July 16, 1979 12:00 PM

Despite—or more likely because of—the most ingratiating manner this side of lookalike comic strip character Dondi, the precociously gifted actor, musician and screenwriter Robby Benson, 23, seems to have a perverse effect on some critics. A few years back one reviewer hissed he was “cute as Bambi and twice as smarmy.” Now, with the release of his ninth movie, Walk Proud, critics are chortling over what one called “the most inspired bit of casting since Natalie Wood played a Puerto Rican in West Side Story.”

The problem is that blue-eyed Benson, the All-American hero of such white-bread films as Ode to Billy Joe and Ice Castles, plays a Chicano gang leader in Walk Proud—thanks to brown contact lenses and liberal applications of dark skin stain. The film seems to parallel Saturday Night Live’s recent hilarious skit with Gilda Radner, as the swaggering Chicano, wooing WASP girlfriend Jane Curtin. “The reviewers just want to point out that I’m a Caucasian playing the part of a Chicano,” says an irritated Benson. “Following that line of thinking,” he argues, “only Chicanos could play Chicanos, Anglos only Anglos and blacks only blacks. It goes against my concept of what acting is—being able to climb inside another character.”

If anyone knows about that, it’s Benson, who comes as close to being the compleat showbiz animal as anyone of his generation. “I was into show business straight out of the womb,” says Robby, who taped his first TV spot at 3. Born in Dallas to Jerry and Ann Benson Segal (he took his mother’s maiden name to “avoid anti-Semitism” in getting commercials), Robby remembers sitting under the piano listening to his parents compose satirical revues. The family moved to Manhattan when he was 5. The next year his mother took him to see Oliver!, and he turned to her and said, “Mother, I can do that. I want to do that.” His mom remembers, “Robby was so anxious to get on with his career that he insisted on getting an agent and going out on interviews at 8.” He did. By 9 he had toured Japan as the lead in Oliver! and filmed Jory, his first movie, at 14. Eventually he found so many parts that he attended school only three days his senior year—yet, by correspondence courses, was class valedictorian at New York’s Lincoln Square Academy.

His only release from an already rampant case of workaholism (“I don’t go to parties or have a social life”) is basketball. “I get uptight, I shoot a few,” says Benson. At 19 he began scriptwriting at night while on location with Billy Joe and soon wound up as collaborator with his dad on a screenplay about his favorite game. It was called One on One and became successful, with Robby himself in the lead.

By then his first nonbusiness love had appeared. She was then 17-year-old Glynnis O’Connor, his co-star in 1973’s Jeremy and later in Billy Joe. They remain friends, though, like Jeremy’s young lovers, they have drifted apart. Benson now lives with actress Merilee Magnuson, 24, in a split-level condo in the San Fernando Valley, 10 minutes from his parents’ pad. Merilee has only one unsurprising complaint about her boyfriend: “He just works all the time.”

His latest project is Die Laughing, on which he labors as actor, co-screenwriter (again with Dad) and co-producer with Barbra Streisand’s man Jon Peters. Robby is also writing and singing the score. Peters praises his fuzzy-cheeked associate as “the greatest young all-around talent in the business.” But the insatiable Benson still attends twice-weekly courses at UCLA in music composition, scoring and arranging. And a stipulation of his current three-picture deal with Universal is that he direct his first picture shortly. Says Benson, with an authority he has earned: “I want to have control over the things I make.”

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