Hollywood veteran and IU professor Robby Benson to speak at IU Cinema

In 2010, Robby Benson was teaching at New York University. With one class left in the semester, the veteran of film, television and Broadway learned he needed heart surgery, again, and immediately.

Repairs to his valve defect were failing.

Robby Benson

Robby Benson

Benson missed his class. Instead, he was off to The Cleveland Clinic for a fourth open-heart surgery.

Remarkably, he turned 60 in January.

The birthday might seem like a major milestone, but it wasn’t something he pondered much. “I don’t think of time in the same way that most people do,” Benson said. “I guess that’s the milestone… still breathing!”

Benson has shared a lifetime of experience with his Indiana University students since his arrival in 2013. Now the Bloomington community will have the chance to hear him speak about his career in several appearances this week at IU Cinema:

Film screenings are free and open to the public, but tickets are required. Tickets are not needed for Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lectures, but seating is limited.

A Hoosier for life

Benson wrote his 1977 film “One on One” about a naive, small-town basketball player who comes of age in a corrupt college athletics program. While the final cut of the film touched upon the treatment of student-athletes, some of that subplot remained on the cutting room floor.

“Ever since I was pretty young, I understood the plight of the student-athlete,” Benson said. A standout in basketball and baseball, his talents might have brought him a college or pro career had he not instead pursued acting.

Robby Benson wrote "One on One" and starred as college basketball player Henry Steele. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros./The Kobal Collection

Benson wrote “One on One” and also starred as college basketball player Henry Steele. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros./The Kobal Collection

Benson has remained passionate that the athletes who give so much to a university should receive a true education in return. “When the student-athlete is finished with an athletic career, which is always pretty young, what do they do after that?”

One of Benson’s most gratifying contributions to IU has been his role in the creation of the “Hoosiers for Life” lifetime degree guarantee.

The groundbreaking program is the centerpiece of the Student-Athlete Bill of Rights announced by IU Athletics in 2014. Under the program, any former scholarship student-athlete who was eligible for at least two seasons and left IU in good standing can return to complete an undergraduate degree without being charged for tuition or books.

Benson approached IU Bloomington Provost Lauren Robel and later IU Director of Athletics Fred Glass with the idea. To his surprise, they listened and made his dream a reality.

“Robby Benson is really an unsung hero in the whole ‘Hoosiers for Life’ initiative. I think that all of us owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing that idea to us,” Glass said.


For those of a certain age, Benson needs no introduction.

After a childhood in live theater, his athleticism and boy-next-door looks vaulted him to stardom in the 1970s and 1980s in films such as “Ice Castles” and “Running Brave.” Then he seemed to vanish.

Robby Benson Running Brave

In “Running Brave,” Benson played Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills.

Behind the scenes, Benson had his first open-heart surgery in 1984 at just 28 years of age. A dangerous valve defect was hidden for years beneath his athletic abilities and fit frame. Ironically, it was the life-saving surgery that threatened his acting career.

He knew he needed to reinvent himself. He was married to his soulmate, singer Karla DeVito, and they had a young daughter, Lyric. His career wasn’t only his; He needed to support his family.

Benson had always been more than just a movie heartthrob. After moving behind the camera, he directed television series such as “Friends” and the 1990s sitcom “Ellen.” He launched a long teaching career and gave voice to a character for the ages, The Beast in Disney’s animated classic “Beauty and the Beast.”


After his 2010 heart surgery, Benson did not want to return to New York. “The people at NYU were remarkable to me — remarkable — and I had this open invitation to come back,” he said. “But I couldn’t take the city.”

The constant noise and bustle of his downtown neighborhood was too much. He needed a restful place to heal.

I'm Not Dead Yet! book coverNestled away in Cape Cod, he thought a lot about “his cardiac brothers and sisters.” People facing heart surgery had often reached out to him. “It hit me — and it was so obvious — that I only could talk to one person at a time,” he said.

Benson set out to inform and reassure many more patients and families by writing about his own journey through life, show business and medicine in his 2012 book “I’m Not Dead…Yet!

With that accomplished, he thought about teaching again. He was close to accepting an offer when “the funniest thing” happened.

Out of the blue, he was contacted by Indiana University. “How people behaved on the phone and in emails from IU… It was so whimsical and caring and loving and compassionate,” he said.

“But that’s how it happened,” he said. “People here just talked, and before you know it, we were here.”


Benson has devoted himself to making IU Bloomington the best place in the Midwest to study film.

“Talent has absolutely no geographical boundaries,” he said. “And just because they’re sitting at IU does not mean that they can’t leave with a diploma and go work, if that’s what they want. And that’s what I’m trying to do with these film classes here.”

“He said IU students have a unique opportunity to study at a university with a “stellar” theater department, a world-class music school and an atmosphere that is “beyond amenable” to allowing students to study across departmental lines.

Benson in The Chosen

Benson starred in “The Chosen.” His director, Jeremy Kagan, will speak Feb. 11 at IU Cinema. Photo courtesy Westchester Films

Benson has given his students unique opportunities to learn about filmmaking. For example, they can check out film equipment for the weekend, so they have a chance to arrange shoots around busy class schedules.

He wants students to make films the right way, from learning about intellectual property rights to focusing on safety. To that end, he provides students with equipment such as fire extinguishers, high-visibility vests and even snacks.

He also has called upon a lifetime of contacts to videoconference with his classes, including Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Kline; the CEO of DreamWorks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg; and his son, Zephyr, who has recently directed his first film.

Benson also emphasizes storytelling, creativity and having the courage to fail.

“We promote failure, believe me,” he said. “No one sets out to make a bad movie. And at this age, they can make a film that just doesn’t work.”

He aims to create a nurturing, supportive environment where that’s OK. “Being able to completely check your cynicism at the door is an art form,” he said.

“What I’ve seen in my career is how people blossom, how storytellers blossom. They may make something that’s not that great and the next time out it all falls in place,” he said.

Benson appeared wistful looking back on his years of teaching. After spring semester, he has decided to take a breather.

“I fell in love with IU and the people here,” he said.

Benson placed his hand over his heart, and said, “It will never be my last term in here.”

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