Across the room stands a mammoth trophy. The inscription reads: "To Ben Murphy. The World's Greatest Lover."
Lurking between the two messages is the real Ben Murphy. Yes, he does his push-ups. Yes, he works at the other. If you call it work. Murphy surely doesn't.
Ben Murphy is the Jones half of Alias Smith and Jones, a Universal Western in its second season. The other half, Pete Duel, was recently found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. He has been replaced by Roger Davis.
You may not know Ben Murphy too well. Alias S & J is on at the same time as the vastly more popular Flip Wilson Show. But some people know Ben Murphy. They seem to like him quite well. He likes them right back.
"I get lots of fan mail," he says. "The other day a woman sent me a snapshot in a bikini. I called her. She's coming out to visit." But she must wait her place in line. "A girl in Washington, D.C., wrote, and she's coming out next week. The week after, a girl from New Jersey is spending a weekend out here. I love this sort of thing."
Dorothy Bailey works in the office of Roy Huggins, executive producer of Alias S & J. She sits with Murphy in screening rooms where he watches himself act. She sees him on the set. She says, "Ben is warm. He's giving. He has no trouble getting dates, because girls call him. They kept calling him on the set so much it caused chaos. We had to turn off the phone. Ben feels he knows a lot about women, but he doesn't. He knows about girls. He doesn't know the difference." Dorothy Bailey knows from where she speaks. She is, as she says, "over 30." And she has dated Ben Murphy.
That's what a woman friend says. What does a man friend say? Bob Thompson, a film producer, has known Murphy for six years. Thompson signed Murphy to his Universal contract in 1967. "Ben has a basic strength, like a Newman or a Redford. He makes a physical statement. He doesn't have a lot to say. He gets it across. But he tends to remain aloof from people, except for girls. I asked him a couple of years ago, 'Who are your other male friends?'"
"You're the only one," Ben Murphy answered.
And what does Ben Murphy say? "I don't understand me. I'm a stranger to myself. I feel I am different from the crowd. If most people go one way, I go the other. I float through life alone."
Well, not totally alone. When I arrived at his apartment, for our interview, he wasn't there. He was attending a birthday party for a 6-year-old, down the block. Which did not mean the apartment was empty. A brunette and a blonde, one pretty and the other prettier, were on hand to receive me, until Ben returned. The girls live in the same building, a low quadrangle of small apartments surrounding a large pool. The building is called the Tahitienne. Gauguin never had it so good.
Ben Murphy enjoys his pleasure. He will be 30 years old March 6, and perhaps he feels he must make up for lost time. "When I was a kid, I learned that fancy kissing was a mortal sin and anything else much worse. Then I met a girl at the University of Americas in Mexico City. She had a different attitude. She was a positive thinker, a beautiful person. She removed a huge boulder of guilt from my shoulders. My life has been heaped with guilt. Guilt is the greatest killer after bad air and bad food."
The last sentence is the tip-off. This is no total playboy. Murphy eats organic food--raw fruits, raw vegetables. He drinks wheat-germ oil by the bottle, which he admits tastes awful, so he chases it down with organic apple juice. He has measured off a mile on the street outside his apartment, and he runs it every day. He does those push-ups. He doesn't smoke, he drinks a little wine ("I love beer, but it makes me fat as a pig"), and when he isn't acting or exercising or earning his trophy, he is taking acting lessons, or singing lessons, or playing tennis, or going skiing, or practicing karate. He writes unfinished screenplays and he plays the guitar.
Murphy may need all this activity. Alias Smith and Jones, clobbered weekly by Flip Wilson, may not have along life. One trade paper declared the show would be canceled at the end of this season. People at Universal, such as boss-man Roy Huggins (who also writes all the scripts, under a series of pseudonyms) and the show's creator Glen A. Larson, think it will last longer if given a favorable time switch. But one actor who has appeared on Alias S & J, says, "Let's face it. The show doesn't need an alias. Who's looking for it?"
Murphy is of two minds about the show's survival. When he is working on location, riding sweaty horses in hot grimy canyons, the temperature breaking 100 degrees and three rattlesnakes killed before the seventh episode, he says, "I'm not worried if the show folds, I'll work again."
But in his apartment, surrounded by creature comforts and comfortable creatures, he says, "I'd die. I have a brooding fear of being out on the street tomorrow. Money means freedom. I save more than half the bread I'm paid on this show. I don't want to drive a truck ever again."
He makes $800 a week, up from $500 a week last season. His rent is $140 a month, modest for most places and cheap for Hollywood. He drives a five-year-old Chevy, approaching the 100,000-mile mark, which his mother gave him. He invests his money in land. And for all his carefree ways, Ben Murphy wears a crash helmet when he drives that five-year-old Chevy. He has a powerful survival instinct.
He was born Benjamin Edward Murphy, in Jonesboro, Ark., and was soon moved to Memphis and then to Chicago, where his father ran a wholesale produce business. It has always been an upward-mobility family, work-oriented, success-oriented. Ben Murphy toiled summers driving a pie truck in Chicago, 60 stops a day. Drivers got mugged and robbed. The guy who hired Murphy dropped dead of a heart attack a year later. But Murphy earned $150 a week, college money.
At the University of Illinois--he's attended eight colleges or universities--he carried a spear in "Julius Caesar" and later played the Young Man in Albee's "The American Dream." On a whim he one day decided to drive to the Pasadena Playhouse and, in a production of "Life with Father," agent Jack Donaldson saw, liked and signed him. Donaldson sent Ben over to Mike Nichols, then making "The Graduate,"and Murphy read for a one-line part. The line was: "Save me a piece." Meaning, a piece of wedding cake. Murphy read his line and turned to Nichols. He said, "Look. I really dig this line. Can I have it?" And Nichols said, "You've got it."
He was paid $125 for one day's work. He borrowed money from his mother for his Screen Actors Guild dues.
He's been acting since--summer stock, a couple of The Virginians, an episode of It Takes a Thief, a couple of movies, and as a regular on the Robert Stack segments of The Name of the Game. He lasted two seasons, or until he attended an NBC cocktail party, at which a producer apologized for not using Ben more often on the show. "That's all right," Murphy said. "I'm using my free time to look for film jobs." He was promptly fired.
In November 1970, he was called to test for a series ABC was rushing in to replace Matt Lincoln. Murphy did not expect to get the part--a starring role--partly because he'd three times tried out for one-line parts in Matt Lincoln and three times been turned down. When he arrived for the test, he discovered six actors and five chairs. He sat on the floor, knowing for sure he was odd man out. He got the job.
The show, Alias Smith and Jones, reminds you of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," if you are in a forgiving mood; and Murphy, in a good-looking blond, blue-eyed way, reminds you of Paul Newman. It bugs Murphy somewhat when people suggest that that is why he got the job. "I'm sure some executives back in New York said, 'He looks like Paul Newman,' but I'm also sure the key is how I acted--did I have the strength to play the role."
He's had the strength, though he's not always sure it's been worth it. "It's a nice little show," he says, "but if you're going up against Flip Wilson, you need more than that. We should be a couple of young guys cutting up. Instead, it's too much a straight Western."
The show's creator, Glen Larson, likes Ben, thinks he's a comer, and takes his complaints lightly. But he hands out a few of his own. "Ben's too concerned with the way he looks. He's always looking for a new jacket, a new shirt. Or he'll spend time on the set looking at still photographs of himself. Sometimes I have to kick him in the pants to get him working."
Executive producer Huggins says of Murphy: "He's beautifully willing not to be the typical Western hero. He's even willing to be the butt of the jokes." But has a rule about such things: better straight than silly and "sometimes Ben goes too broad."
Huggins dismisses the business of Murphy looking like Paul Newman. "It's absurd. The only time he looks like Newman is when he gives you a great big smile. Which he doesn't do very often."
Of course not. He saves those for female friends.
What is Ben Murphy's future? "I'm not ready for marriage," he says. "Maybe when I'm in my late 30s. I hope someday to own my own film-producing company." But he doesn't know when; he doesn't like to think much of tomorrow. He didn't know what he'd do when the show finished shooting in March. "Maybe I'll go to the desert for a month. Seclude myself. Do some running, play my guitar. Read. Write." Then he says, "It's scary, though, to be alone for a month."
This duality carries through his life. He says, "I'm happy with myself, and I'm not. I'm down to earth but there are periods I think I'm going off the deep end."
The worst deep-end moment came, naturally, when a girl left him. "Then I lost my job in Name of the Game. I jumped into my car and went on a 3000-mile skiing trip, hitting all the resorts. I skied and I wrote a screenplay about self-destruction. I never finished it."
It is the end of the interview. But not the end of the story.
"Would you like some lunch?" he asks.
We get into his car--the brunette and blonde in the back seat--and all the way to the restaurant, called The Good Life, he sticks his head out of car window and he shouts, "Hi!" to the pretty girls on the street. And he gives them his great big Paul Newman smile.