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Robby Benson and the secret he kept from Hollywood

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In 2010, Robby Benson (“One on One,” “Ice Castles,” “The Chosen” and the voice of Beast in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”) was lying in a hospital bed in Cleveland waiting for personnel to wheel him into surgery in a fourth attempt at repairing a congenital heart defect.

While waiting, he was staring at the ceiling and wondering how many patients before him had gazed at the same tiles, “morphing them into images and faces” as he describes in the preface of his new book “I’m Not Dead…Yet!”

Without his contact lenses, the blurred and swirling lines in the tiles began to form a familiar-looking shape. Benson thought he could see the face of a man who had recently approached him asking for help in getting through his own open-heart surgery. The man’s request came with one caveat – discretion and secrecy was paramount. “Been there, done that,” Benson writes.

Since his first open-heart surgery in 1984, Benson has helped countless patients deal with the fear and uncertainty that accompanies the procedure. “Hundreds? Thousands? Not nearly enough,” he says. With his new book, conceived as a multi-media enhanced experience for the iPad and also available for other tablets and in paperback, Benson hopes to help thousands more.

Benson was already a bestselling author (2007’s Hollywood send-up “Who Stole the Funny,” was a New York Times bestseller) when he pitched the story of his heart journey and was stunned when publishers told him “Cancer sells, heart doesn’t.”

Knowing how successful he had been in helping other patients in a one-on-one setting, he decided to do whatever it took to get his book out and take it beyond the realm of conventional publishing.

“I wanted to write the book that I would read if I were in a bed and somebody lent me their iPad,” Benson told me in a recent phone conversation. “A book that tells a story with multi-media and multi-touch. Something a ‘dead tree’ book just can’t do.”

Years before the world came to know him through his movies, Benson knew he was in trouble. “I had incredible mentors like Rod Steiger and John Marley,” Benson said. “Both of those extraordinary actors had heart problems. They took me aside and said, ‘Kid, if you even hint that you have a heart problem, it is career suicide in this business – you have to trust us on this.’

“I love what I do – I adore it but I was scared to death to tell anyone,” Benson told me. “I even tried checking into the hospital under a different name, but somebody at the hospital called NBC. Just before my surgery one night at 10:45, there was a knock on my door from a lady saying, ‘NBC wants a statement.’ I thought, ‘There goes my career.’

Looking back on that uncertain time, Benson sees it as a blessing in disguise. “It wasn’t so bad. I just had to reinvent myself and learn other things. I actually look at it as a very positive thing in my life.”

He later found himself behind the camera, directing episodes of “Friends” and a season of “Ellen,” among others. An accomplished photographer, many of Benson’s wonderful nature photos accompany the interactive version of his new book.

Benson says that his fourth and most recent open-heart surgery was a remarkable success. “Dr. Gosta Pettersson, at the Cleveland Clinic, is the only surgeon on the planet who can do this remarkable procedure successfully. It’s called the Reverse Ross procedure. I’m as good now as I’ve ever been in my life. One of the things I really wanted to get across in this book is that we’re not damaged goods. We can have open-heart surgery and still live a very full and wonderful life.”

Benson has seen medicine take quantum leaps in the 30 years since his first surgery. “They still saw your chest right down the middle, but they’ve done it enough that you no longer think about it as life-threatening. It’s just a very tough surgery to go through.”

“Doctors have also gotten better at helping you through the healing process, and that’s another thing the book is about,” he continued. “How we heal and how we deal with cardiac depression and how we can jump start our lives and get back on track. Doctors used to never talk about things like that and now they do.”

Benson credits another person with the fact that he is alive today – his wife. “Karla DeVito, that amazing singer and actress, is probably the coolest woman that ever walked the planet earth – and I get to sleep with her,” Benson said with a smile in his voice. “We’ve been married for almost 31 years now. She has walked me through everything and has been my advocate. Without her, I don’t think I would have been able to make it.”

At some point in the distant future, Benson may have another chapter to add to future editions of his book. “I have two different valves that need attention, but for one of them, the shelf life is 15 years. If I’m lucky enough to live 15 more years, I’ll probably need another surgery, but I’m ready. Anything that will keep me with Karla DeVito, I’m ready for it.”

Robby Benson’s “I’m Not Dead…Yet!” is available from Apple at the iTunes bookstore and at Amazon in Kindle edition and paperback form. For more information, visit Robby online at www.RobbyBenson.com.

Mike Dow can be heard each morning on WABK -104.3 FM. Beginning Dec. 31, his show will also air on Big 104 – 104.7 and 107.7 – The Biggest Hits of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

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