“Benson” is one of those shows that never gave us a resolution.
The famous spinoff, which ran from 1979 to 1986 on ABC, depicted the rise of “Soap” character Benson DuBois (played by Robert Guillaume) from a butler all the way to the position of lieutenant governor, all the while serving the governor of an unnamed state (James Noble). The final season saw Benson challenge his boss in a gubernatorial race — and ended on a cliffhanger, with Benson and Governor Gatling sitting together and awaiting the results.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way; ABC cancelled the show without allowing the writers to prepare a proper series finale. The show’s writers had planned for the cliffhanger to lead into a new season, though they didn’t know what that season would depict. Indeed, the show filmed three potential resolutions for an eighth season, said Gary Brown, who directed the finale, along with 20 other episodes of “Benson”; the writers would choose one over the summer and have their first scene already in the can.
“There was a three-way race in whatever state it was. The governor was running, Benson as lieutenant governor was running and another character, Senator Tyler [played by showrunner Bob Fraser], kind of a heavy, was running. It was a three way race. Benson and the governor were neck and neck. There were the two of them in the kitchen, that’s the end of the show — it’s a cliff hanger, a freeze-frame. We shot three endings. In one, the governor won. In one, Benson won. And in one, and th
ey were really playing with using this one, it was a tie.”
The tie scenario “was whimsical,” said Brown, who anticipated that had it been used, it would have been “an unusual first episode of the new season.” He anticipated that, had the show lasted another season, Benson would have become governor one way or another. “Knowing the way the show was going, and the way the Benson character was going — that’s how Bob Guillaume wanted to see the arc of the character go.” He also anticipated that the scatterbrained Governor Gatling would have remained on the show, possibly advising Benson.
Brown, who has directed episodes of “It’s a Living” and “Charles in Charge” and who said he’s been working on writing and producing independent projects since reality TV began taking over network air, said that the team behind show hadn’t been surprised by the show’s cancellation: “Every year we had to wait for the upfronts — and there we were. It was always hard to say what the network ever had in mind.” The producers, including show creator Susan Harris, said Brown, had lost a lot of their clout at ABC after “Soap” was cancelled in 1981 and Harris’s “Golden Girls” went to NBC.
“There’s always big turnover at the networks. They look for new programming. But ‘Benson’ always won its timeslot — Thursday, Friday, wherever we went, they said ‘Benson’ would fail and we ended up taking the timeslot. Viewers were always hanging with ‘Benson.’” The never-fulfilled resolution to the cliffhanger — which we’ll never know for sure but which Brown believes would have resulted in the culmination of a seasons-long journey — might well have put gas in the tank for seasons to come.
“It would have given the show new life,” Brown said.