Ben: Yes, it is.
Huw: Hi, Ben. Thanks for taking my call.
Ben: Youre welcome.
Huw: This is Huw Williams here from the BBC here in Cardiff.
Ben: Its nice to have an interruption.
Huw: Tell me, where is home, Ben?
Ben: Uh, Im in Malibu, California, near Los Angeles.
Huw: The weather good there?
Ben: Beautiful right now. Its been a little foggy. That should be something youre accustomed to.
Huw: Absolutely. Yes. We live in Wales. We get it all the time.
Ben: I have, Ive always wanted to go there, especially out in the Welsh countryside.
Huw: It is nice out here.
Ben: Yeah, Ive seen pictures. Delightful.
Huw: Yeah, its a nice place. Well you must come. When you do, let us know youre coming.
Ben: Thank you. Thank you, I will.
H: Alias Smith and Jones. I loved the series. Did you enjoy making it?
Ben: Well, in retrospect, it was the high mark of my career as it turns out even though I was very young at the time. And it was fun to make in the sense that I was just beginning a career, so it was fun in that respect. But I know the question youre asking. It seems like so much fun to ride horses and makes westerns. But it can get very hot and dusty and dirty, and the hours are long, and Im sure your listeners know that filmmaking is not as exotic as it comes off. Its a lot of, you know, long hours and hard work.
Huw: And it was very dusty there as well. Where was it filmed?
Ben: We filmed it in what is now high-rise office buildings in California. Back in the early 70s when we made Alias Smith and Jones, California had probably half the population it has today, so we were out in fields where Universal City tour rides are now operating and where apartment buildings exist. And we filmed a little in Utah. One year we spent a couple of weeks in Utah. But basically it was all right here in Los Angeles -- where you could not film today.
H: Because its been built over.
Ben: Exactly. Thered be power lines and everything else in the way.
H: They built over Devils Hole?
Ben: No, Devils Hole, I think we went to a local state park. Yeah, a state park I think was where Devils Hole was, so that probably still exists.
H: Had you ever done westerns before:
Ben: Before Smith and Jones? No.
H: So could you ride a horse then?
Ben: I took lessons. Quickly.
H: How long did it take you to do that?
Ben: Not long. And I kind of learned on the job. The Teamsters. The rule of thumb is always make friends with the Teamsters when youre on a set. And I did, and they helped me out, and they looked after me, and made sure that bad things didnt happen. And so I just learned on the job.
H: Of course, before Alias Smith and Jones, there had been a lot of westerns on television, hadnt there? I mean back as far as Bonanza, and Maverick, and Rawhide. What made a television company want to make another one?
Ben: Well, the movie, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, had done very well a few years before, and ASJ is a direct replica of that, uh, of that movie.
H: Because comparisons have been made with that. And it was a huge success.
Ben: No, it was definitely where the television writers got their ideas from.
H: And it included such good quality guests as well, Smith and Jones did. Im thinking of Sam Jaffe, Burl Ives. Sally Field, I remember, as well.
Ben: Uh hum. I did a couple of shows with Sally.
Ben: Walter Brennan.
Ben: I think I counted about 6 Academy Award winners eventual Academy Award winners that guest starred on that show with me.
H: So what made them want to do it?
Ben: Hey, its work isnt it?
H: Yeah. (laughing)
Ben: On some level, thats the bottom line. Were actors and we want to work. And the older men, you know, perhaps theyre not as, uh, they werent as busy. And their careers, like with Walter Brennan. And if you can get them great. And for Sally, she was still young.
H: What was it like working with Pete Duel?
Ben: Uh. Well, the chemistry between Peter and I was wonderful. Ive never quite had it since. It was a marvelous chemistry. However, it was like being married. We were there 12 to 14 hours a day with each other, and when the day was over we both went our separate ways, went home, and got enough rest to come back and start the next day.
H: But there seemed to be a genuine rapport there. You know, sometimes
Ben: There was. There was a wonderful chemistry.
H: You seemed like a double act from vaudeville or something.
Ben: (laughing) It was a good chemistry, and it began right at the audition. I remember the day we auditioned. I was teamed up with him for the audition it was done on film. And I sized him up and I saw his personality, and I chose another personality that contrasted with his, but got along with his. Because he was very open and gregarious so I chose a little more of a standoffish, quieter character. And it seemed to work. And we did that from the audition. And so we both got the roles from that audition tape.
H: So you hit it off straight away?
Ben: We hit it off. Peter and I werent friends off the set we werent enemies obviously -- but we werent close friends away from work. We just had a good working relationship. Simply because he had his life, I had mine. You know there was no time after work.
H: So there was no time to get together for drinks afterwards or things like that?
Ben: No. So what you saw was a wonderful working professional relationship. And the tensions that came into Peters life before he died, I really was just minimally aware of.
H: Did he seem unhappy? Because, I mean, tragically as many people will remember, Pete Duel died on New Years Eve, 1971. What do you recall about the day you heard hed died?
Ben: Well, I was living in a little, uh, what we used to call crash pads a little apartment with a mattress on the floor. And I remember the associate producer, about 6am, or 4am or something like that coming and waking me to tell me that Peter had died, and it was, uh, it was a shock. The best thing to say about Petey, he was so lovable, so likeable. He was much more mercurial that I am. And took things to heart. You know, if the whales were migrating off the coast of California, and someone interrupted their trip, that bothered Peter. It just bothered his sensibilities. Uh. He was a much more complex man and I think that issue probably led to his suicide.
H: It was officially ruled a suicide, wasnt it?
Ben: Yes, it was certainly a suicide. There was no question about it.
H: It must have been extremely difficult then to know whether to carry on with the show or not. Did you consider leaving?
Ben: I just didnt deal with any of that. I figured that wasnt my choice. That was the companys choice. It was their show. I was an employee. If they wanted to carry on I would carry on. It certainly wasnt a lot of fun, and it never -- you could never replicate that relationship and that chemistry again. And they soon figured that out. But that wasnt my issue. I just sort of numbly went on.
H: Cause you carried on with Roger Davis who had already been associated with the show.
Ben: Right. Very difficult shoes for Roger to step into, of course.
H: Yeah, because I dont think, to be fair, I suppose that in the eyes of the public that they didnt have that affection for him that they did for Pete Duel, did they?
Ben: No. Theres no way. You cant make a change like that on a show.
H: Do you think that it would have been easier if they had cast Roger Davis as a new character?
Ben: I think the show was dead when Peter died. I think, I think that was it. I think Peters death undermined the fun-lovingness of the show. It sort of snapped people to a reality that this wasnt just make believe, that there were real human beings with real problems, real issues and so the fantasy kind of got lost, I think, with his death.
H: Yeah, cause you bounced off each other, you and Pete Duel. I mean it was really sort of an excellent partnership. Was there much improvisation with what you did or was it all scripted?
Ben: Uh. Like any show, the script is there and Peter and I would go off on it occasionally and the directors would use whatever worked, so there was always improvisation. Especially with the time constraints. There was so much work to do. I cant stress, I guess, too much, that was a difficult show to shoot, because it was an outdoor western. And outdoor shows are much more difficult, especially when youre dealing with animals and a large cast. And just keeping two actors on a horse in the same shot can sometimes be a problem.
H: Tell us, what was your typical working day doing the show?
Ben: You mean in terms of the hours?
Ben: I think we probably started around 6:30 and finished when the sun set. That would depend on the time of the year. It was basically 12 on and 12 off.
H: Those are very long hours, arent they?
Ben: Those are long. Yeah.
H: The program finished in 1973. What did you do after that?
Ben: Well, I did about 6 more series, but none of them to the same acclaim, nor did they last as long. I did things such as Winds of War. I did a series with Rosemary Harris. She played my mother on a show, The Chisums. It was another western with Robert Preston. I mean, I worked with some wonderful, wonderful actors over the years. It was just that Smith and Jones had sort of a cult appeal.
H: Did you ever keep any mementos from Smith and Jones? Like a wanted poster or something like that?
Ben: Uh, Im sure I have them around, but theyre not displayed, and theyre put away and theyre put away, lets put it that way.
H: Is that because you find it difficult to look at them now?
Ben: No its just that I find it difficult to find space, you know, for stuff, and like I say, my career, my life, moved on. There have been many shows since and many relationships since, and those are the pictures that are up on my mantelpiece, you know.
H: Yeah. Are you able to watch Alias Smith and Jones still? Do you have it on film or anything?
Ben: I have old tapes that people have given me. Ironically enough, it has been fans that have provided me with the tapes, because when Smith and Jones was on, there wasnt even videotape in those days. It hadnt quite begun, so over the years, as it would replay, different fans would send me the tapes and its their tapes that I have.
H: Well, you ought to let me know which ones youve got missing. Because I think Ive got the whole of the first season.
Ben: Do you?
H: Well, they repeated it over here on the BBC about 95, 96, and me and my wife taped them all.
Ben: Well thank you for that.
H: Its great.
Ben: I have watched them occasionally and its not that its painful, its just that its so long ago.
H: Did you enjoy the celebrity lifestyle?
Ben: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, I had a good time. Uh, I wasnt a big partier, but I was single, and it certainly opened up, you know, the world of women to me. Because Id been fairly not shy but I certainly wasnt the life of the party and was somewhat reclusive, so it did force me to go out into the world a bit more, and to mingle, and I had some good times. And I still have some relationships from those days and I still correspond with and talk to.
H: So what do you spend your time doing now, Ben?
Ben: Well, Im an avid tennis player, always have been. I read. Im still active in acting, so therell be auditions to go to. I have dogs. I take in stray dogs. I take in stray people, too.
H: Stray people?
Ben: Pardon me?
H: You take in stray people?
Ben: Yeah, I call them stray people. I have, uh, I sort of have an open house where people come and go. I have a few people living here. Ones a college professor, and a woman, and then I have a man whos a tennis pro -- he lives here. And I have rooms here, and they live here. And then other friends come and go. A couple of friends are coming in from Arkansas a couple of girlfriends are coming in from Arkansas to visit. And, you know, that fills up my life.
H: And what about these auditions? Can we expect to see you on TV again soon?
Ben: You never know. You just never know whats going to happen and whats going to work. Sometimes you do an audition and you get a role, and the series doesnt go or its just local here in the United States, or it could be a commercial. Various things.
H: Ben, thanks ever so much for talking to me.
Ben: Well, Huw. Thank you.
H: And thanks for Alias Smith and Jones. I shall continue watching my videos and enjoying every minute of it.
Ben: Well, thank you. I wish it could have lasted longer. Im sure that if Peter were here he would give a rueful smile, and he would say, you know, Im sorry, too, and that he wished that he could still be here and that we could have done it longer.
H: Well, I wish that too. Thanks for talking to me, Ben.
Ben: Well, thank you.
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