Friday, December 19, 2008

Paul Benedict and Majel Barrett

Two actors I remember fondly from television of my childhood have passed. The first was Paul Benedict, perhaps best remembered as Harry Bentley from The Jeffersons. The second was Majel Barrett, remembered as both Nurse Chapel from Star Trek and the wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

Paul Benedict passed on December 1 at the age of 70.

Benedict was born in Silver City, New Mexico, but grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. He decided he wanted to be an actor after the first time he went to the movies, when he was all of five years old. He attended Suffolk University there and started acting in the Theatre Company of Boston, along with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman.

Benedict made his film debut in 1965 in the movie The Double-Barrelled Detective Story. He would continue with small parts in Cold Turkey, They Might Be Giants, and Jeremiah Johnson. In 1972 he appeared as The Mad Painter on Sesame Street. Although he would only make ten segments for the show, they have been repeated ever since. He also made guest appearances on Harry O and Kojak. It was in 1975 that he was cast as the Jefferson's British neighbour Harry Bentley on The Jeffersons. He played the role for ten years.

Even while playing Bentley, Benedict continued to appear in movies. He appeared in The Goodbye Girl, This is Spinal Tap, The Freshman, The Addams Family, and A Mighty Wind. He would also appear on the shows Seinfeld and The Drew Carey Show. On Broadway he appeared in Bad Habits, Any Given Day, Hughie, and a revival of The Music Man.

Paul Benedict was one of the funniest actors I remember from television in the Seventies. Overly talkative, George Jefferson would often shut the door on him in mid-sentence. He played other roles that were equally funny, often quite different from that of Bentley. He was great as the director in The Goodbye Girl who wanted to portray Richard III in the Shakespeare play of the same name as openly gay. He was also quite funny as the unfortunate desk clerk who must check Spinal Tap into a hotel in This is Spinal Tap Although best known as Harry Bentley, he was one of the best character actors in television of his time.

Majel Barrett Roddenberry died Thursday at the age of 76. She had long been fighting leukaemia.

Majel Barrett Roddenberry was born Majel Leigh Hudec on February 23, 1932 in Columbus, Ohio. As a child she took acting classes. She studied drama at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. She appeared in a number of roles on stage before breaking into television in a small guest shot on the syndicated series Whirlybirds. She made small appearances in various movies, including Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter (in the hair spray ad in the film), As Young as We Are, and The Buccaneer. Her future was in television, however, as she guest starred in The Untouchables, Leave It to Beaver, Pete and Gladys, Cain's Hundred, The Lucy Show, and Bonanza. It was on one of these guest appearances, on The Lieutenant, that she met the man who would be her future employer and her future husband, Gene Roddenberry. The two soon started having an affair.

It was because of her ties to Gene Roddenberry that Majel Barrett was cast in the original Star Trek pilot "The Cage." Barrett played Number One, Captain Christopher Pike's first officer on the starship Enterprise. Unfortunately, the idea of a woman in such a position of authority did not go over well in 1964, and as a result the character of Number One was cut from the show. Majel Barrett would still have a role on Star Trek, but it would be that of the subordinate Nurse Chapel (best known for her love for Mr. Spock) and often as the voice of the ship's computer. While still appearing on Star Trek she would guest star on such shows as Please Don't Eat the Daisies and Here Come the Brides. After Star Trek was cancelled Barrett and Roddenberry married in 1969.

Barrett would go onto appear in the movie Westworld, the television movie Genesis II, the Star Trek animated series (as the voice of Nurse Chapel), The Domino Principle, and the TV movie Spectre. She would continue to be a part of the Star Trek universe, playing Nurse Chapel in Star Trek: the Motion Picture and Star Trek IV; the Voyage Home. On Star Trek: the Next Generation she not only provided the voice of the ship's computer, but played the mother of Deanna Troi, Lwaxana Troi. Lwaxana Troi proved to be a popular character, appearing on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as well. She continued to provide the voice of the computer in Star Trek: Voyager.

Majel Barrett was often not given her due as an actress. This was perhaps largely because of her relationship with Gene Roddenberry and because the role of Nurse Chapel was none too demanding. That having been said, Majel Barrett was actually quite talented. Ambassador Lwaxana Troi was one of the things that made Star Trek: the Next Generation enjoyable. Lwaxana Troi was flamboyant, iconoclastic, and strong willed. She was easily one of my favourite characters on the show. Barrett would display such talents in other appearances as well, such as the housekeeper/witch Lilith in Spectre and as Lady Morella on Babylon 5. Barrett was very good at what she did, and should be remembered for more than playing Nurse Chapel and marrying Gene Roddenberry.


Squirrel said...

I lobed him in Spinal Tap-- but I really loved him as The Sesame street painter. (and sometimes his assistant was Stockard Channing .)

I'm going to paint an S! He was great.

Squirrel said...

I meant loved, not lobed.