Paul Benjamin, who was known for playing one of the three Brooklyn “cornermen” in Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing,’ has died June 28. Lee revealed the news on his Instagram on Friday. The cause of death was not immediately known. The actor was believed to be 81.
“I’m sad to write that the great actor Paul Benjamin, who played ML, far left, passed this past Friday, two days before the 30th anniversary of ‘Do the Right Thing.’ Rest in Paradise,” Lee wrote on Instagram.
Paul Benjamin emerged as a prominent actor with his diverse roles on stage, film and television during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. The actor often associated with theater productions based on the African American experience and blaxploitation films.
Born in South Carolina as the youngest of 12 children of Fair Benjamin, a Baptist minister, and Rosa Benjamin, Paul grew up in the Carolina neighborhood. He moved to the state capital Columbia to live with his older brother after the death of his parents. As a young man, he attended Benedict College before shifting to New York to pursue a career in acting.
The actor discovered his flame for acting as early as a kid. But he never let it go out of his mouth as a firm career decision for a long time. “A mention of being an actor was like going to the moon,” he recalled in a 1995 interview, “if they had taken me seriously, I would have been run out of town.’
Benjamin started his acting career in the New York theater scene with Shakespearean characters. He made his film debut with a minor role of a bartender in the 1969 movie ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ The actor also appeared on Off Broadway theater productions like ‘Operation Sidewinder’ and ‘Camino Real’ during that period.
His portrayal of African American urban hipster characters in films such as ‘Starsky and Hutch,’ ‘Police Story,’ ‘Kojak,’ ‘ER,’ and ‘Law & Order’ earned him significant popularity among youth. His breakout role came with the 1989 film ‘Do the Right Thing’ directed by Spike Lee. Benjamin played the character ML who hangs out with his buddies Sweet Dick Willie and Coconut Sid.
The young men always sit under an umbrella on the street, commenting on everything under the moon in the neighborhood. Often, ML cracks punchy lines like “It is plain as day; they didn’t have to kill the boy,” when their pal Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) died. Due to their interest in the ways of the world and people, they were called “the three wise Brooklyn cornermen.”
Benjamin went on to play major roles in bigger productions such as ‘Escape From Alcatraz’ (1979) alongside Clint Eastwood, ‘Nuts’ (1987) and ‘Some Kind of Hero’ (1982). He last role in a film was in ‘Occupy, Texas’ in 2016. Benjamin was also known as a playwright.
Details of his survivors weren’t immediately available.
Cover Image Courtesy: Paramount Pictures (Escape From Alcatraz).