02/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Remembering Paul Benedict

"Memorial" is a word that we usually associate with the dead, but its etymological roots stem from a living process, the act of memory, recalling vital deeds and past associations. How can anyone who knew him forget our vital connection to Paul Benedict? For years, he was a vivid presence on Martha's Vineyard where he died just last month, impish and laconic, intelligent and alert, a gentle giant who seemed incapable of an unkind word or act. Paul was one of the earliest examples of a growing local tribe, the actor as summer island resident, vacationing stars who have been appearing at the Playhouse and the Yard in recent years, asking little or nothing in the way of remuneration. The phrase for this is artistic generosity. I can't remember a time when Paul refused to do an unpaid reading or turned down a play, except when his family was visiting and he was too preoccupied with chauffeuring and cooking to act.

Paul Benedict, as we know, gained his greatest fame as the quirky English neighbor, Harry Bentley, in The Jeffersons. He also did a lot of movies, most memorably playing the director in The Goodbye Girl, the one who insists on making Richard Dreyfus play Richard III less like a king than like a queen. But while he was hardly reluctant to earn a living, he was always happiest in the monastic role of non-profit stage actor, and rarely turned down a role that he respected. For him, the play, not the pay, was the thing. This commitment to art was bred into his repertory actor's soul, but it became entrenched during the years he spent with David Wheeler's Theatre Company of Boston, one of the best acting troupes in post-World War II America. Bringing the wheel full circle, among the last stage roles Paul played was the patrician Hirst in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land at the American Repertory Theatre, also directed by David Wheeler. It was one of his more triumphant performances.

And I am reminded that the first time Paul appeared at the ART was in the role of an aristocrat, as Chulkaturin in Ronald Ribman's Journey of the Fifth Horse, an adaptation of Turgenyev's Diary of a Superfluous Man. A natural nobleman, Paul was drawn to well-bred characters and they came easily to him. But I suspect he sometimes thought of himself as a superfluous man as well. Most actors are notoriously gregarious, but I remember Paul as essentially hermetic. He had a lot of intrinsic breeding and possessed impeccable manners, but he was essentially a very private man who maintained a kind of psychic distance. He was a great conversationalist, who often seemed to prefer silence. I suspect he loved raw nature more than human society. He certainly found some of his closest companions among raccoons. I'm not kidding. While the rest of us normally treat these predators as pests, and go into animal control panic mode the moment they knock down one of our garbage cans, Paul invited them to dinner every night, sharing meals with them, treating them as friends. There is a famous line from Mel Brooks: "Actors! Have you ever eaten with one of them?" Well, have you ever eaten with a raccoon? Compared to those ravenous rodents, actors are well-mannered courtiers, and Paul's capacity to tolerate animal table manners may account for his endurance at human dinner parties, where he always brought a cake and champagne.

Earlier, I called Paul a gentle giant. I don't know why. He wasn't very large or imposing, with his lantern jaw, deep-set eyes, and prominent nose. Indeed, his characteristic silhouette was hunched and bowed. Yes, I do know why. It's because he somehow reminded me of Lemuel Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels, smiling indulgently while being pinned to the ground by Lilliputians. (His relaxed karma with little people made him an instant hit on Sesame Street.) But if he embodied Gulliver's easy forbearance, he also possessed Swift's savage indignation. He divided humanity into the mild and the reprehensible, assigning the latter quality to anyone in authority. He had a powerful contempt for the sins of the Bush administration, and looked upon such agencies as the CIA as fundamentally corrupt and evil paradigms of secret government. More than once he tried to convince me that the CIA had been responsible for 9/11, and in the last reading we did together this past summer of an evening of short plays, he refused to play the part of Osama Bin Laden in a terrorist skit I wrote out of reluctance to endorse the false report that Al Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Center.

Paul died too young. For many reasons, I'm really sorry he didn't live long enough to see Obama inaugurated. For one thing, it might have restored his faith in government, and tested his penchant for conspiracy theory. But more than that, a longer life for Paul would have given him the opportunity to lend his laconic, enigmatic style to the great roles he never got to play -- in Pinter, Beckett, Chekhov, Shakespeare, and all the other writers who require the collaboration of an intelligent, selfless, penetrating actor. Paul Benedict was a loyal friend and a loyal son of the theatre. I still hear his voice in my ear, at the same time hoarse and musical, reasonable and passionate, soft and urgent. I miss him. Hell, I even miss his raccoons.