters. They were just scribbles, but my dad would put them in an envelope, stuff them into the breast pocket of his suit, and off to work he’d go, pretending to mail them. It made me feel what I’d later recognize as creative. I’ve been a writer, an actor, a musician, a director, a lecturer, a football player. They all made me feel not like I was any of those things but that I was creative.
You returned to Montana to live. Why?
To create a different energy for myself and my children. People in L.A. who knew me were aghast that I’d walk away. I saw it instead as walking toward something. Everyone always assumes an actor once famous wants to always be famous. It never enters people’s minds that someone would walk away, especially to be a single dad and spend 20 years raising children. I knew how to be famous. I wanted to try being a parent.
I live on Flathead Lake. Well, on its shores. Very beautiful. I’ve got bears roaming, deer, turkey, grouse, mountain lions. Lots of wild animals. People, not so much. Life here is quiet. Slow. I’m alone. As opposed to lonely. Here, you take a step back in time. But it’s changing. There’s even talk of a streetlight in the middle of town. Big money is coming—city slickers from Los Angeles, Seattle. That’s OK. Change is good, inevitable. Anyway, might be time for me to create a new beginning somewhere else.
You’ve written that raising children and cooking are the two highest art forms.
I bet my life on it. The preparation of food, cooking, is the most important thing we do each day. It creates the quality of our blood. As your bloodstream goes, so goes your life. That’s real creativity. So is parenting. And all three of my sons cook. They learned by watching and helping. It’s one of the most important things I could have given them. My mom, who cooked three meals a day for who knows how long, turned a healthy 100 in August. My turn to cook for her. Miso soup is one of her favorites.
So you’d characterize yourself how?
That’s easy. I’m the Kamikaze Cowboy. You know, for my age, I’m quite healthy. People call me lucky, as if I did nothing to deserve it. I’ve spent 50 years creating my condition, call it what you will. It’s like when you’re born, you’re this big chunk of granite, and you start whittling. After a lifetime of whittling, you can see it. There it is: There’s your life. You sculpted it. Created it. Of course, I’m still whittling—procreation, creation, recreation, hibernation—the Whittie whittler, wondering what I was born to be.
David Theis has published journalism in Texas Monthly and Houston Press, among other outlets. His books include Literary Houston (Texas Christian University Press, 2011), edited essays, and Rio Ganges (Winedale, 2002), a literary novel.