He's Worked With The Biggest Stars On Planet Hollywood, But Passions's Ben Masters Remains Down To Earth
The newspaper said his performance in a high-school production of Stalag 17 was marred by poor enunciation, but Ben Masters (Julian, PASSIONS), undaunted, decided to become an actor anyway. "You gotta learn fast about the evils of reviews," he shrugs. Masters enrolled in the University of Oregon's drama department, spent the next four years learning to speak slowly and clearly, then headed for the bright lights of Broadway.
He arrived in 1970 with no money ("I lived on Kraft dinners and Cool Whip") and no home. Even with good diction, jobs were scarce. Nor could sex appeal secure employment: The fabled "casting couch" turned out to be (at least for him) a myth. "I've been waiting ever since for some female casting director to take her top off and throw me on the couch," Masters jokes. "It never happens." Luckily, it didn't have to. He soon bagged a part for $61 a week in the off-Broadway play The Boys In The Band. That got him an agent, and so began a career that has with amazing frequency, drawn him into the orbit of some of Hollywood's most celestial luminaries.
Early on, there was a national tour of Captain Brassbound's Conversion starring Ingrid Bergman. "She was the coolest woman," the actor enthuses. "We had to fly a lot, and Ingrid refused to fly first class because the rest of us couldn't. She would have parties in her hotel suite and invite even lowly, 10-line guys like me. I have this great memory of a party in Delaware with Ingrid sitting on the floor in these really nice black slacks and a big, white sweater with a Marlboro in one hand and a martini in the other."
Such adventures must have made Masters seem positively worldly to young Meryl Streep, who came to him for financial advice while they were doing The Cherry Orchard at Lincoln Center in the mid-1970's – and the fun had only begun. Acting took him to Boston, where Cyrano legend Jose Ferrer taught him dirty jokes during Long Day's Journey Into Night; to Hong Kong, where he and Pierce Brosnan closed down "more than a few bars" while making the miniseries NOBLE HOUSE; to London, for director Alan J. Pakula's Dream Lover. "Tom Cruise was shooting Legend right next door, and their entire sound stage burned down one day during lunch. We all just stood there watching it burn with Tom wearing his weird Robin Hood outfit."
Throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s, Masters has worked steadily in "every type of acting there is – except minstrel shows and pornography." There were more movies, like Bob Fosse's All That Jazz and Making Mr. Right with John Malkovich. ("John is John. Would you loan him the keys to your car?") He had a three-month stint on ANOTHER WORLD in 1982 as Kyra Sedgwick's (ex-Julia) Svengali, Vic Strang, and a bunch of episodes and TV movies ("They want you to play Judith Light's husband because somebody's stalking her, or Meredith Baxter Birney's husband because she's eating out of garbage bins").
He also did Paul Newman's TV adaptation of THE SHADOW BOX. During filming in Malibu Canyon, Masters, Newman and Christopher Plummer were flashed by a gaggle of middle-aged women ("And none of them was Pamela Lee") in a parking lot. "They were shrieking about Paul, and he looked over and kept on walking, and I said 'That's insane!' And he said, 'Oh, that's what happens.'"
Not to Masters. And at 52 years of age – "Turning 50 wasn't any more traumatic than it was three months earlier when my wife of eight years said she didn't want to live with me anymore" – the prospect of female flashers gets less likely every day. Which is okay with him, as is the larger implication that he'll never have the blockbuster career that placed contemporaries like Streep on a par with Newman.
"Sure, I knew Meryl back in the '70s and then she became, you know, Meryl. But you know what? I don't think I have an inch of talent she has," Masters muses. "She's a genius. The better question is, there are people who didn't have Meryl's careers [than mine] who aren't necessarily any better looking or more talented than I am. Now, why is that?"
A rhetorical question, but he answers it anyway. "It has to do with talent, timing, luck, persistence, clicking with the casting people, all of those cliches," he observes. "It's such a brutally competitive business. If you take 20 theater majors and put them in New York, 10 years later, maybe five are still acting, and one is Kevin Kline or Meryl Streep. I have friends my age who are bothered that they're not [Kline or Streep], but it doesn't bother me. At my age, I'm lucky not to have a job like bartending or selling shoes where I have to pretend to be nice to everybody. I don't have to kiss anybody's a--. Besides, I have a great time doing PASSIONS. I have no feeling of, 'Oh, I worked for Alan Pakula and now I'm doing a soap opera. How could this be?' I couldn't be happier."
But oh, how he suffers for his art. "The show has all these guys with great bodies, and they still make me get naked in bed," Masters groans. "It's like, 'Can I just walk around in a kaftan?' I mean, I'm not totally over the hill yet, but I thought my days of taking my clothes off on-camera were over!" To minimize humiliation, the actor is now kamikaze dieting. "I try to eat only one meal a day. Like today, I had a bagel with nothing on it, an apple and a banana. Then tonight, I'll have a salad. It's pathetic. I'm starving," Masters sighs. "But I have to think of my public."
And, of course, his reviews.
Pain In The Neck
"When I was 27, I broke my neck in a car wreck," recalls Masters. "I was only going 35 miles per hour, but I wasn't wearing a seat belt and I hit a slick spot on the road. I had a C-2 [hangman's] break, which is bad, but I went to the hospital and they misread my X-ray and sent me home. Then – this is the oddest thing – the hospital neglected to get my phone number. After I was gone, they realized they had made a mistake, but didn't know how to get in touch with me."
"I had been talking to one of the doctors about how I had been doing a TV movie with George Peppard. So the next day, the phone rings and it's George telling me to go to the hospital. So I went back and my neck was killing me. They instantly put me on a gurney and wheeled me into a hall and just left me there. At that time, I still smoked cigarettes, and I took one out as this nurse walked by. I said, 'Do you mind if I smoke?' And she said, 'Honey, if I had a broken neck, I'd smoke too.'
"Then, the head of neurosurgey comes in fresh off the golf course and goes, 'My only question is, why aren't you dead?' He put me in this halo traction brace, which is where they drill bolts into your skull. That's why I have all those scars on my head that sometimes show up on TV. The neurosurgeon stands over you like he's working on his car. He's got a screwdriver and he's screwing these three-inch, surgical-tip bolts into your head. The bolts connect to a metal halo that has bars going down to a body cast, which is like wearing a 30-pound T-shirt that's two inches thick. It's dreadful. It makes sex very difficult – although brushing your teeth is even harder."