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Paula Prentiss: Pussycat And Stepford Wife, Then And Now

Entertainment | December 30, 2020

Actress Paula Prentiss in Vogue, 1968. (Photo by Bert Stern/Condé Nast via Getty Images)

Paula Prentiss' most successful films were the '60s comedies Where The Boys Are and What's New Pussycat?, as well as the '70s thrillers The Stepford Wives and The Parallax View. (Fans of the niche horror-comedy genre might also include the campy Saturday The 14th.) Prentiss is the kind of actress who always radiated star power (helped no doubt by her nearly 60 year marriage to Richard Benjamin) yet didn't have the greatest luck. She had a beloved, ahead-of-its-time sitcom (He And She, with Benjamin) but it only lasted one season. She was in films with legends like John Wayne (In Harm's Way), Rock Hudson (Man's Favorite Sport?) and Orson Welles (Catch-22), though you'd be hard-pressed to find any of them on TV these days. If you don't know who Paula Prentiss is, maybe you just weren't around in the '60s and '70s -- after all, she essentially retired from acting in 1983. But if that's the case, it's time you learned.

Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin. Source: (CBS/Wikipedia)

Paula Prentiss, the daughter of a social sciences professor, was born Paula Ragusa in San Antonio, Texas on March 4, 1938. She initially attended Randolph-Macon Women’s College, where she was in a pre-med program. However, she attended a summer course in theater arts at Northwestern University and then transferred there in her junior year to finish her studies as a drama student. In 1959, she graduated and then began her graduate studies.  

Prentiss And Benjamin Were College Sweethearts

Source: Pinterest

Her time at Northwestern would shape the path her life took, as while she was there, she met her future husband, the actor Richard Benjamin when he directed her in a play about Zelda Fitzgerald’s life. The tall actress met her match in Benjamin, who was taller than her, since at 5'10", she was tall for a woman. After graduating she moved in with Benjamin, a bit of a taboo move at the time. While at Northwestern, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer discovered her and offered her a seven-year film contract in 1960. 

Prentiss Was A Hit As A Spring Breaker In 'Where The Boys Are'

Prentiss and Hutton in The Honeymoon Machine. Source: (Pinterest)

After signing the contract, she became Paula Prentiss and marriage soon followed. MGM did not like the idea of sending her out on publicity tours with a man she was not married to, and so they convinced the pair to marry in 1961, and capitalized on the publicity of the wedding. In 1960, Prentiss costarred with Jim Hutton in Where the Boys Are. The two had great onscreen chemistry, and so they were cast in three more movies together: in 1961 they acted in The Honeymoon Machine and Bachelor in Paradise, and in the following year, in their final film, The Horizontal Lieutenant

The Beautiful, Spirited Prentiss Quickly Became A Star

In As You Like It. Source: (Wikipedia).

In 1963, she starred opposite Rock Hudson in Man’s Favorite Sport?, which was the first film she made for a studio other than MGM. That year, she also appeared on stage in As You Like It. She continued to have significant big screen roles, in The World of Henry Orient (1964), and In Harm's Way (1965). 

Prentiss Had A Breakdown After 'What's New Pussycat?'

In What's New, Pussycat? Source: (IMDb).

In 1965, she also starred in What’s New Pussycat with Woody Allen, Peter O’Toole, and Peter Sellers; incidentally, the film was Woody Allen’s first produced screenplay. While in Paris on the set of the film, she had a bit of a breakdown, possibly brought on by working too much.

“One day during shooting,” she told People magazine, “I just climbed up the ropes to the catwalk and started walking the beams. Very loudly and clearly I called down to everyone on the set, ‘I’m going to jump.’ A French technician grabbed me, and there I was, hanging by one arm.”

After that, she spent nine months in the hospital.  

Prentiss and Benjamin Starred On The Sitcom 'He And She'

With her husband. Source: (Wikimedia)

Prentiss then appeared with her husband in the television show He And She. According to Prentiss, working with her husband on the show was also therapeutic for the couple after what they had gone through and the show mirrored their relationship. The show was running during an era when zany fish-out-of-water or supernatural fare such as The Beverly Hillbillies or I Dream Of Jeannie were popular. He And She was about the life of a young New York couple, both professionals, and it didn’t attract a lot of viewers. Because the show had low ratings, it only ran for one season, from 1967-1968, although Prentiss was nominated for an Emmy for best Performance by Actress in a Comedy for the show. And despite its short run, He And She gained a reputation as a precursor to more sophisticated sitcoms, and in showing a woman with a career outside the home, it paved the way for later television shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Following the television show, Prentiss had a number of smaller roles, including a role in Catch 22 in 1970 alongside Benjamin. In 1974, she had her first child, Ross, who was followed four years later by their daughter Prentiss. 

Prentiss Was The Good (Though Doomed) Stepford Wife

In The Stepford Wives. Source: (IMDb).

After the birth of her son, she was cast as Bobbie Markowe, the second lead in The Stepford Wives in 1975, based on the satiric novel by Ira Levin. In the film, Katharine Ross plays a woman who moves out of New York City with her husband to Stepford, Connecticut, where she soon begins to suspect there's something wrong with the town's beautiful, submissive wives. Prentiss plays the only Stepford wife who seems to have human emotions and faults. After Prentiss' appearance in the film, she and her husband hosted Saturday Night Live in 1980, being one of the only couples to do so. In 1983, along with Benjamin, she made Packin’ it In and appeared in the made-for-TV movie M.A.D.D. Mother’s Against Drunk Drivers that same year.  

Acting With Her Children

In I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House. Source: (IMDb)

Over the next 30 years, she guest starred on television shows like Murder, She Wrote and had a few cameo appearances in films. In 2016, she emerged again in a horror film, Oz Perkins’ I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Prior to this film, she appeared on stage with her son in All My Sons, and opposite her daughter in Mrs. Warren’s Profession

Tags: Ladies | Paula Prentiss | Richard Benjamin | Then And Now

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!