With Stunning Work on L.A. Law, Larry Drake Presses His Suit for TV's Most Moving Character, Benny

updated 02/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

They are among the most heart-wrenching images ever seen on prime-time network TV. Falsely accused of rape, Benny Stulwicz, the mentally retarded office boy on L.A. Law, sits in the witness chair, so terrified and confused by the charges against him—and the zeal of a gung ho prosecutor—he can't even comprehend that he didn't commit the crime. Benny, a man-child who has lived with his mother all his life, breaks down in the office—and is comforted by some otherwise preoccupied co-workers—when he learns his mother has died. A grown man with a 4-year-old's social awareness, he is so bewildered by his sexual urges that one of the attorneys has to take him to a zoo to show him that mating is a natural process.

Played with exceptional sensitivity and realism by actor Larry Drake, Benny has become one of the most talked-about new characters of this and many a TV season. Each of this year's last three shows, beginning with the rape episode, has broken all of L.A. Law's ratings to date. This Thursday's show (Feb. 18), in which Benny meets a mentally disabled woman and makes his first venture into romance, promises to be equally memorable. "Because he's guileless and innately kind," says Susan Ruttan, who plays the high-strung, soft-hearted secretary, Roxanne, "people have shown more concern over Benny than any other character." More than that, experts in mental disability believe that Benny has begun what may be a revolution in the way TV depicts such people.

To answer the question most often asked: No, Drake, 38, is not retarded. He's just a terrific actor, and it's a tribute to his performance that people on the street (and, initially, even his L.A. Law cast members) have assumed that he is disabled. "Once people see me doing un-Benny things like driving a car, smoking a cigarette or talking normally," says Drake, "they figure out I'm an actor."

Drake's 18-year career has consisted primarily of dinner and regional theater and numerous TV bits playing what he calls "goons with guns." He has also portrayed mentally disabled characters before, most notably the lumbering Lennie in Of Mice and Men at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. The 6'3", 220-lb. Drake has used Lennie as an audition piece for about 15 years. "It's like playing Hamlet for normal-size folks," he says.

Drake was concerned that being "normal" would be something of a handicap when he filmed this week's episode. The person his character meets at a recreational center is played by a mentally disabled woman, Heidi Hennessy, 32. "My worry was that we'd look like apples and oranges," says Drake. "For all the commendation I've gotten, I've never been in that situation before." Hennessy, who belongs to Theatre Unlimited, a San Francisco-based group for both able and disabled actors, wasn't particularly nervous. "Boy, did I get along with him!" she says. But Drake felt "pure paranoia" until he saw the dailies, which he calls "fine—maybe even excellent."

Lord only knows why Drake was that concerned. His work has been so moving and convincing that next week, on behalf of L.A. Law, Drake will receive an official commendation from the Association for Retarded Citizens for promoting public understanding of the mentally disabled.

If Drake brings an uncommon degree of authenticity to the role, it's based in part on an uncommon degree of empathy. "Larry usually finds something in himself that connects with the characters he plays," says screenwriter Charles Pogue (The Fly, Psycho III), a friend of Drake's since the two lived in Dallas in the mid-'70s. "Because of his looks and size, he's faced a lot of the blind prejudice, in terms of his acting career, that Benny has faced. But he refuses to be put in the slot of big and dumb."

Drake's early life was a struggle in other ways. Raised in Tulsa, Okla., the middle child among three boys, he grew up in a lower-middle-class home that was short on love. "It wasn't a great life," he says, citing family-wide "verbal fistfights at least once a week." His father, Raymond, a drafting engineer for an oil company, died of emphysema in 1980. While Drake stays in touch with his mother, Lorraine, who lives in a Tulsa nursing center, he's estranged from his brothers and has spoken to neither of them in two years. "The imperfections in my family made me learn to deal with things on my own and solve problems for myself," he says. "Besides, no one's got that 'Donna Reed' family. My parents did their best—that earns a lot of forgiveness. But they say children grow up in spite of their parents, and I think I did."

Larry left for the University of Oklahoma in 1967, determined to become an actor. His degree took 11 years to complete because he was touring with theater groups. Moving to L.A. in 1980, he worked occasionally in TV and film and appeared in 14 plays at the Old Globe before getting a one-shot chance on L.A. Law A last year. Following that episode, in which Benny was cleared of a robbery charge, the show's writers realized they had a scene-stealer on their hands and this season brought Benny back on a regular basis.

Drake has given life to the character partly by spending time with Jeff Miller, 28, a mentally disabled man who lives in a Malibu board-and-care home. The two are now friends, getting together for lunch a few times a month. Visiting Drake on the set, Miller wangled his way into becoming an extra in L.A. Law's Christmas party scene. Drake says he doesn't copy Miller's behavior in shaping Benny, but that often "Jeff reminds me of something in me that I can put into Benny. When Jeff gets nervous he stutters, but as Benny I'll go more to a searching-for-the-word type thing, with a lot of 'urns' and 'wells.' " The key to Benny's physical appearance is a lack of tension, says Drake. "I let my whole face go because it pulls my eyes down a little. My eyes tend to cross anyway, so I let them drift, which puts a strange cast on them."

While the results have earned dizzying applause, Drake hasn't lost his equilibrium. He's a pragmatist who likes to keep things simple, from his silver, un-airconditioned 1979 Honda Civic to his small, rented one-bedroom house in one of L.A.'s run-down neighborhoods. On weekends he turns into a sports coach potato (baseball is his main passion, the "boring, white-bread Dodgers" his main peeve) and occasionally sees actress Ruth de Sosa, who is appearing in a local play, Tamara. She lived with Drake for three years; they broke up six months ago, but remain friends.

Drake isn't capitalizing on his sudden celebrity. "I don't know if I'm a star now," he says, "or just a little meteor that may burn out soon." He feels he's been an actor too long to be swept away by fame. "I've done fine in this business," he says, "but I've never made quite enough money to have a family or have many options. I keep looking at my life and thinking, 'If I'm going to get out of this business, I'd better do it soon.' " Given the success of Benny, Drake may have waited a little too long.

—Written by Robin Micheli, reported by Kristina Johnson

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