By Jim Jerome
Updated May 28, 1990 12:00 PM

Two years ago, when Robby Benson and his wife, singer-actress Karla DeVito, decided to seek a creatively vibrant, smog-free, “normal” life beyond Hollywood, their friends offered heartfelt support—like the names of some good psychiatrists. “They thought we were nuts,” recalls Benson, 34, still improbably boyish and buoyant after a three-decade stage and film career that includes impressive, co-starring roles in Tribute, Harry & Son and Ice Castles. “They said, ‘You’ll never work again.’ I told them, ‘It’ll take a little extra effort, and it just so happens we’ll be in a different area code.’ But they still think we’re, like, gone, lost.”

Found is more like it, in area code 803, Columbia, S.C., on the campus of the University of South Carolina, of all places. Benson has been artist-in-residence there since the fall of 1988, teaching filmmaking. Visiting Professor Benson, who was valedictorian of his class at Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Academy but who never earned a college credit, signed on after accepting an honorary doctorate in fine arts from the university. During a three-day visit to the campus, he met with university president James Holderman, who asked if Benson would teach a workshop. Instead, Benson pitched an unusual deal: He offered to teach film for a year if he could try to make his own film while at the USC. Holderman jumped. “Basically,” says Benson, “our lives have changed because of him.”

Indeed. Barely two years after their defection from Hollywood, Benson and DeVito, 36, are not only enveloped by the kind of small-town security they craved but are poised to pull off an unprecedented career coup. With no agent, no manager, no cellular phone and no celluloid hit since The Chosen in 1981, Benson has produced a homegrown romantic comedy, Modern Love, based on his own fiercely personal screenplay. Filmed for only $1.5 million (a video division of Sony fronted the cash), the movie is playing in the southeast and will be released in select cities this summer. In the credits, Benson is listed as producer, director and star, with Karla and their daughter, Lyric, 6, as co-stars and with Karla singing the end-title theme, Falling…in Love with You, which Benson composed. Beyond the family, there’s an impressive cast that includes Burt Reynolds and Rue McClanahan.

Though Benson is eager for the film to find its audience, he seems sanguine about the possibility of box office failure. “We’ve already won,” he says, “because of the way Karla and I feel about each other and what we accomplished.” DeVito isn’t looking back either. “We have more friends now than ever,” she says. “It’s exciting to have just let everything go for this adventure together.”

Their adventure together began in 1981, when DeVito, who had come to rock prominence in the late ’70s as Meat Loafs sizzling siren on his Bat out of Hell tour, stepped in to substitute for an ailing Linda Ronstadt opposite Benson in Broadway’s The Pirates of Penzance. “Karla was the best actress I’d ever worked with,” he says. “I thought, ‘She has got to be in my movies.’ Then I thought, ‘No, she’s got to be my wife.’ ” The immediate attraction was mutual. “Our first rehearsal was wild,” DeVito recalls. “We both had colds and didn’t sing or talk. We mimed the whole first act. Robby was utterly charming, irresistible, so funny, sooo romantic.”

A self-labeled “marriage-phobe,” DeVito took the plunge in 1982. Thirteen months later, Lyric was born. “Robby wanted a baby from the get-go,” she says, “and waiting just seemed a real waste of time.”

Like the couple in Modern Love, they have worked hard at making their relationship prevail. Benson was moved to write the gently affirming story after a turbulent personal spell in the mid-’80s. Benson lost a beloved grandfather during the early months of Karla’s pregnancy. In the fall of 1984, he underwent major surgery to repair a congenitally defective aortic valve. A 3:05 marathon runner the year before, he now dismisses the surgery as a “lube job.” But Karla does not remember the ordeal as casually. “It was definitely scary,” she says. “Knowing they’re going in there with a saw and cut open your chest.”

But the most devastating blow of all was the death of Karla’s mother at age 60, after a heart attack in September 1986. Vivienne DeVito had single-handedly raised Karla and her three brothers in Mokena, Ill., after their father’s death, when Karla was in third grade. “She thought of others first, never considered herself a martyr, not for a second,” says Karla. “I don’t know how many mothers like her are left in the world anymore. She was the electrician, the plumber, the comedienne.”

She was also the ultimate grandma, who stayed with the couple for two months when Lyric was born. “She was a saint,” says Benson. “I could never fill the void in Karla’s life, but I wanted so badly for her to know that she wasn’t alone, that I’d be there for her. I wrote the film to show her how I felt.” He dedicated Modern Love to Vivienne.

To hear Benson talk, half of Columbia got into the moviemaking act: Holderman turned his home over as a location for a wedding sequence. The student union was used for production offices. Locals hired on as extras. Among the 40 students who participated, nine earned coveted Screen Actors Guild cards—including lanky blond Debra Port, who plays Benson’s ditzy girlfriend. Says Port, 24, who has already graduated to a small part in The Exorcist III: Legion, “It was a hands-on crash course in making a film.”

There was one nod to bankability: Benson’s old buddy Burt Reynolds (from Lucky Lady) agreed to act in the film for scale—$398 a day. “Burt lost money on this one,” says Benson. “He spent $10,000 out of pocket to bus his own people for his days on location.”

Reynolds was happy to bail out his friend. “The problem with Robby is he’s almost too good to be true,” he says. “He really is that sweet and vulnerable. He had a great career and then made some films that didn’t work, and he got blamed. That’s Hollywood. It eats people alive. So he decided to get out of town for a while, and he is a wonderful teacher. And Karla is stunning, bloody wonderful in the picture too—and she’d never been before the cameras in her life.”

Benson currently goes home to a furnished three-floor town house among a shaded row of stately faculty homes. Lyric is in a first grade class nearby. Expecting to stay a third year, they have recently begun shopping for a place of their own. Karla reports their “fave date” is a “matinee movie while Lyric’s in school and no one’s in the audience. We do love popcorn. We also do more cultural things here than we ever did in L.A. because you never have to get on the freeways. The London Philharmonic’s been here, the Carolina Pops, Vienna Boys Choir. Aerosmith’s in town tonight. I mean, what more do you need?”

Apparently not much. They’ve put their house in the San Fernando Valley on the market. Before leaving L.A., Benson sold his Mazda RX-7 and now walks or drives his university-supplied car. He is an exuberant USC Gamecocks booster. If the professor isn’t exactly bucking for tenure, he and Karla sure aren’t longing for La La Land. Not to live, anyway.

“To work, sure,” he says. “It’s not like we’re peeing on L.A. I’d be thrilled to be an attractive writer-director to studio people. But we decided to change our lives.”

He was due for the change. Two months after his heart surgery, Benson bounced into the TV movie California Girls, which led to the lead as a young cop in the TV series Tough Cookies. After only six weeks it was tough cookies, and CBS canceled the show. “My work was stale,” he admits candidly. “I was on a path to nowhere.” And after the disappointing sales of her 1986 A&M album, DeVito felt the same. “What we’re searching for,” says Benson, “is so much more important than waiting around in L.A., dependent on the phone, looking to hit the jackpot.”

They’ve already hit it—at least in the lottery of love. Benson says their relationship thrives on mutual respect. Karla says the secret is “never fighting dirty. We always solve things, never let them drag on. This is so hokey,” she adds, “but, like, in the movie my [dying] mother is in the hospital and she says, ‘Don’t ever stop trying, don’t stop having fun.’ That’s such a simple thing but so easy to forget when you’re, like, bearing down under the torment of real life. It seems so superficial.”

“Yeah, but it isn’t,” says Robby. “It’s at the core of everything.”