By Anne B. Johnston
Along the palm tree-lined streets of Beverly Hills is an unassuming brick house with an American flag. Richard Benjamin (Goodbye Columbus; Catch 22; My Favorite Year; The Money Pit; Mermaids) and Paula Prentiss (The Stepford Wives; What’s New Pussycat; Where the Boys Are) have lived there for the last forty years and worked as actors for more than fifty.
In the entertainment business, tabloid headlines eternally read, “Another Celebrity Blows their Money.” But what if that wasn’t the story? In my conversation with Richard Benjamin we talk money and staying power in a notoriously unpredictable business. And who better than Richard to lay some financial sense on us, a man whose career decisions over the last half-century have earned him the flexibility to work on what he wants, all while keeping his iconic sense of humor intact.
You’ve worked in Hollywood for over fifty years! Tell me a bit about what you’ve learned and how that plays into handling personal finances.
Woody Allen had a line in his comedy act, “Last night I had a dream where the letters N-O were chasing me.” The industry is essentially a gamble. People do it, stick with it, because they have to. Even knowing the odds. Some people quit because they can’t take the rejection. Other people pound the streets. The question becomes: If I give this up will I regret it forever? If so, if it’s what you have to do, you’ve got to stay there. On the other hand am I being sensible by moving on to stop living hand to mouth?
From a money perspective, strike while the iron is hot. Get as much money and security as you can because the business is a moving target. This security gives you a shot at writing, acting, directing what you want; to take on the projects you want.
So the answer is to be authentic and true to yourself, but you’ve got to make a living.
What are the barriers to saving?
There’s a human nature element. Many actors or writers have been waiting tables, working odd jobs, at McDonalds–then they get a hit–and all of the sudden they get an agent, a manager, a publicist. They need a Porsche, and a house! Then they enter into a rarefied world, and they start to feel a part of that where the people look beautiful–but they really may be two seconds away from bankruptcy if they don’t sell that next script, land that next part. They start to think that this will never end, because of how hard it’s been to get there.
Then there’s the anxiety when they do splurge–if they give away the “screw you money.” Then you’re in danger of entering the “hack” category, which is then difficult to escape. Think of it this way–you are your own stock. When you make bad decisions, the stock goes down. Instead–at the time when you make money, take a breath.
You said that you’ve got to be true to yourself and you’ve got to make a living. How do you reconcile those two?
I remember a story about Rex Harrison. He made some terrible movie. Someone asked “Why did you make that movie?” and he said, “The house in Portofino!” Sometimes you have to go do it. Baby needs shoes.
But like I said you’ve got to be careful with it because you are your own stock. If you do enough of those your stock goes down and you don’t get even to do those. Our agent Phil Gersh who passed away said, “Just try and do good things,” and that somehow works.
What have been the best decisions you made in your career?
Marrying Paula. There’s a narcotic in this business when a “hit” comes that makes the endorphins soar. That’s when the spouse may come in, celebrate, and add another perspective. The partner/spouse is the first person you may turn to for advice. They may come at things from a different place: sometimes they see another dimension; they can be a great sounding board.
Growing up, was there anyone you looked to as a model of success?
My uncle. He looked very successful. He had these stores up in Buffalo and he was expanding and I thought, “Why can’t we do that? Why isn’t my Dad doing that?” And it all looked great…And then it all collapsed. I remember my Dad saying, “They’re moving too fast they’re expanding too fast.”
Do you remember being worried about money growing up?
Oh yeah. Mostly. When my parents weren’t able to pay my tuition. And I got taken into the finance office at Northwestern and they said you can’t come back next quarter unless this is paid. So I had to drop out of school to go to work in New York and get the money to pay the last quarters or they wouldn’t let me back.
And I remember a weird thing about the finance officer who didn’t seem like a good person to me…He said, “You know if anything happens to me, we have a record of this.” And I thought, “Does he think I’m going to kill him?”
So it was always a factor growing up?
How did that play into later in life?
You mean like now, for example? (Laughs) Forever. Forever! I mean I have Consumer Reports. I have coupons. I look for sales. And it works! I know there are people who wouldn’t think about it. I’ve also wasted a lot of time…One time we were in New York looking at I don’t know what a coffee maker or something. And I went with Paula to one discount store and I said, “I don’t know. I’ve got to go across town.” There was no Internet, “I’ve got to see what the price is there.” And she said, “But we have this in our hand now. Can we just get this and go home?” I said, “Nope. We cannot do that. No.” And she said, “Well, I want to go home.” I said, “Well you go home and I’ll meet you at home.” So I go to two other places all the way across town and discover it’s four dollars more. Aha! I’m going back to the other place to get it. It’s a waste of most of the day. But I got it at the best price! You know? And in a weird way it makes me very happy….but there’s also a big part of the day that’s just…it’s an achievement that nobody knows about or would care about except me. I’ve beaten parking tickets and all kinds of things taking most of the day.
But to this day to buy something at retail cost makes me ill. I can’t do it. Because my dad always knew a guy who knew a guy. “Go to the diamond exchange and see Murray. Murray knows Saul and Saul’s got you covered.”
Because it’s hard to get out of…You know because a part of you is still back there. You know? You are ruled by that stuff in the past. You are.
How do you think upbringing is related to saving and spending?
Often when someone has come from a background of struggle it goes two ways: They remember the struggle and are therefore frugal, or they remember the struggle and want to distance themselves from it by spending, now.
When you hear people say, “I’ve made it and it will be like this forever,” is there anything you could say to someone to potentially save them a lifetime of pain? Is there anything an advisor could say?
When we were looking for a house forty years ago I asked Henry Bamberger (our business manager), “What can we afford at this moment?” Even though we didn’t know what the future was going to be, especially in what we were doing. And he told us about what we could afford because the mortgage would be this. And these real estate agents were showing us these houses. And I was like, “No!” And there’s an example because maybe we could have gotten one of those houses…but even so caution was important. It was who I was. Who I am. I can’t do it.
I’m really good at buying cars. I know the invoice price. I know what they’re doing. I know that from Consumer Reports and other places, that volume is all they care about. You think they’re only selling you a car. All they care about is how many cars they sold that day. Because they get incentives back from the manufacturer depending on volume. If they don’t give you what you want, you just walk out the door. That’s the one thing they don’t want. I mean I know all the talk. I know the seduction of it. I mean it’s a car and they’re everywhere. And you’ll be that one person where they just don’t make that much money. And I like it. I make a U-turn and go right out of there. And I’ve gone with friends of ours I won’t say who but it’s a name you would recognize and he’s just completely embarrassed. He says “Let’s just get it.” I say “You’re not doing that.” He says “I want to get outa here.” I said, “Nope. We’re not doing that. You asked me to come here. And we’re not doing that.” And you watch this salesperson get totally worn down. “Well let me talk to the manager, and we’ll see about what he can do.” So he takes his fake trip to the manager’s office, but all they’re doing in there is having a cigarette. They’re not really doing anything.
Why do you think so many people are ashamed or don’t like to talk about their finances? Money is still a taboo subject. I think it’s fascinating…
Yes! Isn’t it? It’s the one thing Americans getting together on a cruise or anywhere don’t talk about is “how much money do you make?” That’s the one taboo question with Americans and maybe it’s related to thinking that’s what you’re worth. Money measures. I mean it does in everything. “Where do you live?” “What kind of car do you drive?” So it’s crazy, but I think there’s that measurement. And then you see someone like Warren Buffett who lives in the same house in Nebraska or wherever the hell he lives: his son runs an environmental farm. Warren Buffett is one of the richest men in the world, but his suit comes from Macy’s or somewhere because that’s who he is.
Looking back, what advice do you wish someone would have given you about your finances after becoming successful?
Take a breath. Get some advisors.
Creatives, these are people who are dreaming of what could be, but they have to focus on the practical finance so that they can dream. Planners are here to give you that freedom and that space–to give you the stability and longevity you need to stick around so that you can be the dreamers and visionaries the world needs.
Creative people live in two worlds–one practical, one impractical–and the two worlds are not compatible. The advice is to surround yourself with good people with their feet on the ground and let them advise you. This does not mean to lose sight of your vision or to listen to the critics–without visionaries it would be a lackluster world. The advice is that we need the visionary and the pragmatic person as partners. Look at Walt Disney and his brother, Roy Disney.
What have been the instances where each of your advisors have been the biggest help?
Our late business manager, Henry, told us, “My job is not to make you money, but to keep the money you have.”
When we were buying a house, Henry said, “Don’t get an odd house. Get a normal house because that’s the kind of house you can resell.” And as we got more money, we started to diversify into things like stocks, but first Treasuries. Very conservative.
More importantly, our advisors helped us not to make poor investment decisions: One time I wanted to buy Koo Koo Roo stock because I thought the flamed chicken was so good. Oh, a gentleman on a trip we took on the old Queen Elizabeth said, “Buy Disney stock, it will always go up because Disney appeals to children.” Made sense to me, but turns out there is much more to it than that–overhead, distribution costs and expansion into other areas. You only see part of the picture. The creative needs someone to say, “What are the other factors here?”
Or when I’d say, “This stock just keeps going up. Let’s buy more.” My advisors would say,
“Well let me tell you the story of another stock that went up and up–Enron.” Clients deal emotionally. It’s the advisor’s job to give another perspective.
Have there been times when you’ve experienced bad advice, or dishonest or unstable advisors?
We’ve all heard stories about money being stolen by business or money managers,
CPAs. What’s important is to look into their personal background and spend time to get a sense of their character. Use credentials, and referrals when in doubt. We had friends involved with nefarious types, you know who they are, who were wiped out. Suddenly their names are all over the news because these guys committed fraud. We feel very lucky to have found the right advisors.
Is there anything you think those people could have done differently?
Yes! I mean I don’t know their personal situations but it looked to me like they got kind of, what’s the word, bamboozled. Everything was very glamorous. It all looked like it was never going to stop and promises were made. And that’s the difference. Some just pull the wool over people’s eyes about what they’re going to do for them: “Don’t worry about it,” “I’ll handle it,” “You don’t have to worry about a thing,” “Trust me.”
“Trust me.” That’s a good one.
When you were young it was your uncle but when you think of “successful” these days, who comes to mind?
Paula’s one of the most successful people I know. She really is. She is successful in her own skin, do you know? And she has never judged anybody other than who they are, not for what they have or where they live or anything. Just reading who that person is. She’s always been like that. She doesn’t have any envy or jealousy or anything. We’ll have to study Paula…like an experiment.
Wow. That’s very cool. You married the most successful person you know.
That’s true. That’s absolutely true. You know her, family and children and grandchildren, to her, that’s riches. It is to me too. But she’s not ambitious or driven.
What do you mean by that?
She wouldn’t do something just for the sake of doing it. In fact she can’t. Say “Hey, there’s a lot of money involved.” I mean she might entertain it but it has to have some meaning to her. It has to have some life meaning to her.
And I’ve gotten a lot of that from her because I could just–“why is this guy getting all these jobs? How come that one is such a big hit? And blah blah blah.” And so I’ve learned from her. And fortunately our kids have gotten her thing and not mine. But I mean you have to have ambition in this business you have to want to do well and succeed. You have to. But hopefully for the right reasons.
Looking back, what is the best investment you’ve ever made?
I think overall, looking back, it all comes back to us staying together. Which, you know, there were strains at various times in our lives but holding in there probably was the wisest thing we did. We’ve seen a lot of divorce, a lot of, you know marriages, and what it does to the kids and stuff like that. We’ve seen a lot of stuff. So I mean not to stay in something that is horrible. I mean it was never anything like that but you know, just, it’s too easy to get out. You know? “I–I’m outa here. That’s it!” Well wait a minute…and then something else happens in that long period that takes over and good things come from it. Cause there are a lot of temptations in this business. You can get your head turned pretty easy.”
So how did you manage to make this work when so many people have a hard time doing it?
Fortunately, one was always sensible while the other one went crazy. One went crazy the other one was sensible. The other one went crazy the other was sensible. I think that’s how that worked because there was equal craziness.
We feel pretty lucky, you know.
If there was one thing that you learned from other people or from yourself that might prevent foolish decisions, what might that be?
Well, maybe I am to a fault with this but I like to discuss these things forever–with Paula until she finally can’t stand it anymore, then discuss it with my son who is very logical until he can’t stand it anymore, then I don’t have anyone to talk to. “I don’t know. Should
I do this? And what about that?” But you see here’s the little crazy secret: I never have a discussion if I know that’s what I want to do. If it feels exactly right to me. I never have the discussion. Because I wouldn’t want anyone to, and they wouldn’t anyway, dissuade me. It’s when I am not sure; an indication that I should take a beat. So that right there is a message to yourself. “We need to ask somebody about this.” You know?
“We?” Ha ha!
Yes! The person who lives in here.
Do you have any regrets?
I used to do a lot of that but that was like me punishing myself in idle times. You know when there was nothing else going on, “I think we’ll just do some self-punishment here. Oh I should have taken that job” or “Gee that apartment was nice why did we not take that one?” Or “If I had taken that job, maybe it woulda led to that job” and then “So and so got that job.” And then you think, “Did someone make a phone call to you to tell you to start thinking this way?”
I heard someone say once, “OK you can do that. But why don’t you give yourself a time limit? Because it’s like work for you. So do this work for a half hour and then you’re done.”
I like the idea of putting a time limit on it. I think we all drift there sometimes.
Here’s the thing: It always goes away when we go into action. As soon as you go into action it goes away. Because you can’t have two thoughts at the same time. You can have them close together, but you can’t have them at the same time. So you’re thinking “Oh I shoulda, woulda…” And the next thing you know you’ve got a flat tire and you have to fix it. So no more regrets just tire changing. Get the jack outta the car…
What’s most exciting to you now in your career?
Nothing has changed. The excitement is still the same. Still looking for quality. When you haven’t worked in a while and you see an opportunity that comes up, you want to take it because you want to work, but you just can’t. Got to pick the right projects.
The work of an artist is never done. There’s no destination.