PLAYING A SPECIAL ROLE Larry Drake's portrayal of Benny shatters stereotypes of the retarded


Larry Drake figures he likes baseball for the same reason that H. L. Mencken might: "It's an intelligent game."

And he likes H. L. Mencken because "I think I kind of look like him."

But when he appeared in the stands at Memorial Stadium yesterday wearing an Orioles' cap speckled with souvenir baseball pins, there was no question about who he was:

"Benny! That's Benny!" yelled a woman as she sent her son clambering over the bleachers, program and pen in hand, for an autograph.

Despite his latest appearance in the movie "Darkman" as a thoroughly convincing and completely sadistic bad guy with the nasty habit of cutting people's fingers off with a cigar cutter, or even a vague resemblance to H. L. Mencken, to most people, Larry Drake is "Benny."

That's Benny Stulwicz -- the mentally retarded office messenger on "L.A. Law" -- who has brought some extraordinarily evocative moments to prime-time television in the past few years: Benny grappling with the concept of mortality when his mother dies, Benny falsely accused of rape and unable to understand what it is he supposedly did, Benny meeting his first girlfriend.

After years of playing dinner and regional theaters, the 40-year-old Mr. Drake has won two Emmys and has been thrust into the limelight as an unofficial celebrity spokesman for the mentally retarded. Mr. Drake was in Baltimore over the weekend as keynote speaker for an annual celebration of East Baltimore Resources Inc., a non-profit organization that develops employment opportunities for people with mental retardation.

"When you watch week after week on national television his portrayal of what a person with a mental handicap can do, then the image begins to change," said Mindy Mintz, Baltimore attorney and president of the resource group. "In 'L.A. Law,' Benny doesn't just do a good job, isn't just conscientious, he adds something to the office."

But the idea of being a role model frightens Mr. Drake. "I can't be a role model. I just can't be," he said. "As an actor, what I can do is tell the truth. At least, I hope I can tell the truth, a dramatic truth, but still an honest portrayal."

In his efforts to be honest, Mr. Drake often brings detailed research to his roles. Before playing the part of sadistic Robert Durant in "Darkman," he hung around cigar shops (despite having recently quit smoking) to learn about cigar cutters and cigars.

But he's not a fanatic like some actors. "There's no method I got through. You do what you have to do."

However, when faced with playing Benny as he learns that his mother has died, Mr. Drake turned to Nora Bladerian, a Beverly Hills psychologist specializing in disabilities, for advice. Although at first skeptical about Mr. Drake's sincerity, Ms. Bladerian was won over by his continual questions. "Larry was interested in everything I told him. As much as I could give him, he wanted to know."

Eventually, she invited Mr. Drake to meet one of her clients so that he could learn from him, as well. Between his two coaches he learned that "the retarded have a full emo

tional range -- an emotional range like me. And many have a physical range like me. It was a mental capacity that was limited."

Like Benny, Mr. Drake knows what it is to be stereotyped. As a 6-foot 3-inch, 320-pound actor, he has played more than his share of heavies and bad guys. "They give me a gun and say 'scowl,' " he said. Ironically, he saw the Benny part as a break in a long line of bad guys. Now he is often offered roles similar to Benny. "I don't think they knew what to do with me before, and I don't think they know what to do with me now."

Nonetheless, the role of Benny represents Mr. Drake's big break. "The timing is about right. Characters actors don't usually get noticed until they're about 38 or so," he said. "What I wasn't sure of was, 'Will it ever happen?' " he said.

On the way to success, the University of Oklahoma graduate spent four years acting in Dallas (because "it was cheaper than moving to Los Angeles or to New York.") In 1980, he made his way to Los Angeles, where he lives now, and began acting in regional and dinner theaters as well as getting bit parts in television shows: "Hunter," "Werewolf," "Hardcastle and McCormick."

But what might come after Benny? "Well, Cyrano de Bergerac would be fine. 'Tom' in "The Glass Menagerie would be nice, although rather peculiar casting for me. Claudius in Hamlet -- played as the drunken lout he should be," Mr. Drake said.

Plus, there's always Mencken: The curator of the Mencken House has promised to send Mr. Drake a copy of Paul Shyre's one-man play "An Unpleasant Evening with H. L. Mencken." "When you look like someone, actors, of course, always think, 'Well, could I play him?, " Mr. Drake said grinning.

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