By Lois Armstrong
February 23, 1976 12:00 PM

By outside reckoning, Dick Benjamin and Paula Prentiss have spent much of their married life mortifying each other. When Paula was just out of college and the flakiest, funniest comedienne in the MGM mill, Dick was averaging $10 a week as an extra and “dropping off resumés that had nothing on them but lies.” Then it was Paula’s turn to become the family liability. She freaked out on a movie set and was hospitalized for nine months while Dick was rising steadily toward his present eminence in such films as the current The Sunshine Boys. “When Paula was sick, people wondered why I didn’t leave her,” Benjamin muses. “And when I wasn’t working they wondered why she didn’t leave me. People all along have tried to come between us. It took a long time to figure out that it was their problem, not ours.”

Now Benjamin and Prentiss form one of Hollywood’s more stable star marriages and presently are sharing equal billing in their first Broadway show together, The Norman Conquests. But the sure sign that they have brought their personal lives into balance is that after 13 years of nonparenthood, they have had their first baby. “Paula was always on the pill,” Dick explains. “We didn’t want children. We were too wrapped up in ourselves. We couldn’t see that what we were looking for could be found in someone else. Having the baby made us grow up.”

The cynosure of their new togetherness is Ross, nearly 2, who has put his old man and lady (Dick is 37, Paula, 38) into diaper detail relatively late in life. “We didn’t know anything about babies,” admits Dick. “It was like waiting for opening night. The doctor told me, ‘You won’t want to miss this. This is one of the biggies!’ ” But Benjamin almost did miss the premiere (and assisting in the natural childbirth) because the doctors had miscalculated the due date and Ross arrived two months ahead of schedule.

“Having Ross put things in perspective,” Dick discovered. “I never used to understand why people wanted to go home right after work. Now that’s where I want to be—with Ross.” Paula comes to the same affirmation from a different direction. “Before I had the baby I felt lonely going to work,” she says. “Now I have deeper, more generous feelings. I feel whole, like a human being.”

The play that Benjamin and Prentiss are doing in the family way is a round robin of three different comedies with the same characters by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (PEOPLE, Jan. 12). Dick plays an oversexed librarian, and Paula turned down the part of his quarrelsome wife to play the sister-in-law he covets. “I’d never feel comfortable arguing with Dick on stage,” she explains. They’ve never yet tried working in the same film (aside from separate, mercifully brief cameo appearances in the fatuous Catch-22). Her last vehicle, a weirdo pseudo-feminist sci-fi flick called The Stepford Wives, scored modestly at the box office, while Dick’s witty supporting performance in The Sunshine Boys won him at least the poor man’s Oscar, the Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe Award.

Their present plateau of success and serenity would have seemed unforeseeable just a decade ago when Paula experienced her harrowing mental breakdown. At the time she was in Paris filming What’s New, Pussycat? while Dick was touring with Barefoot in the Park in Cincinnati. “One day during shooting,” she recalls, “I just climbed up the ropes to the catwalk and started walking the beams. Very loudly and clearly I called down to everyone on the set, ‘I’m going to jump.’ A French technician grabbed me, and there I was, hanging by one arm.”

She came to in a Paris hospital and later transferred to the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in New York. “It was horrendous. You’re crazy because they say you’re crazy,” she says. “It was especially horrible because I couldn’t figure out how to do what they wanted me to so I could get out.” Dick took her to lunch once a month but usually found her so drugged up that “she wasn’t Paula. I’d make believe everything was all right, but it was like taking a carrot out to lunch. What did I know about psychiatry? I was a Jewish boy, and in our house, if someone had a headache, no one worried about brain tumors or neurosis. It just meant you hadn’t eaten enough.”

Paula’s crisis may have had some of its roots in the celebrity shock she sustained during her first years out of Northwestern University’s drama school. She and Dick met there while studying under noted acting teacher Alvina Krause. Prentiss was born Paula Ragusa, an Italian from San Antonio who at a reedy 5’9″ loomed over her classmates like a stork. Dick, a sardonic New York kid whose parents struggled in the rag trade, wowed Paula because she claimed on an earlier occasion he was the first New York Jew she’d ever seen. They started housekeeping together “before the pill,” notes Dick, “when things were dangerous.”

An MGM talent scout auditioned them but, ignoring Dick, signed Paula to a seven-year contract in 1960. “It was a life I hadn’t picked,” she says. “It was terrifying. I just allowed myself to be driven along.” In less than a year, Paula cranked out three dizzy frivolities, beginning with Where the Boys Are. “I was such an idiot,” Benjamin groans. “I accepted it all to be with the girl I wanted to be with.” Even their marriage was arranged by the studio: Paula had to make a promotion junket, and in 1961 an unwed traveling companion was considered a no-no. They were forced to delay the ceremony before a New York judge for one hour so that the bride could log publicity mileage about the wedding with long-distance calls to Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. “The only thing that woke us up,” she reflects now, “was that crash landing in Paris.”

She dropped out of films and into analysis, while Dick began his breakthrough as Ali McGraw’s schlemiel in Goodbye, Columbus. Along the way, Paula found her best therapy was co-starring with him in a 1967 CBS series called He and She that approached an almost Lear-like level of sophistication before its time. It died after a single season. Still, Paula believes, “It was worth it after what we’d been through. By working together we learned to live with each other again.”

Now, while teaming on Broadway, they rent a townhouse on the East Side of Manhattan. If Norman Conquests continues (the show’s reviews are better than their own), they’ll stay with it until June. After that, they’ll return to their Tudor-styled brick house in Beverly Hills, about a mile from the home of Paula’s parents. (Often she pedals over on her bike with Ross strapped into a seat behind her.) Dick and Paula’s crowd tends to include other New York emigrés like Neil Simon and Marsha Mason, Walter and Carol Matthau and Mike Nichols. Wherever she is stationed, Paula spends some part of the day practicing yoga. “It gives me a peaceful feeling,” she says. “I do it first thing in the morning, if I’m terrified.”

Lately, Paula is talking more about the future in terms of babies rather than movie scripts. “It took me a long time to find myself,” she concedes, “and I’m still looking around corners to see if I’m there. I used to wonder, why does Dick love me? After the baby was born, I could turn around and see it in myself.”