Paul Benjamin, Actor in 'Do the Right Thing,' Dies at 81

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Paul Benjamin (left) with Clint Eastwood in 1979's 'Escape From Alcatraz.'

He also appeared in 'Midnight Cowboy,' 'Across 110th Street,' 'Escape From Alcatraz' and 'The Station Agent.'

Paul Benjamin, the veteran actor who portrayed one of the three wise Brooklyn "cornermen" in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, has died. He was 81.

Benjamin died June 28, Lee announced on Instagram. No other details of his death were immediately available.

His other noteworthy roles included those of a bank robber who rips off the mafia in Across 110th Street (1972), the father of a folk singer (Roger E. Mosley) in Leadbelly (1976), the embittered prisoner English in Escape From Alcatraz (1979) and Henry, the owner of the model train hobby shop in The Station Agent (2003).

Benjamin also starred in the 1979 CBS telefilm I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, based on Maya Angelou's book, and appeared for Robert Townsend in The Five Heartbeats (1991), for John Singleton in Rosewood (1997) and for Bill Duke in Hoodlum (1997).

In Do the Right Thing (1989), written and directed by Lee, Benjamin played ML alongside Frankie Faison as Coconut Sid and Robin Harris as Sweet Dick Willie. The trio gather every day against a brick wall under a beach umbrella and serve as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the events of the day.

Born the youngest of 12 children on New Year's Day 1938 in South Carolina, Benjamin was the son of a preacher. He moved to New York and studied acting at Herbert Berghof's studio and made his film debut playing a bartender in Midnight Cowboy (1969).

He appeared on Broadway in Sam Shepard's Operation Sidewinder in 1970 and had small roles in two 1971 releases, The Anderson Tapes, directed by Sidney Lumet, and Born to Win (1971), starring George Segal.

Benjamin then lent an air of authority to the blaxploitation films The Education of Sonny Carson (1974) and Pam Grier's Friday Foster (1975).

His film résumé also included Richard Pryor's Some Kind of Hero (1982), Barbra Streisand's Nuts (1987) and Clint Eastwood's Pink Cadillac (1989).

On television, Benjamin played homeless man Al Ervin on several episodes of ER; showed up on such series as Police Story, Kojak, Law & Order and The Shield; and appeared in telefilms including 1977's One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story with LeVar Burton, 1980's Gideon's Trumpet with Henry Fonda and 1987's The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains with Val Kilmer.