June 03, 1996 12:00 PM

A LOT OF US RELY ON THEM AND the solidity of their marriage,” says actor George Segal. By “them” he means his friends, actor-director Richard Benjamin and his wife of 34 years, actress Paula Prentiss. The romance between Benjamin and Prentiss, both 58, has stood the test of time. They have, in fact, run the gamut: different tracks to stardom, an anguishing mental crisis and apparent domestic bliss. If, unlike Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, they don’t leap to mind as a classic Hollywood duo, it’s because Prentiss chose to stay home and raise their two children. She hasn’t had a starring movie role since 1981, when she was teamed with her husband in a flop horror parody, Saturday the 14th. If you blinked, you would have missed the tribute that director Benjamin paid her in the 1993 Whoopi Goldberg comedy Made in America. In one shot, a movie marquee announces a Paula Prentiss film festival.

Recently she staged a tiny comeback in her husband’s latest directorial effort, Mrs. Winterbourne, the Cinderella romance starring Ricki Lake and Brendan Fraser. She had a mere couple of scenes, playing a take-charge nurse with a perverse zeal for giving tranquilizers to new mother Lake. And Prentiss, one of the most beguiling comic actresses of the ’60s and ’70s, just can’t take it too seriously. How did she like working with her husband? She rolls her eyes and, in that deadpan dusky voice familiar from What’s New, Pussycat? and The Step-ford Wives, says, “I certainly will incorporate whatever the director has to offer.” Benjamin laughs. “I’ve learned to get out of her way,” he says.

That doesn’t apply at their comfortable, three-bedroom Tudor-style house in Beverly Hills. With its framed children’s doodlings and photo albums, the home looks thoroughly lived-in. They moved there 22 years ago when their son, Ross, now an English major at Harvard, was six months old. Their daughter, Prentiss, 17, a senior at Beverly Hills High, was born four years later.

“They worship those kids,” says Segal. As if on cue, Paula, who attended Ross’s Little League games and sewed her kids’ school-play costumes, produces her daughter’s old ballet tutu, with the rhinestones that she fastened on herself. “I wanted to raise my children,” she says. “I thought, ‘I gotta be here and see what this is.’ ”

It helped that by the time Ross came along, she had already seen more than enough of Hollywood. She and Benjamin met in 1958, when both were drama students at Northwestern University. Benjamin, whose father worked for a Manhattan dress manufacturer, recalls a friend drawing his attention to a dark-haired girl “with legs that go to the sky” at a casting call for Peer Gynt. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, she’s gorgeous.’ ” And painfully sensitive. When the director criticized her, Prentiss ran outside—in fact, says Benjamin, she ran straight into Lake Michigan “and stood in the lake and smoked a cigarette.” When Benjamin followed her to shore, Prentiss turned and beheld the man of her Saturday-matinee dreams. “I always went to the movies to see Tony Curtis,” says Prentiss, the daughter of a professor in San Antonio, “and I thought, ‘This is the kind of guy I want, someone from New York and Jewish.’ ”

Benjamin’s film career didn’t take off until 1969, when he starred in Goodbye, Columbus, but Prentiss landed a contract with MGM while still in school and was assiduously groomed for stardom in movies such as 1960’s Where the Boys Are. When the couple married, in 1961, it was, curiously, at MGM’s behest. He wanted to accompany her on a promotional tour, and the studio thought no proper starlet should travel with a boyfriend.

In 1965, having shot a string of films back-to-back, Prentiss fell apart. On the set of What’s New, Pussycat? costarring Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers, she had a breakdown, threatened to jump from a catwalk and spent nine months institutionalized in New York City. Neither she nor Benjamin wants to discuss it now. “It’s so long ago,” says Benjamin, displeased.

In any case, she bounced back, and two years later they starred together in a short-lived CBS sitcom, He & She. But activities with the kids, she found, quickly crowded out acting assignments. And, as Benjamin shifted to directing (My Favorite Year, Mermaids), “we decided one of us needed to be home,” he says.

Time, of course, has dispensed with the need for sitting with the kids. “Long about 17 or so,” observes Prentiss, “they say, ‘Okay, get out of my life.’ ” So she has been inching her way toward acting again, taking lessons to get back up to speed. Although the couple have yet to line up any future projects together, several years ago they appeared onstage in Love Letters, A.R. Gurney’s two-character play. “I’m so lucky,” says Prentiss, “to be with this person.”



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