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Smooth Operator

updated 05/05/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/1997 01:00AM

For Benzali, good acting is no laughing matter

DANIEL BENZALI IS OBSESSED WITH what he calls "the darkness." That might explain why the actor is wearing shades in the dimly lit L.A. rehearsal room where he jams most Thursday nights with his jazz trio. "Let's try 'Angel Eyes,' " Benzali tells his pianist. Moments later he launches into the old Sinatra tune. "So drink up, all you people," Benzali croons, "order anything you see. And have fun, you happy people, the drink and the laugh's on me."

The lyric is ironic, which is fitting since Benzali, 51, rarely evokes revelry—either in real life or onscreen. When he portrayed Ted Hoffman, the dour albeit mesmerizing defense attorney on the ill-fated ABC drama Murder One, Benzali smiled as often as he combed his nonexistent hair. His trademark scowl remains as unsettling as ever in the current film Murder at 1600, in which he plays a troubled White House security guard (opposite Wesley Snipes) who thwarts a murder investigation involving the President. "There's a dark aspect to a lot of my characters," says Benzali, in the gritty rasp he uses so effectively in his various roles. But he too, he admits, has a "dark quality."

That's clear from the classic film noir videos—Kiss Me Deadly, The Asphalt Jungle, Sunset Boulevard—stacked in the den of his rented, five-bedroom Malibu house. Late at night, often alone, the brooding bachelor watches his beloved movies. "He isn't an easy guy to get to know," says his friend and neighbor, actor Pierce Brosnan, "but when you read between the lines and sift through the pauses, there's a guy I am very comfortable with." When it comes to Benzali's personal life, the ex-TV lawyer clings to his right to remain silent. His family and friends are "very private people," he warns. Still, he's willing to lament his recent break with actress and former fiancée Kim Cattrall (Mannequin). "I care about her very much," he says. "We're still friends."

Not so with Murder One executive producer Steven Bochco, who reportedly clashed with Benzali over creative decisions before replacing him with Anthony LaPaglia last fall. Benzali maintains he "wanted to do one season and start doing movies." (Bochco declined to comment.) "There was so much pressure and hype on Murder One," recalls costar J.C. MacKenzie who played Arnold Spivak. "We all thought it was going to be the next ER. Daniel had to carry the show. I think he was tired."

Benzali's exhausting journey as an actor began early on. His parents—Carlo, a salesman and ex-stage actor, and Lee, a cook—moved from Brazil to Brooklyn when Daniel was a toddler. As a boy he sang doo-wop on street corners. "In those days," Benzali says, "harmonizing with friends was part of being a kid." After high school, between Off-Broadway acting jobs, Benzali sold encyclopedias door-to-door until death intervened. "I'm in the middle of this wonderful spiel," says Benzali, "and this hysterical woman comes in to announce, 'Grandma just died!' Everyone rushed out the door. I quit right then."

In the late '70s, Benzali moved to London, where he became a full-time actor and married Lynda Medwell, a potter. They divorced six years later. A brief stint in the elite Royal Shakespeare Company led to roles in the London productions of Evita (as Juan Peron) and, in 1993, Sunset Boulevard. "He was unlike anyone else, with this completely bald and slightly hypnotic appearance," says director Trevor Nunn, who cast Benzali as Max the butler in Boulevard. Shortly after, Benzali moved to L.A. and began his first job for Bochco, as a mob lawyer on NYPD Blue.

With TV at least temporarily behind him, Benzali is focused on films and his band. He hopes to cut a record and work in movies "that tackle reality head on. But," he adds with a glare, "that doesn't mean I can't do comedy."

PETER CASTRO
KEN BAKER and CHAMP CLARK in Los Angeles and SIMON PERRY in London

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