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28 FEBRUARY 2009
MARTIN BENSON (1928-2009) OBITUARY

By: Anders Frejdh
Published:
2009-02-28
Martin Benson, the English actor who played as Mr Solo in Goldfinger (1964) has passed away.

If Erich von Stroheim had not got in first, the sobriquet “the man you love to hate” would justifiably have been applied to Martin Benson, a virtual mail-order villain. From the world of James Bond to appearing in the Danger Man television series, Benson was on hand to provide the right number of shudders down the spines of audiences.

He had his more benign moments, like the time he played the Vizier to the King of Siam in the musical The King and I. But there was a seriousness in what he did that gave him a degree of gravitas. More than 100 film and TV performances proved the point.

His face said it all: handsome in a sort of ugly way. His dark hair, his piercing eyes and his sharp nose made him the sort of man you might not wish to meet on a dark night. When asked why he usually played villains, he said that they were more interesting. “What most I enjoy,” he would recall, “is playing a villain with an extra dimension, which could equally have applied to the hero. This is so you are not sure which he is. The test is whether the character’s name is better remembered than the actor’s.”

Martin Benson was born in London, the son of Jewish immigrants, in 1918. He often said that one of his proudest possessions was a cigarette box with the inscription dedicated to his shopkeeper father, “Presented to Samuel Benson by Tottenham and Edmonton Hebrew Congregation”. The older Benson would always close his shop on the eve of the Sabbath on Friday evenings.

It was a legacy that stayed with his son throughout his life. Even in extreme old age, Martin Benson would attend his synagogue, at Radlett in Hertfordshire, and sometimes take part in the service, reading a portion from the Book of Prophets.

As a boy, he had ambitions to be a pharmacist, which was why, when he left the Army — he had gone all the way from Dunkirk to serving at GHQ in Cairo in 1946 — he was a somewhat elderly apprentice at Boots, the chemists. But it wasn’t really what he wanted to do. His Army experience had already demonstrated his interest in the stage. In Alexandria he converted an empty building into a theatre and, with no training as an actor, started up his own repertory company.

At heart, he knew that acting was what would really satisfy him in civilian life. In the Reform Synagogue of Great Britain’s magazine Manna he told the story of how it all began:

“Uncle Isaac asked what I am going to do. ‘I’m going to be an actor,’ I said. ‘So show me,’ he said. ‘Act’. ”

So he acted. From an appearance as Count Mikla in The Blind Goddess in 1948 when he was 30 to an episode of Casualty at the age of 87 in 2005, he never really stopped.

His roles seemed to indicate typecasting — if in two different spheres, specialising in villains but also playing stock Jewish characters, such as Rudy Goldspink in Casualty or Goldberg in a 1984 television version of the Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer melodrama set in prewar Paris, Arch of Triumph.

As a villain he was more easily characterised. From the time he made Assassin for Hire in 1951, his mark was made. It was firmly confirmed as his territory when he appeared in 1964 as the arch villain Solo in the James Bond movie Goldfinger. It was a year later that he had what was probably his biggest break, playing a man who was not as villainous as he looked, Kralahome, the Vizier in the film version of The King and I. That was perhaps another stock character for him, the good man who was so stern that audiences were not supposed to know it. He had played the same part in the stage production at Drury Lane.

Plainly Yul Brynner didn’t know much about him. As Benson said, there was no off-duty socialising for the bare-chested star. When Brynner was starring in a reprise of the stage show in London, Benson went round to see him in his dressing room and found two strong-armed bouncers on hand to bar the way.

His talent was to make his mark in frequently small roles in movies and TV programmes. He played a Christian Brother in Angela’s Ashes (1999) and a vicar in The Last of the Summer Wine on TV. He was Abu-Jahal in Mohammed, Messenger of God, in 1976 and Mohammed in Sphinx in 1981.

More notable were Exodus in 1960, in which he was Mordekai; Ramos in Cleopatra in 1963; Mr Montero in The Sea Wolves (1980), starring Gregory Peck, David Niven and Roger Moore; The Omen in 1976 and with Peter Sellers in A Shot in the Dark in 1964.

His television roles included parts in Richard the Lionheart, Douglas Fairbanks Presents and, most notably, as the Vogan Captain in the 1981 television series The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Benson had his own film production house at Radlett. He once said: “In my thirties I thought I could do anything in films. I wrote a book on film acting when I barely knew the left of the camera from the right. This prompted some fledgeling actors to apply to me for training. I don’t think they suffered any harm and some went on to greater things.”

He also made documentaries and was a film critic for a time.

Away from the screen he painted, often portraits of actors, and exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and had several one-man shows.

He is survived by his wife, Joy, three daughters, a son, two stepdaughters and one stepson.

Martin Benson, actor, was born on August 10, 1918. He died on February 28, 2010, aged 91.

Visit Bondstars to purchase official Martin Benson merchandise:

www.bondstars.com/martinbenson/merchandise.htm

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