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Ben McKenzie on Uncle Robert

By Kate X Messer, Fri., Nov. 4, 2005

Ben McKenzie on Uncle Robert

It was a boner only a real teenager could make. Back when Benjamin McKenzie Schenkkan was 16, his school decided to honor his uncle, Robert Schenkkan, on the Austin High alumni Wall of Fame. When Unc couldn't attend, he asked nephew Ben to address the school on his behalf. He agreed "with great trepidation," the younger Schenkkan adds.

Nowadays, publicity-savvy Benjamin goes by Ben McKenzie. No longer a teen, he plays one on TV: the über-cool Ryan Atwood on Fox's The OC. But back then, Ben was no Atwood.

"My uncle can't be here," he told the assembly, "but he's with us in spirit!" Friends rushed to console: "He died?! Oh we are so sorry! We thought he just couldn't make the ceremony!" Ben spent the rest of the day in damage control.

The teenage Benjamin Schenkkan was a football player, not an actor. But the theatre spark was lit early on. As a boy, he visited L.A. for the premiere of Uncle Robert's The Kentucky Cycle at the Mark Taper Forum. "From the first lines, I was hooked. That's a testament to his skill as a writer – that a 12-year-old could sit through a seven-hour play set in 18th-century Kentucky. It had a tremendous effect."

After a few college productions and a short stint in New York, he moved to Los Angeles. A year later, McKenzie landed the career-launching part of a brooding teen. What would Uncle Robert do?

"I overnighted the script [of The OC pilot] to him," McKenzie says. The next morning Schenkkan called: "You are the luckiest SOB out there! This is a great part and a great script." It's hard to imagine finer validation than from a Pulitzer holder, but McKenzie keeps a cool head. He and his uncle share in the glories of success, but at different levels.

"He doesn't come hang out on the set of The OC," McKenzie laughs. "He's been on plenty of sets far more glamorous than ours!" While the two don't exactly exchange acting quips, their connection remains close amidst the Hollywood blur. "It's is nice to be able to sit down every other month or so to grab a bite and compare notes about where we are and what's going on. He always has a level head about the business. He's very logical, thoughtful, and strong-willed – all of the things you need to succeed in what can be a fairly haphazard and emotionally treacherous profession." What other teen idol can boast a touchstone/role model like Robert Schenkkan?

"It allows me to see that the road is long and that where I am in my career is spent surrounded by people trying to capitalize on short-term success," McKenzie says of his life in a business that tends to eat its young. "My uncle is a constant reminder that at the end of the day, the work you do is about creative expression and being able to be happy with the work you've done."

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