“When I made a movie called Twilight,” said Mr. Benton, “I worked with Gene Hackman and Paul Newman. Gene would act, he’d do one take and do some modification. And I went into some elaborate explanation, and he stopped me and said, ‘Do you want me to do it better? I’ll do it better.’ And from then on, I’ve learned to say, ‘Just do it better.’ Louder, softer, keep it to a minimum. As a director you have to learn to trust the actors.”
“It was as good as an experience you could have with a director,” said Greg Kinnear. “He’s the kind of director you can work with time and time again, because he loves actors and he cares about the integrity of small stories. He has this great integrity that comes alive in his movies. He has this kind of deeply ingrained decency that maybe comes from that small town in Texas, or wherever it is he’s from.”
Robert Benton was born and raised in Waxahachie, Texas (population at the time, 5,000). His father, who attended the funerals of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, entertained his son with stories of the legendary outlaws. Mr. Benton struggled with dyslexia, and credits the movies—which he would see three or four times a week—as where he learned the art of narrative.
“I was very lucky that I had a father who, instead of saying, ‘Did you do your homework?’, would ask, ‘Do you want to go to the movies?’” he said.
After attending grad school at Columbia University, Mr. Benton became an art director at Esquire, working underneath legendary editors Clay Felker and Harold Hayes. “We were allowed to be like noisy kids trying to get attention,” Mr. Benton said. “I would never have left Esquire if I hadn’t gotten fired. I would have stayed there forever.”
Kept on as a consulting editor (“they paid me so little; they felt so guilty”), Mr. Benton decided to try screenwriting. What made him think he could attempt such a thing?
“Look, I come from a family that was deeply unrealistic,” he said. “Grasp of reality was slim at best. I’m dyslexic, I can’t spell, I can’t punctuate, and I took one creative writing class in college and flunked it. In the midst of doing this very unrealistic thing, I went to a friend of mine [David Newman] who was an editor at Esquire and I told him all about the glamorous life of the screenwriter—which was a total lie. A, I knew nothing about it; and B, it was a lie, because even if I had known that, I would have been lying. But I knew that he knew how to write; David Newman taught me how to write. I still write in a way that copies David. He was extraordinary.”
Mr. Newman (who passed away in 2003) and Mr. Benton went on to write There Was a Crooked Man …, What’s Up, Doc? and Bad Company. But it was their first film, Bonnie and Clyde, which included the team of producer Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn, that turned them into bicoastal—and yes, fairly glamorous—legends.