NEW YORK (AP) — Never in his wildest dreams did Joe Benincasa, president of The Actors Fund, think he'd ever get a Tony Award. That, he thought, was reserved for those onstage rather than those wanting to affect public policy and politics.
But, as Actors Fund Chairman of the Board Brian Stokes Mitchell puts it: "Joe is an unusual human being that exudes a positive life force."
The fund helps thousands of people in show business each year with heath care, housing, training and emergency aid. It has paid rent for struggling actors, taken care of nursing home bills and even subsidized shoes. It has helped Hurricane Sandy victims get back on their feet.
The Tony Administration Committee has selected Benincasa to receive an honorary Tony, citing his transformation over the past 25 years of the group into one of the best run charities in the country.
"I'm blown away by the award," Benincasa said. "It allows me to shine a light on the Actors Fund, which is always terrific."
Mitchell calls him "the heart and soul of the fund because he cleaned up shop, and made things work so much better." Tony-winning actress Tyne Daly, and current Tony nominee for "Mothers and Sons," says Benincasa is a friend to all performers: "Joe has been the most faithful, consistent contributor to the benefit of actors that I know of in the modern world."
The fund raises money in a variety of ways, including revenue from special Broadway shows, benefit functions, and collection drives by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Recently, singer Carole King made an appearance at a performance of the Tony-nominated "Beautiful" and raised $30,000.
The Actors Fund was started in 1882 after an actor died on the road and his wife couldn't afford to bring his body back. An unusual group made up of showman William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, actor Edwin Booth — the brother of assassin John Wilkes Booth — and Broadway producer Harrison Grey Fiske secured a plot of land in Brooklyn for the burial and the fund began.
Here are a few Broadway stars it has touched:
HARVEY FIERSTEIN: The three-time Tony-winner and current nominee says he'll do anything for the Actors Fund. "When I was a poor, starving actor and I needed to pay my rent, I went to the Actors Fund and they gave me a check, no questions asked. They never asked for it back. They got me through. If I can turn around and do that for somebody, that's a good thing."
SUTTON FOSTER: The Tony-winner and nominee for "Violet" says there's something comforting about knowing the fund is there when she gets older. "It's amazing to have something like that to take care of us when we need it, in a field that is unpredictable. I'm thrilled that the Tonys are recognizing Joe and the Actors Fund. It's an incredible organization."
CASEY NICHOLAW: The Tony-winning "The Book of Mormon" director and current nominee for "Aladdin" remembers his days struggling as a dancer. "Before I was even in a Broadway show, I didn't have money to pay my rent and they paid my rent for a month. And they laughed at me because my rent was so low. They said, 'Really, are you sure you don't want more?' But I said I just need my $225. They paid a month's rent for me. I didn't know how I was going to do it."
BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL: The Tony-winning actor and executive at the fund also benefited from it when he was younger. As a fledgling actor, he tapped the Conrad Cantzen Shoe Fund, which reimburses eligible performing arts professionals up to $40 toward a pair of shoes costing no more than $100. Mitchell salutes Cantzen, an actor who bequeathed his estate toward the program. "It's something he put together because he didn't feel that actors should have bad shoes to go to auditions with."
CELIA KEENAN-BOLGER: The Tony nominee for "The Glass Menagerie" remembers finding out about the shoe fund when she arrived from Detroit. She soon developed a deep appreciation for all that the organization does. "I have friends who have gotten health insurance, housing. It's one of those organizations that when you move to the city makes you feel like you're supported by a community."
DANNY BURSTEIN: "Cabaret" star and Tony nominee Danny Burstein remembers how the fund helped him through some trying times. "I went to the Actors Fund when I was going through a divorce and it was a very hard time in my life. It was a hard time for me and they talked to me and helped me out."
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