IT SOUNDS LIKE A STORY Carole Bennett might have pitched in her previous career: Hollywood agent chucks life in fast lane to work as drug rehab counselor in oceanside climes of Santa Barbara. Premise offers blue-sky backdrop, all kinds of wacky and colorful characters, and I hear Heather Locklear’s available.
For Bennett, however, the log line is her reality, having made the transition from representing writers and directors to counseling recovering alcoholics and drug addicts — which, to be honest, is not exactly an Olympic-caliber leap, as anyone who has been in a sitcom writers’ room after midnight can attest.
Unique as it is, her experience is also illustrative of a larger trend: namely, the legions of Hollywood graduates — squeezed by industry consolidation, ageism or both — who have sought to create their own version of a second act.
Bennett, who will celebrate her farewell-to-the-adults-18-to-49 demo birthday in January, began as an agent in her 20s and struck out on her own at 30. The Bennett Agency was hardly CAA, but at her peak she handled a roster of clients including the likes of Dottie Dartland-Zicklin (co-creator of “Dharma & Greg”), producer Ralph Winter (“X2: X-Men United”) and writer-producer Regina Stewart (“Still Standing”).
She was also married to producer Harve Bennett, who oversaw film versions of the “Star Trek” franchise through the 1980s. A few years ago that marriage ended, and a since-failed relationship led her to Santa Barbara. Yet rather than crawl back to L.A., Bennett decided to stay and pursue a masters in clinical psychology. “I didn’t have the fire anymore,” she said. “I didn’t care what CBS was picking up. I said, ‘I’m going to start over.'”
SO BENNETT IS NOW HEAD counselor at the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center in Carpinteria, working with men — many of whom have lived tough, sometimes violent lives — in a court-ordered, six-month residential treatment program. As a part-time employee, she’s earning $12 an hour. And loving it.
“The only difference is I’m not making six figures,” Bennett said. “I’m still babysitting. I’m still saying, ‘We have to go back and redo the first act’ — [only] not the first act of the script, but the first act of your life.”
Bennett counsels 17 clients through the center, about the same number of folks she generally repped during her agenting days. “They need me desperately,” she said, producing a letter from one that closed, “I have a sense that in the end of my ARC journey, I’m going to be a changed man.”
This isn’t to say it’s easy. Bennett is hoping to gain more private clients (and supplement her meager income) by working privately with friends and family of substance abusers. In the interim, the Porsche she drove has been traded in for a pickup truck. And given that she’s Jewish, she’s had to acclimate to the Salvation Army’s Christian-based messages. “There’s crosses all over the place,” she said.
Still, Bennett is determined to ink a new chapter to her story, saying she can’t imagine returning to her old life. “I could be offered Sherry Lansing’s job, stay in Montecito, be helicoptered down to work, and I would pass,” she said.
THE PARAMOUNT HONCHO can breathe easy, but Bennett’s commitment seems sincere, to the point where she gets emotional just talking about the rehab program. As for equating her tale to TV, she identifies less with the “Green Acres” angle than the harrowing stories of those in her care — men she once might have crossed the street to avoid. Either way, Fox’s Mike Darnell is no doubt already developing it as a reality show.
Of course, Bennett is hardly the only former Hollywood denizen to change careers and zip codes, whether out of necessity — a fallout from the Blob-like growth of media conglomerates absorbing companies and jobs — or a simple yearning to make a difference. Quite a few are teaching, and like Bennett, many have endured sizable pay cuts; nevertheless, they are demonstrating one can still contribute after the phone stops ringing — even after you’ve left the Pepsi generation in the rear-view mirror.
Which reminds me: A belated congratulations, Gov.-elect Schwarzenegger.