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Paul Benedict, 70; Played Neighbor on 'The Jeffersons'

In this 1977 photo, Sherman Hemsley, left, Paul Benedict and Damon Evans star in "The Jeffersons." Benedict played English neighbor Harry Bentley on the sitcom.
In this 1977 photo, Sherman Hemsley, left, Paul Benedict and Damon Evans star in "The Jeffersons." Benedict played English neighbor Harry Bentley on the sitcom. (Associated Press)

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

Paul Benedict, 70, an American actor who played the British neighbor Harry Bentley on the CBS sitcom "The Jeffersons" in the 1970s and 1980s, was found dead Dec. 1 at his home on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. The cause of death is under investigation.

Mr. Benedict was a classically trained actor who often played comic roles and oddballs, partly as a result of his unusually long face. He had acromegaly, a pituitary condition that causes the growth of bones and bodily extremities.

He played the role of Bentley on "The Jeffersons," a comedy about an African American family that comes into money and moves to New York's Upper East Side. He was on the long-running sitcom from its debut in 1975 until 1981, when his contract expired. Two years later, he returned to the cast and was a reliable comic foil on the show until its final broadcast in 1985.

Mr. Benedict was born in Silver City, N.M., and grew up in Boston in what he described as difficult circumstances. He was the youngest of six children and had a "Dickensian upbringing" as a "sort of ward of the state" after his parents separated.

"We didn't get back together until I was of high school age," he told the Boston Globe in 1992. "So I went through a series of places -- some wonderful, some just horrible."

He originally planned to be a writer but began working at a theater after graduating from Boston's Suffolk University. He was a janitor, box office manager and set builder before he began acting in the 1960s.

He stood out as a young comic actor in the Theatre Company of Boston, where his fellow actors included such future stars as Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino.

"He excelled in mystery, the mystery of the character," Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theater, told the Boston Globe. "He was very good about withholding the obvious. . . . He had that face, those deep-set eyes and enigmatic smile. I would have cast him in anything."

Mr. Benedict had roles in classic theatrical productions before being discovered by television and film. He appeared in more than 30 movies, including "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" (1971), "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972), "The Goodbye Girl" (1977), "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) and "Waiting for Guffman" (1996). In "The Freshman" (1990), he memorably played the pompous Professor Fleeber.

Throughout his career, Mr. Benedict directed for the stage in New York and Los Angeles, most notably the off-Broadway premiere of Terence McNally's "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" in 1987.

He continued to appear in the theater, and in 1995 played two roles in Shakespeare's "Macbeth" in Chapel Hill, N.C.

"I think the trick is to cement in the reality, to make it logical and real to yourself," he said. "Once there's a reality, I think you can make it as crazy as you want it to be."

Survivors include a brother.


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