With his widely heralded turn as the voice of Beauty's Beast, former teen idol Robby Benson, 35, isn't launching a new career in voice-overs he's returning to his first job. Benson started in vocals when he was 11. ''It was a respectable way of getting out of school,'' he says. In 24 years as a faceless voice, he has dubbed nearly 30 foreign films into English, including the 1968 Russian War and Peace and several Godzillas. ''I remember yelling, 'Godzilla! It's Gammera!''' he says. Before the movies One on One and Ice Castles made him famous in the 1970s, he had also sung for Pepsi, Dr Pepper, and Armour hot dogs.
After The Chosen, a smallish hit made a decade ago, Benson's career nose-dived: He made a series of flops such as 1980's Die Laughing. In 1984 he needed open-heart surgery and spent two months recovering. After critics trashed his 1986 TV series, Tough Cookies one called him ''cute as Bambi and twice as smarmy'' he skipped L.A. to teach acting at the University of South Carolina. He also wrote and starred (along with his wife, Karla DeVito) in the autobiographical Modern Love (1990) which critics liked slightly less than Tough Cookies.
Benson left the South last year when the school's president resigned after complaints about his lavishness, including extravagant salaries for celebrity faculty. Back in L.A., Benson stood in line like everyone else to audition for the Beast. ''There's a rage and torment in this character I've never been asked to use before,'' he says. Although his growls were electronically augmented, most of the speaking voice was generated deep in Benson's own chest.
''When I recorded the scene when he's dying,'' he says, ''something magical happened. I closed my eyes and saw my daughter (Lyric, age 8) in a theater. Knowing how emotional she gets, I suddenly felt like I was the Beast. I started performing, and the next thing I knew, it was over.''