You can see he was a dancer. Only a dancer could make the pratfalls look so good.
In "La Cage aux Folles," Benny Luke plays the gay butler to a homosexual couple who are putting on a straight party for straight people. He looks pretty good in a dinner jacket (instead of his usual hotpants), but he hates to wear shoes, and he hobbles about in his black pumps as though they were spike-heeled.
Finally, he falls flat on his face with a horredous shriek. The guests gape, aghast. The hosts bury their faces in their napkins.
Luke has quit dancing now. He is 40, though he looks 30, and he wants to get into films or plays. Later this year, he will appear in a sequel to "La Cage," the highest-grossing foreign film in the United States, at $4 million after 40 weeks on Varety's chart.
"I'm homesick," he said on a recent quick visit here. "I want to get back to the states. All my family still lives in Los Angeles and Oakland, and I usually come back every year to see them, but I'm really tired of Paris."
It's as though he was marooned in France. It's just that he has spent most of his working life there and wants to make contacts in this country so he can switch his base of operation. On his trip he was stopped at Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington, Atlanta, San Juan and Haiti. Most of these Eastern cities he had never seen, except New York, but nevertheless he says the prospects are good.
He expects his exposure to be better after the sequel comes out. He plans to move to Los Angeles then.
"For a black actor in Paris," he says, "there's nothing much but the exotic or the erotic."
He has been living there since 1963, when he was one of six dancers to pass a special Los Angeles audition for the Lido. He has danced at many famed Paris cabarets, including the Folies Bergeres.
And he danced with Josephine Baker, in her last show at Monte Carlo. "It was history. It was dancing with a legend. But I didn't go on to Paris with the show because I was still doing the stage version of 'La Cage.'"
He played the headlong butler seven years before going on to do the screen version. The sequel planned by author Jean Poiret is a spy comedy. Poiret played the lead in the play, the part was taken by Ugo Tognazzi in the film. Michel Serrault was the outrageous Zaza in both versions.
Moving to Paris with only his high school French, Luke picked up the language the hard way, some say the only way, by having to speak it all the time. He speaks flawless French today.
Branching out from the Lido show, he appeared on TV dance shows both in France and Germany, helped to chorograph the German production of "Jesus Christ, Superstar," and toured West Germany for some time in a production of "Double Exposure."
'I was in Germany, and I had a week off, and I got a chance to do this television dance show," he said, "It wasn't anything big, but it paid well. Anyway, I was wearing a wig (a rather extreme afro), and the director of 'La Cage' saw me and gave me an audition."
He settled in for his 2,500 performances in the stage farce -- with wig. He and Serrault were the only cast members chosen to repeat their roles on film.
Some people prefer the stage version , he observed. It is somewhat tighter than the film, which does sprawl a bit. Pioret wrote it after seeing the British play "Staircase," about two middle-aged homosexuals. Probably the play's warmth and the gentleness of its humor derive from the fact that it was written from within, from the gay point of view.
The play is still running in Paris.
Luke was disillusioned with the folklore that blacks are treated better in France than anywhere.
"Black people are invisible in France,' he said quietly. "There are hardly any roles for black actors. I'm about the only American black actor working there. Of course, there is the language problem there, but it's true of non-Americans too. You don't even see many French-speaking blacks from, say, Guadeloupe or Martinique, on the stage except in the occasional folkloric dance number."
There are also some black mannequins or models.
"You don't have the problems as a person, but you just can't get work over there."
At the moment he is tired of the French personality, the posturing intellectuals, the chauvinists, and the jealous theater professionals. "I'll never be French," he said. "I'll never understand 'em."
If he could get an acting job in this country, he would return like a shot. But he has to stay where he is known.
He loves comedy. Playing the same role for seven years, he got so he hated to leave the apartment in the morning, but once he was back in his dressing fooling around with his makeup, he was happy again. Every night he would play the butler a little bit differently.
"I enjoy doing comedy. It's a joy to hear people laugh at something you do. What I really love is to hear children laugh. It's hard to make them laugh, but when you do, its wonderful."