'Dolly's songs helped my battle with cancer'
As the 9-5 musical is set for dublin, star Ben Richards opens up to Chris Wasser about his ongoing battle with illness
The flight was already booked. So, too, was the apartment. In fact, all that was left to do before Ben Richards headed out to Los Angeles for a string of TV auditions was to hire a car. But then, life doesn't always go according to plan.
Not long before he was due to leave for America, Ben took a trip to the doctor. Something had been bothering him for a while and his wife at the time had advised him to get it checked out. The doctor recommended a specialist. Four days later, Ben was having a colonoscopy and a CT scan. He might have known what to expect, but when the 40-year-old actor was told he had cancer, it hit him hard. "It was like a punch in the face," he explains. "Bizarrely, my first thing was, 'Oh, well LA is screwed!'" he laughs. "And then it's about a battle."
Indeed, the British actor -- best known for his work in musical theatre as well as starring roles in The Bill and Footballers' Wives -- spent most of 2012 undergoing treatment for bowel cancer. "I did a bit of boxing when I was training for Saturday Night Fever and it was like 12 rounds in a boxing ring," he says. "Some rounds you win, some rounds cancer wins. You've gotta keep going -- keep going forward and stay up, don't get your head down on the floor and, hopefully, you'll win the fight in the end."
Thankfully, Ben appears to be winning the fight and a recent scan showed no sign of any secondary cancer. "I'm not out of the woods yet. Physically, I still get complications and some days are tougher than others, but I'm still doing this." Unsurprisingly, Ben was forced to take a lot of time off work. "That was tough," he admits, "financially and emotionally. It gave me time to take stock and look at things ... "
During this time, Ben's 15-year marriage to his wife Helen came to an end. It was, to put it mildly, a low point for the West Sussex entertainer. On a professional level, however, things eventually improved. Dolly Parton's 9 to 5: The Musical -- the Broadway show based on the 1980 hit movie -- was on its way to the UK.
A comical tale about three female office workers who plan to get even with their sleazy and sexist boss, with music and lyrics courtesy of the world's favourite female country artist (who also starred in the original film), 9 to 5 needed the perfect song and dance man to play Franklyn J Hart (the boss). And Ben was that man.
"This was such a great focus," says Ben. "I auditioned for this when I was on chemo. I didn't lose my hair because it was tablet form and it was sunny out, so I had a bit of a tan. I met the American director with the other American creatives -- there was another audition a couple of weeks later and I said, 'I'm so sorry I can't be there for that, thank you for putting me down on tape for Dolly. But just so you know, I've got to have an operation ... '"
Naturally, the creative team asked Ben about this operation. Shocked to hear that he was undergoing treatment for cancer, they were otherwise impressed with his audition. He told them that he'd be ready for rehearsals if they wanted him, so they took a chance. Luckily, it seems to have paid off and Ben will soon accompany the cast -- including Natalie Casey and Bonnie Langford -- when 9 to 5: The Musical touches down in Dublin for a six-night residency at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre later this month.
Ben doesn't feel cheated by what's happened. Nor does he allow his illness to get the better of him. Like he said, sometimes he has bad days. And then there are times when he remembers to tell himself that he's alive ("it's better than being six feet down in the ground").
"You can go down that road, but when you get something like this, you're introduced into a family of people -- a fraternity of cancer survivors," he says, "and you learn an awful lot. I've a different outlook on a lot of things about life. I'm winning the battle and I've got people I know that aren't. And they're younger than me."
As Ben explains, he has the opportunity to raise funds and awareness. He's also in a position to speak out about men ignoring symptoms as he, too, was in a similar position himself.
"You can't afford it," he insists. "Guys are the worst for it. You know what? Pride can kill you. If you have signs and you know in yourself that something's not right, go to the doctor, get it checked out. It might be a bit embarrassing for five minutes, but that might save your life."
9 to 5: The Musical runs at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from January 21 to 26