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Larry Drake, Emmy winner as Benny of ‘L.A. Law,’ dead at 66

Actor Larry Drake died on March 17 at the age of 66. Here's a look at his most memorable roles, including his Emmy-winning performance as Benny in "L.A. Law." (Video: The Washington Post)
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Almost 30 years ago, he stumbled into McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak, a law firm meant to represent the height of 1980s juridical glamour. But Benny Stulwicz, a client who became “L.A. Law’s” faithful mailroom clerk, did not come armed with hair gel, shoulder pads or a self-aggrandizing agenda. He was just a developmentally disabled man with an IQ “around the mid-two figure range,” as one character put it, and a heart of gold. And once acquitted of a crime he didn’t commit, he came to stay.

“I work here,” Benny proudly informed a new colleague on his first day. When the colleague observed that McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak was a nice place, Benny — not known for speechifying — answered: “I know.”

Now, Larry Drake, the actor who charmed America and won two Emmys playing Benny, has died at 66. As TMZ first reported, the 6-foot-3 actor, known for playing giants — gentle or otherwise — had unspecified health problems and struggled with his weight.

“He was a soulful gentleman with zero ego,” his manager Steven Siebert told CNN.

Drake was born in Oklahoma in 1950, and raised in Tulsa. His father was a drafting engineer for an oil company — money was not abundant, nor was familial bliss. In 1988, Drake said, “it wasn’t a great life,” and that home offered “verbal fistfights at least once a week.”

“The imperfections in my family made me learn to deal with things on my own and solve problems for myself,” he said. “Besides, no one’s got that ‘Donna Reed’ family. My parents did their best — that earns a lot of forgiveness. But they say children grow up in spite of their parents, and I think I did.”

Drake also found that his size was not an asset.

“Even as a kid, I tried to disguise it anyway I could,” he said in 1990. “I was probably the only person in the whole state who didn’t wear cowboy boots and a hat. I was already quite tall enough.”

By high school, Drake had reached his adult height. He was pushed toward football, but it didn’t take.

“I was always the slowest guy on the team,” he told The Washington Post in 1988, “and I remember doing the 100-yard dash one day and pulling a groin muscle and going ass over teakettle and landed on my back with one leg straight up in the air and unable to move it and thinking to myself that maybe it’s time to quit.”

Drake drifted toward theater, studying acting at the University of Oklahoma. Through the 1970s, he worked in dinner theater in Tulsa and Dallas and acted in touring companies, finally making the move to Los Angeles in 1980.

“My girlfriend had left, the lease was up on my apartment, and I had no money left in the bank, and my family was falling apart and going crazy,” he said of the decision.

The West Coast proved friendlier. Though he had to put in his time at menial jobs, he found success doing Shakespeare and in the 1981 television film “Dark Night of the Scarecrow,” in which he played a mentally disabled man falsely accused of molesting a young girl. He also played Lennie, the doomed migrant worker of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” — a part that led his agent to encourage him to audition for “L.A. Law” when the part of Benny came up. One producer said Drake — able to convey emotion while staying true to his character’s state of mind — made an instant impression.

“A lot of people tried to play this over the top,” Scott Goldstein, one of the show’s producers, said in 1988. “They played to all the cliches … It was too much.”

Benny was introduced to the world in 1987, during the 17th episode of “L.A. Law’s” first season. Benny, tricked into robbing a shoe repair store, is hauled into court on criminal charges. The case turned on whether he, more or less, had enough mental acuity to be a criminal.

“Key question: Could Benny form the criminal intent necessary to convict?” Victor Sifuentes, played by Jimmy Smits, wondered. No, a judge ruled — Benny was freed. But the scheming writers of “L.A. Law,” always ready to push boundaries and buttons, were soon dreaming up a way to bring him back.

“One of those lucky occasions when an actor does a wonderful job with a part and something very interesting happens,” Jacob Epstein, one of the writers on the show, said at the time. “We put our heads together and tried to think of a way to see more of him, and [producer] Steve Bochco had the idea of bringing him in as a messenger boy.”

Drake, of course, was thrilled.

“It was just a normal audition for one scene in one episode in the first season, and I didn’t expect it to really go anywhere,” he said. “I think the show’s producers also didn’t quite know what would happen with the character, so it was all left very open. When it became clear to everyone that Benny was becoming this regular character, of course I was delighted. I needed a break from playing villains.”

If disabled characters on television are rare today, they were rarer a generation ago. Though “L.A. Law” didn’t always have a moral center, Benny — a Dostoyevskian innocent among wolves — at least wasn’t scheming to become a partner. Drake emerged from an eight-season run with more Emmys than any of his fellow castmates. People loved him.

“My guess it’s the contrast of the character,” Drake said of Benny’s appeal. “He’s enormously empathetic — this big, warm, wonderful, human guy up against these Ivy League-cool types. He’s almost at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s one against 11.”

Benny’s adventures at McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak were legion. Over the course of the show, his mother died. He wooed women. He was charged with sexual assault — and acquitted again. He fell in with a cult. He became the guardian of a child. And he got married. In a different time — before debates about use of the word “retarded” and whether actors without disabilities should ever play characters with disabilities — Drake’s work was considered pivotal.

The case against banning the word ‘retard’

“We are thrilled with the character,” Liz Moore, a spokesman for the Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States — now known just as “The ARC” — said in 1988. “We are really excited. A lot of shows will do a one-shot treatment of a character for one episode, but ‘L.A. Law’ has really made a commitment to this.”

Drake — who fell out with a disabled man he observed to get Benny’s mannerisms right once the man became jealous of the attention the actor was getting — thought “L.A. Law” went a bit too far with Benny.

“[Disabled people are] still segregated from society — mainstreaming doesn’t happen enough, and I hope it will happen,” he said. “But frankly, I don’t think it’s going to be what people expect. I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as it looks [on television].” He added: “I honestly think that this stuff has to be dealt with on the show … They [the disabled] are not easy. They’re worth it, but they’re not easy.”

After “L.A. Law,” Drake was by no means out of work, but he slowly faded from the public eye. In 2006, he began working as an acting teacher, WBIR reported, and remained one until his death. His physical problems also kept him out of the spotlight, his management said.

“[Larry] was aware that overweight people are underrepresented in Hollywood,” Whitney Smith, who worked for Drake’s manager, said. “He would say that people in casting calls acted as if they might catch the fat from him.”

Even if his more recent credits couldn’t match “L.A. Law,” he remains instantly recognizable to anyone who tuned into prime time TV during the Reagan era.

“I don’t know if I’m a star now,” he said in 1988, “or just a little meteor that may burn out soon.” He added: “I’ve done fine in this business … but I’ve never made quite enough money to have a family or have many options. I keep looking at my life and thinking, ‘If I’m going to get out of this business, I’d better do it soon.’ “