Days of Future Passed: Richard Benjamin Remembers ‘Westworld’

By David Weiner

Before there was the Terminator, there was the Gunslinger.

Like any great Sci-Fi tale, writer-director Michael Crichton’s 1973 thriller WESTWORLD was not only forward-thinking but cynically realistic in its dystopian view that technology will ultimately turn against its creator. In this particular instance, it’s an android that holds a grudge, and Yul Brynner’s relentless, deadly force provided the template for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s equally iconic cybernetic organism.

“It was scarier than I remembered,” the film’s star Richard Benjamin told me of his impression of WESTWORLD after his most recent viewing of the film. The veteran star of such broad-ranging film and TV projects as CATCH-22, LOVE AT FIRST BITE, and QUARK — and director of such memorable films as MY FAVORITE YEAR, RACING WITH THE MOON, MERMAIDS, and THE MONEY PIT — is not particularly fond of watching himself on screen, but his revisit sparked a number of new insights: “Michael [Crichton] was really ahead of all this kind of stuff today. When you see pictures like EX MACHINA — she’s a robot, but she turns out to be lethal — and there’s a TV show called HUMANS, which is very interesting because someone does sleep with a robot in there — all these things are children of Michael’s writing.”

After cutting his teeth in the director’s chair on the 1972 TV-movie PURSUIT, Crichton made his feature-film debut with WESTWORLD, and Benjamin noted that the towering, 6’9 novelist-turned-director was impeccably prepared. “He knew exactly what he wanted. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and you get smarter around him. I mean, you think you get smarter around him, because his intellect and also his wit and everything is on such a high level that it brings you up.”

WESTWORLD is set in a near future in which tourists pay top dollar to live out their innermost fantasies — and perhaps work
their way through the seven deadly sins — at adult-oriented theme parks like Western World, Roman World, and Medieval World. In a controlled environment populated by compliant, servile androids and monitored by white-coat lab technicians, park guests can indulge their most base urges, from picking fights and wanton sex to even killing for pleasure. In WESTWORLD, even the horses and snakes are manufactured synthetic creatures. Everything is controlled. Naturally, this “highly reliable” technology develops an unspecified virus, resulting in a slow chain of glitches, anomalies, and malfunctions that crescendo with out-and-out robot revolt mayhem.

“[Michael] was creating this whole [concept] of the machines going crazy — something he really believed in — that people were giving too much over to them,” said Benjamin. “And you can see it all in JURASSIC PARK and all the stuff he did.” Notably, WESTWORLD was the first film to employ computer-generated imagery in the narrative — a simplistic pixelation, fundamentally, albeit very complicated to create — in the form of the Gunslinger’s point of view: basic grid-like patterns showing body-heat signatures that allow him to track his prey.


WESTWORLD was a project unlike anything that had come Benjamin’s way, and he jumped at the chance to play cowboy on the big screen. “I just said yes right away because where was a person like me going to get to be in a Western gun fight? You know what I mean? And do all the things you dream about as a kid. So it made perfect sense to me, and it was also science fiction, which I loved. It had all those ingredients.”

One of the pleasures of watching WESTWORLD is living vicariously through Benjamin’s emotional character arc as he tries to temper his excitement about the experience, work through his trepidation over shooting someone or sleeping with a sex robot, and then easing into the nonchalant nature of it all. Benjamin’s innate excitement for the film role itself emanates through his performance. It also invites the viewer to identify with his character’s terror and fear for his safety when the Gunslinger targets him for certain death.

Benjamin said he had no hesitation about taking on the horseback riding and stunt work required of his role, offering, “I looked forward to all of that. It was the 12-year-old in me that took over, so the idea I could ride and all that kind of stuff — it was pretty much a dream come true.” Of course, that meant Benjamin and co-stars James Brolin and Dick van Patten could engage in the ultimate clichéd Western saloon brawl and love every minute of it.

“We all were doing stuff we wouldn’t get to do ordinarily, you know? All of a sudden, we’re in a John Ford bar fight here. How’s that going to happen? So we all wanted to do as much as we can, including all the riding and the shooting and all that stuff.”


Through all this fun, Benjamin bonded with his co-stars, becoming good friends with Brolin, Brynner, and Crichton. “We got along right away,” said Benjamin of Brolin. “I just thought he was great for the part. He looked great. We’d sit around in between camera set-ups and we got to be friends. He’s a really nice guy, real down to earth. … When we did some of the stuff at Red Rock Canyon, which was where we shot the exteriors, Paula, my wife, came out there with us and we all went horseback riding together. It was really just a total pleasure.”

Benjamin recalled that Brynner loved being on the WESTWORLD set, and would even show up when he wasn’t scheduled to work. “The [assistant directors] went crazy because they thought somebody had made a mistake and called him, and when they said, ‘Mr. Brynner, you’re not called today. Who called you?’ He said, ‘Nobody called me.’ They said, ‘Well, why are you here?’ And he said, ‘I can’t think of a better place to be.’ He loved being around movies. He loved making movies.”

The two men forged a nice friendship, and Benjamin remarked that the larger-than-life THE KING AND I Oscar winner was always armed with a good story. “I couldn’t always tell if he was making up something,” Benjamin laughed. “It turned out it was all real and all true. He took me out to a Japanese restaurant on Pico Boulevard for lunch one day when we had a break, and they all knew him in there, and he was talking to all of them in fluent Japanese. So he was surprising all the time.”

Benjamin also recalled a noteworthy exchange with Brynner that imparted some solid acting advice: “We talked about movies, and he talked about Westerns, and he talked about how he gave away most of his lines on MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. He said that in a movie like that, it’s better not to talk too much. I think he actually says that line to me in WESTWORLD. But he had much more dialogue originally, and gave most of it away. And he said, ‘Then, when you say something, it has real weight.’”

Incidentally, Brynner’s Gunslinger character came pre-loaded with dramatic weight, given the fact that he wore the exact same costume from 1960’s THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. The visual cue gave knowing audiences a smart additional layer of recognition for the seasoned antagonist that he portrays.

As for Crichton, Benjamin maintained a long-standing friendship with the fellow director that also happened to include top-notch Japanese cuisine. “We got to be very good friends and hung out a lot after the movie. He liked going to these Japanese shabu-shabu places. We’d have dinner together, he and I and Paula, over the years. We got to be really good friends with him. We were close to him just before he passed away. But he was just so stimulating to be around.”


A solid box-office hit (pulling in close to four times its budget) and a flashpoint for water-cooler conversation, WESTWORLD spawned a 1976 sequel, FUTUREWORLD, and a very short-lived 1980 TV series, BEYOND WESTWORLD. You can also probably thank the film’s influence for the circuit-faced “Fembot” foes in THE BIONIC WOMAN and THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN.

Benjamin was not involved in any of the WESTWORLD follow-up projects, although he was approached to star in FUTUREWORLD, which saw the brief return of Brynner’s Gunslinger. “There was talk of my involvement, and I met the producer out here, but I found that Michael wasn’t going to do it, and that Michael wasn’t going to write it,” explained Benjamin. “There’s something about the vision of the person, you know? And I saw that that wasn’t going to be there. Making a sequel or something without his input — to me, that was the whole thing. Michael was it. Michael was the whole reason to do it.”

After multiple decades, WESTWORLD returned in a clever new incarnation in 2016 as an HBO series under the intellectual guidance of Jonathan Nolan (creator of PERSON OF INTEREST and co-writer of many of brother Christopher Nolan’s films, including THE PRESTIGE, THE DARK KNIGHT, and INTERSTELLAR) and his wife/partner, Lisa Joy, with executive producers J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk. Delving deeper into Crichton’s futuristic concepts with a contemporary take on “the dawn of artificial consciousness” paired with the timelessness of human nature, the series ran for four seasons before HBO execs unfortunately pulled the plug.

Pulling the plug on WESTWORLD… Nothing can go wrong there. Right?

(This article first appeared in Famous Monsters of Filmland issue #288)



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