The whole goal behind starting this column was to really analyze two different actors portraying the same character and deciding which one I preferred, solely based on my own personal preference. And then opening the floor to you guys via our poll at the end of this article to get the general consensus. But this is the first time I’ve reached a conundrum. I’ve pitted two actors against each other where choosing one or the other seems like an impossible task because they’re both absolutely terrific in this role. I’m talking about Ben in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as played in 1968 by the late, great Duane Jones and then by Tony Todd in Tom Savini’s 1990 remake.
I mean, really. Let’s just start by agreeing both these guys are amazing, right?
Firstly, when taken into context, it was such a bold choice for George Romero to have a black character portray the lead, because up until that point, there hadn’t been a black actor fronting a horror film, or any major American film for that matter. To me growing up, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that, and even back in 1968, Romero also didn’t feel it mattered if Ben was white or black, Jones was the best actor for the job.
In this dire situation (which most TV audiences now are used to seeing weekly with THE WALKING DEAD), a small group of survivors are stuck in a farmhouse and Ben immediately steps up as the leader. There’s a sincerity and earnestness in the way that Jones portrays Ben that makes you immediately want to follow him. And when held up against the rather unreasonable and ill-tempered Cooper, it’s pretty clear who you want on your side during the zombie apocalypse. And (mild spoiler alert), because of how much I really sided with Ben, I still remember how devastated and heartbroken I was with his fate at the end of the film. Those last few still shots over the credits haunted me for days after seeing the movie and that’s because of how much I cared for Ben.
Jones always downplayed his role in what became one of the most well-known, celebrated and greatest horror films of all time, but genre fans can’t help but be in awe of his performance. His only other on-screen appearance in a feature length film was for GANJA & HESS and then later he went on to be a professor at State University Of New York in Old Westbury. (Long Island, represent!) There’s one story about Jones taking a handful of students to a local Café and in the background, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was playing on the diner’s TV set. The students were blown away and amazed as he’d never made mention that he was in the film and that’s the first time they all realized he was Ben. He sadly passed away of heart failure in 1988 at the age of 51.
Considering the cultural significance of what Ben meant to cinema in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I’m sure it must have been intimidating for any actor to follow in those huge footsteps for the remake. But when you’re as gifted an actor as Tony Todd, there’s no question. Tom Savini regales a story of Tony coming in for the audition, getting a monologue, stepping out into the hallway for 5 minutes to memorize it and then coming back and absolutely crushing it, with tears in his eyes. According to Savini, there was no other Ben, it was always Tony Todd. And at this point in his career, he had already done PLATOON, as well as several notable TV appearances on shows like Fox’s WEREWOLF, 21 JUMPSTREET & MACGUYVER. He was also about 2 years away from playing what would end up being one of the most iconic roles of his career, CANDYMAN. But before all that, he blew me away as the new Ben.
In the same way that Jones won me over almost immediately with his on-screen presence, Todd does the same thing. His rapport with Barbara is different. Whereas the original film may have taken a bold risk casting a black man in the lead, the remake took a risk making Barbara the Ripley-esque bad-ass, something that reviewers at the time actually criticized! (They were wrong. We love you, Patricia Tallman.) Todd also had a great Cooper to go up against with Tom Towles, who absolutely terrified genre fans as the deranged Otis in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER.
I really cared deeply for Ben in both versions, but in particular, there’s a look that Tony Todd gives after Tom & Judy Rose blow up in the gas tank explosion. Such deep remorse for losing two of his fellow survivors in such an abrupt, rather stupid (on Tom’s part) way. And then turning that to rage against Cooper upon his return is what seals his fate (in this version).
Really, it’s impossible to decide who the better Ben was, because they both delivered amazing performances. So I’m going to say this “character showdown” is a tie. What do you guys think?