Robby Benson, whose career was derailed a few years ago by a congenital heart problem, comes roaring back -- quite literally -- in Disney's animated "Beauty and the Beast."
The gawky teen star of "The Chosen," "One on One" and a raft of adolescent fantasies seemed an unlikely choice for the tormented voice of Beast. Indeed, in the new picture book "Disney's Art of Animation," studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg admits, "If someone would have mentioned Robby Benson to me [for Beast], I would have laughed at them."
What Mr. Katzenberg and others didn't know is that Mr. Benson, now 35, is, vocally something of a Jekyll and Hyde. His speaking voice is soft, almost adenoidal, but this, he says, is an affectation. He's really a husky bass, and just to prove it to a skeptical reporter he bellows like Beast over the phone.
"Yes, I CAAAAAN!" he roars in a voice uncomfortably like that of the demon in "The Exorcist."
Benson's voice cracked when he was co-starring in "The Rothchilds" on Broadway.
"It was shocking for a 15-year-old to go straight from a tenor to a bass, with no stops in between," he says. "Now I can hit bass notes that aren't even bass notes in opera."
Typecast early on as a headstrong-but-good-hearted teen, Mr. Benson became known as a scrappy, resilient talent who made his own breaks by writing, directing and playing minorities (a Hasidic Jew in "The Chosen," a Chicano in "Walk Proud," an Indian in Disney's "Running Brave").
But in 1984, shortly after running the New York marathon, Mr. Benson underwent open-heart surgery to correct a congenital heart valve deformity.
Two months after the operation, he competed in a 10K run at the respectable time of 44 minutes. But the biggest difference came in how he approached life in general: he told his wife, "We have to get out of Los Angeles, experience new things."
So Mr. Benson, who never attended college, took a job teaching film at the University of South Carolina. While there, he also completed a low-budget ($1.2 million) film called "Modern Love." "It's about a couple that gets married and has a child and all these absurd changes they go through. Look for it in video stores. It has some rocky moments, but it's a good little film."
It was Benson's agent who heard, two years ago, that Disney was stymied in its search for the perfect Beast. He asked if his client was interested in auditioning. No stranger to voice work (he has been doing it since age 10), Benson leaped at the opportunity.
"Interested?! I was delirious. The first time I read Beast's dialogue it jumped out at me. I never perceived it as voice work; I never thought of it as a gimmick thing. It needed to be a well-rounded performance. There's a lot of pent-up anger inside this character."