Ham On Wry
By: Robert Schork
Soap Opera Weekly Magazine
Dated: December 7, 1999
Nothing at all like his pompous character, Passions’ terrific Ben Masters sails through life on a wink and a prayer
If laughter is indeed the best medicine, then by all accounts Julian Crane should be 6 feet under. It’s hard to imagine Passions’ uptight, dour, philandering WASP cracking a joke, or making light of anything – which is why speaking to his portrayer, Ben Masters, is a pleasant surprise. Laid-back, easygoing and exercising with facility a disarmingly dry wit, Masters is quick to find the humorous, sometimes ironic, threads in the tapestry of life, and gives voice to them in an understated, deadpan way – making him the kind of raconteur one would include on the A-list for a dinner party.
To his credit, Masters brings his healthy sense of humor to bear at work as well as at play. "I’ve decided to have fun with this character, because they have him do a lot of very strange things," says Masters, speaking in his indentifiably dulcet, baritone cadence. "Things with him are pretty damn dysfunctional, aren’t they? And, let me tell you, it gets much more dysfunctional," he teases. "One of the interesting things in this situation, too, is I discover, like almost every week, somebody else that I did some terrible thing to, and I don’t know what it is yet. I guess I could ask somebody, but I don’t want to know, ‘cause it’s like a surprise to me, too, you know? They’ve got this whole storyline mapped out for months, and I’m just sort of like this deer caught in the headlights."
"I knew, though, that the part was not just like a guy who sits in the police station and says, ‘I don’t know, where’d the gun come from?’" Masters continues, imitating a stereotypically mindless, generic soap character. "This character is a little more flamboyant, and a little more of a baby – somebody with too much money and not enough sense,"
While his on-screen family’s middle name is dysfunctional, back stage Masters proudly counts himself among a congenial extended family of the show’s cast. "This probably sounds like some sort of party-line statement here, but it’s just from me. When you start something together from day one, the feeling – even for somebody of another generation like me, as opposed to the young kids here – is that you’re in this together. And it’s a feeling you wouldn’t get if you joined a normal soap that’s been running for a long time. We’re starting out on ground zero; everybody has a lot of energy and is just trying to work the kinks out."
If he had joined a "normal" soap, Masters would undoubtedly be in the company of several contemporaries. But Passions’ mandate has been to attract the narrow female 12-17 demographic so coveted by advertisers; to that end, its cast is heavily skewed in that age direction. "Well, you know, I finally realized that I am older than they are because I hear the young guys here talking, ‘Yeah, we’re going to go out to this club, and then we’re going to go out to that club,’ and they’re not including me in their conversations. I’m like, ‘Hey, what happened to me?’ And also, when very attractive young women walk by here and they call me ‘Sir.’ So, thank god, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t have to run around with my shirt off a lot. I spent 15 years doing that … that’s plenty!" he deadpans.
Masters is philosophical about the youth craze that’s gripped Hollywood . "What can I say? You go in to audition and you’re judged by some 20-year-old. It’s a young world we live in out there, and you know, with the success of these shows like Felicity and Dawson’s Creek, I guess [the powers that be] seem to know something."
However, as many who take exception to the teen trend argue, Masters wasn’t interested in watching other kids on TV when he was kid himself. "I liked to watch Bonanza, and other adult stuff. I’d only watch kids’ shows once in a while, like My Three Sons. And I always thought, ‘Man, I wish their house would burn down!’ But yeah, who knows – maybe this is something that’s been created by the media itself. All I know is that I’m just along for the ride."
Although Passions has taken its knocks for its wet-behind-the-ears cast, Masters has nothing but praise for his younger co-stars. "I have warm feelings about the young people on the show. This is the hardest genre I’ve ever worked in; it’s a tough proposition, even for an old bastard like me who has been doing it for 30 years. But to watch the difference in the first show to where we are now, I have a lot of respect for them. It’s a real feat, and I really think they’re coming along well."
Now in its fifth month, Passions is going through the laborious hazing faced by all new daytime dramas, slowly finding and building its audience. But number-crunching the Nielsens is the furthest thing from Masters’ mind. "That will be for those people who work in the dark buildings to figure out," he comments wryly. "My job is to not hit the furniture when I deliver my lines. I just try to go in and make the moments work. Because I’ve done nighttime series before – and they were always opposite L.A. Law, so no one saw them and they only ran like 18 episodes – I’ve experienced that sort of energy about, ‘Will we get picked up?’ I did a series for ABC about 10 years ago called Heartbeat. It was about female doctors in Santa Monica . It starred Kate Mulgrew. It was an ensemble thing, and it was a very good show. We were picked up for the first season, and then the next year we’re doing 13 episodes and it got good reviews, but it was opposite L.A. Law. We’re doing the 12th show one day, the next day we were going to start the 13th. I go into the soundstage, and the guy who controls the coffee and the doughnuts said to me, ‘Hey, sorry about the show.’ And I said ‘What?’ He said ‘I’m not supposed to order any coffee or doughnuts for tomorrow.’ There’s a big lesson to be learned: They know who to go to first. So, when you think that it’s all going to be honey and roses" – or coffee and doughnuts – "it doesn’t work that way. I’ve found the longer I’ve done it, that you just do what you can, and hope the show will find an audience. And we’re going to do our damnedest."
"And you’ve got to have something else you like to do," he continues. "It’s taken me a long time to realize that. If you define yourself by your career as an actor, you could get in some really dark places."
How did Masters avoid traveling those roads? "Which ones have I avoided, would you tell me?" He says facetiously, answering a question with a question. "We all did. If you’re doing a play off-Broadway, or on Broadway, afterward you’d go out and make a fool of yourself at Joe Allen’s or Charlie’s. I was in that period of time where Hair was still playing, toward the end, and I was doing a play called The Dirtiest Show in Town. It was a big hit, and there was nudity in it. The last couple of scenes, we’d run on naked; we were all in our early 20s, so when our show would come down and finish, we’d go over to Hair, and be in the last part of it. We’d swing from the ropes and do all of this weird stuff. And then, cast members from Hair and our cast members would go off and have these ‘odd’ parties," Masters says with a decidedly devilish laugh, leaving the rest to the imagination. "This probably isn’t suitable for SOAP OPERA WEEKLY."
Masters grew up in Corvallis , Ore. ("It ain’t Manhattan," he says.) There, he and his older sister, Cheryl, enjoyed a very down-to-earth upbringing. " Oregon is all about summer baseball and, you know, just kids. Just normal, middle-class existence. Our father was a contractor, and I used to work for him in the summers."
Masters first got involved in acting in high school. "you know, the same old story," he jokes. Pressed to elaborate, he says with self-deprecating humor, "I sound like some John Gielgud, reminiscing about his career ... I went to New York very young, out of college, started in the theater and then started working on movies for nighttime television and miniseries and things like that. I spent less and less time in New York , but I’d always go back and do a play, because I always felt that whole line of cliched crap: ‘We have to recharge our batteries.’ Well, yeah, right, sure. I don’t need to have my battery recharged anymore. About four or five years ago, I found that I’d do like a TV-movie a year. And then last year I was on Pensacola: Wings of Gold. I played a recurring guy, somebody’s father. I actually finished my last episode of it yesterday. NBC was nice enough to let me out [of Passions] to die of pancreatic cancer on Pensacola."
"But when they approached me about playing Julian, I was just playing bad golf in the desert where I live, and so I was like, ‘Yeah, I’d like to do this!’ So I’m real happy about it. And there’s the long story of my life."
While Masters approaches his career with a heaping dose of humor, his parents took his career aspirations seriously. "My father didn’t know what the hell was going on, but they were always supportive. In college, I did Romeo and Juliet. It was a big theater, probably held 800 or 900 people. I’m onstage, and I hear snoring out there – and it was my father. He had worked hard that day, he had to drive a long distance, and he had a tendency to fall asleep, god bless him."
Although both his parents are now deceased, Masters returns to Oregon occasionally to visit his extended family. "As a matter of fact, tomorrow actually I am going up there. I have an aunt, she’s in her mid-80s. She’s organized some little family reunion for a couple of days. I haven’t been home in a while, so I’m going to go up to see her and then some of my cousins, who are aging like I am, and we’re going to sit around and talk about what the hell went wrong with our lives," he says, tongue-in-cheek.
Such a sharp wit helps to keep things in perspective, which is why Masters was unfazed by his distinction of being the first contract player cast for the show. "I guess I’ve been doing this so long, but that’s not the sort of thing that concerns me. It’s like, that’s for somebody else to be concerned about. I tested with lots of Ivy’s, and thank god Kim (Johnston Ulrich) is doing it." After getting off to a slow start as the show focused on its teeny-bopper crowd during the summer months, Masters’ storyline has picked up speed. "And now this job is getting in the way of my doing ‘hobbies’ again. I’m going to have to start doing four of these a week. Ewwwwww," says Masters, humorously feigning regret at the idea of such a demanding work schedule. "It doesn’t really bode well for a real good private life. But since I have no private life, it doesn’t really matter."
A bachelor, Masters ekes out a peaceful existence for himself and his dog in Palm Desert, Calif. "Have you ever been to hell?" Masters asks to explain the climate of his town in summer. I know I will be at some point. Take the humidity in Manhattan in August, and put it at 110 degrees." Masters originally relocated to Palm Desert to escape the cold. "I found that the New York winters were just too much for me. So I went out to the old retirement actors’ home out on the West Coast – and now I’m in Harmony!" He jokes: "I wish I could bottle up one of those New York winters and breathe it in during the summers out here." When the temperatures aren’t quite as oppressive, Masters likes "to play bad golf. And I like sailing. I have a friend who has a sailboat, and she and I go out."
"When I first started getting interviewed about things, years ago when I was living in Manhattan, the New York Times asked me what my hobbies were," Masters continues. "And I said, ‘I don’t have any hobbies. I live in New York, trying to work as an actor!’ If you need a hobby in New York, other than jogging or going to the gym, you better have a lot of money. ‘Oh, yes, I’m going out to the boat in Sag Harbor this weekend,’" says Masters, imitating a pretentious New York actor-type in a haughty voice reminiscent of Julian Crane. "Yeah, right!"
Stepping into cyberspace is one hobby Masters admits to dabbling in now and then. "I got on there the other day, and I took the Passions viewer survey on the Passions Web site, and I said I loved everybody. And a lady friend of mine said, ‘But they’re going to know that you’re like a middle-aged man, and this looks like you’re crazy. I mean, it doesn’t work.” She said that I should have made it sound like I was a young girl instead. But I took the survey, so at least there’s one person out there who really loves the show! And I tried to get into a Passions chat room, and there were four other people in there. And they’re saying stuff like, ‘Hi. How are you?’" says Masters, imitating a monotone recluse. "So I got out of there."
Masters used to do a lot of traveling years ago, especially when he had roles in miniseries and TV-movies that were shot in exotic ports of call. "I used to travel a lot when they would pay for it," he wryly admits. "Now, I just kind of take care of the dog. I’m divorced – she got all the money, and I got the dog. How’s that? Life’s just fabulous."