Contemplating Clayton

by Marguerite Krause

René as Clayton Endicott III

René as Clayton Endicott III

Clayton Endicott III is a character we love to hate. The interesting thing about him, though, is that he has at least as many positive traits as negative ones. Most people with his abilities would have been considered admirable human beings, even heroes. Only a man with Clayton’s unique personality could have turned all those assets into a formula for perennial failure. In the Benson universe, everyone who knew Clayton was willing to acknowledge that he was not just good at his job; he was excellent. He was both intelligent and insightful when it came to navigating the minefield of state politics, he knew how to keep all the branches of government working together, and he managed Governor Gatling’s schedule with elegant efficiency. When asked to say something nice about Clayton, in one episode Benson stated that he was “punctual”–it didn’t sound like much of a compliment the way Benson said it, but Clayton’s respect for time and deadlines was a vital skill, considering that one of his primary responsibilities was to shepherd an occasionally absent-minded governor through endless appointments, speaking engagements, and critical meetings.

On the set of Benson

On the set of Benson

Clayton worked hard at his job. In more than one episode it was made clear that he was willing and able to devote weeks and months to drafting appropriations bills, researching key issues, and otherwise supporting programs important to the governor. Clayton was never a slacker: he fully and unstintingly devoted his time, energy, and best efforts to ensuring the governor’s ongoing success. Furthermore, Clayton often took a firm stand on the socially responsible side of major issues. In one episode, he worked diligently for the passage of a bill financing electric commuter trains–a light rail program that would be environmentally friendly and economically sound. In another, he supported veterans’ aide programs. Clayton was also fundamentally honest. When an airline attempted to bribe him, he willingly testified against them before a grand jury, even in the face of threats and attempted kidnapping.

So, with all that and more going for him–sharp mind, physical poise, extensive knowledge of the social graces–why is Clayton thought of, first, last, and always, as “that nitwit?”

Clayton had two crucial strikes against him: he was totally selfish, and he had no idea how to relate to other people. The end result was that Clayton came across as self-serving, smug, pompous, egotistical, and disdainful of other people. It certainly didn’t help that, because of his intelligence and experience, when it came to issues related to his job he was usually right. It rarely occurred to Clayton to be a gracious winner. Being right was important; being sensitive to the feelings of another human being never crossed his mind, unless of course by feigning sensitivity he could turn a situation to his advantage. On one occasion, the governor observed that Clayton was simply “not a nice man.” On another, when someone asked Clayton why he couldn’t be nice, he said, “In my experience, being nice is counterproductive.” That sums up Clayton’s attitude in a nutshell: being productive, or successful, was what counted. Being nice was irrelevant.

Clayton had an almost endless list of faults–enough to inspire Benson, Gretchen Kraus, even Katie to endless heights of sarcastic humor across six years’ worth of episodes. Clayton was often rude, usually because he couldn’t see why anyone else’s feelings were relevant to whatever he was trying to accomplish. In an essay that Katie wrote for school, she said, “Clayton is democratic. He treats everyone the same way.” That was generous on Katie’s part; in fact, Clayton was a chameleon in the way he related to other people. He could be utterly indifferent to someone he considered his social inferior, then switch with lightning speed to an attitude of groveling subservience if it turned out that person was important in some way.

Clayton was hopelessly prejudiced; he classified everyone he met by race, gender, age, social status, income, nationality…rarely was he able to see past his preconceived stereotypes to the individual person. When he did, occasionally, perceive that he’d made a mistake, he was then hopelessly at a loss for how to behave. He also had no idea how to deal with children. He either adopted a sickly-sweet, condescending attitude, or became defensive and intimidated.

Clayton made insincerity an artform. He could be polite, charming, and gracious–when it suited him. The rest of the time, he reverted to his natural personality: self-involved and, at the core, incredibly insecure.

In the end, Clayton’s insecurity became a kind of redeeming quality. Beneath his self-assured, pompous exterior lurked a needy, uncertain, lonely human being. However unwilling they may have been to admit it, Benson and the other members of the governor’s household often experienced feelings of compassion for Clayton. Benson and his friends were good people, kind and sensitive and forgiving–even to an insensitive twit like Clayton. And when they felt sorry for Clayton, the audience did, too.

No one could go into a dithering panic quite as effectively as Clayton. Although they may not have liked him very much, when Clayton was truly distressed, his friends worried about him and tried to help him. A terrified, distraught Clayton roused people’s best protective instincts–even when his troubles were entirely his own fault.

Clayton is a character we love to hate; and yet, when all is said and done, we don’t really hate him. Clayton makes us feel aggravated, appalled, embarrassed, outraged, admiring his skill and competence one minute, dumbfounded by his utter cluelessness the next…but it’s hard to work ourselves up to honest “hate.” Because Clayton, for all his flaws, is too much like the rest of us: a sometimes uncertain, often selfconscious, ultimately sympathetic human being.

 A Few Memorable Clayton Moments

All right, it’s true–just about every moment on Benson that included Clayton in the thick of the action was memorable in some way. The show was a comedy about contrasts and contradictions, and at the heart of the humor was Benson’s biting commentary about the absurdities of life. Clayton was a living, breathing embodiment of all that is ridiculous in human behavior and relationships, and inspired some of the show’s most brilliant, scathing, hilarious dialogue and events.

Although Gretchen Kraus drove Benson to distraction at times, she was at heart a warm, well-meaning human being, not to mention one tough cookie: Benson respected both traits in her, and therefore their confrontations often resolved, if not amiably, than at least with a certain measure of mutual respect. With Clayton, however, it was all-out, virtually unceasing war. Clayton could walk across a room without saying a word, and it would be enough to illicit a cutting remark from Benson–and laughter from the audience. As Benson told Clayton in one episode: “Being budget director is my job; making you look like a fool is my pleasure.” When Benson enjoyed himself at Clayton’s expense, so did we. In addition, most of the time Clayton was hardly a defenseless victim; he was quick-witted and sharp-tongued in his own right, and could give as good as he got: a worthy adversary for Benson.

Still, when it comes to Clayton-watching, some episodes are more rewarding than others. Following are seven of my personal favorites: I’m sure your list might be different from mine, but these are a few that stick in my memory. They are not listed in chronological or any other particular order, but just as they occurred to me.

“All Shook Up” (Season 2)

The plot: an earthquake damages the governor’s mansion, and Clayton and Benson are trapped together for hours in a storeroom.

Memorable moments: all of them! Clayton demonstrates his competence by levering a fallen file cabinet off of Benson; after that, he gives in to a truly monumental attack of panic. Benson tries to calm him down, but the only thing that works is what Clayton’s older brother used to do to soothe his fears: sing. With great reluctance, Benson starts singing, “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter…” which soon turns into a duet with Clayton. Later, Clayton finds a bottle of champagne, and turns out to be a very good-natured drunk.

“The Endicott Dynasty” (Season 5)

The plot: Clayton learns that his father is coming to town, and announces to everyone that the reason for the visit is that Dad must have decided to finally turn the family business over to Clayton. Therefore, Clayton resigns his job with the governor, and starts making plans for his new career. When Dad arrives, he asks to meet Benson, and reveals that yes, he has chosen the man best suited to take over the company: not his son, but Benson.

Memorable moments: as Dad makes his announcement (right before the commercial break), Clayton is pouring himself a glass of champagne. The shock freezes him in place, but the wine just keeps pouring, out of the glass and all over Clayton, who is too stunned to notice. (Just a variation on the classic “spit take,” but beautifully executed.) Later, after Benson has turned down the job and Dad has gone back home, Clayton tries living a life of leisure, but it doesn’t work. He shows up in the mansion kitchen one morning, ostensibly just to say hello and tell everyone how much he’s enjoying his new lifestyle. As he describes his daily schedule (“breakfast at the club, some tennis, a walk in the park, lunch at the club, some more tennis, another walk, dinner at the club…”) he becomes more and more twitchy, until you’re sure he’s about to have a complete nervous breakdown right before our eyes. The governor comes to the rescue, though, and offers Clayton his old job back before he completely self-destructs.

“The Buck Stops Here” (Season 7)

The plot: Clayton’s father is taking a new bride, a young, well-endowed beauty, and Clayton does not approve.

Memorable moments: in one confrontation between the two of them, Dad gives Clayton what for, and as he yells, Clayton very slowly shrinks in on himself and sinks to the floor, until he’s sitting there, legs scrunched up against his chest, rocking back and forth in distress. I don’t remember if he actually had his thumb in his mouth, but that was certainly the overall impression he gave: a five-year-old being scolded by his daddy. Later, through some mix-up, Clayton’s tuxedo doesn’t make it back from the cleaners in prime condition, so he attends the wedding–and maintains his dignified air throughout–in a jacket and pants that are at least three sizes too small.

“Double Date” (Season 6)

The plot: Benson, against his better judgment, invites Clayton to go with him on a double date. Clayton makes it clear that he’s only doing this as a favor to Benson, and that he expects the unknown friend of Benson’s girlfriend to be a big disappointment. Instead, the young woman is intelligent, beautiful, cultured: Clayton’s dream woman. Naturally, he proceeds to make a complete botch of their relationship.

Memorable moments: when Clayton and Benson meet the woman at a movie theatre, Clayton is so overwhelmed by his date’s beauty that he ends up cowering behind a movie poster display board, too shy to introduce himself. Later, Benson sits down with Clayton in the mansion kitchen and convinces him that he can’t keep stalking the woman, who has made it clear that she is not interested in pursuing a relationship. During this conversation, Clayton reveals that he knows that people don’t like him, and wishes he could become a better person, but doesn’t know how. Benson tries to cheer him up, and admits that Clayton does have some good qualities. Clayton doesn’t believe him, so Benson offers two compliments: Clayton is good at his job, and he’s punctual. When Clayton eagerly asks what other good qualities he has, Benson’s response is something like, “Don’t push your luck!”

“Family Tree “ (Season 4)

The plot: In the reading of a will, Benson and Clayton discover that they are distantly related, and equally eligible to inherit something from an unknown relative’s estate. For some reason, only one of them can claim the inheritance, and they decide that the only way to settle the matter is a duel: not with guns, but with words. Benson and Clayton will engage in a contest of insults, with the governor as moderator, scorekeeper, and final judge of the outcome.

Memorable moments: early in the duel, Benson and Clayton are evenly matched, and the scathing, bitingly clever remarks fly fast and furious. In the end, however, Benson prevails (he is the star of the show, after all) and some of the final insults hit Clayton exactly as if they were body punches; he sweats, he staggers, and is eventually “beaten” back to collapse into his chair, defeated by Benson’s quicker, more devastating wit.

“Jung at Heart” (Season 6)

The plot: An important award is about to be announced (“Man of the Year”) and two of the candidates are Benson and Clayton. Clayton is desperate to win; he deserves to win; he HAS to win. Therefore, at the big award dinner, when Benson is declared the winner Clayton has a complete nervous breakdown, the culmination of too many years of never getting the recognition he thinks he deserves for all of his hard work and dedication on behalf of the governor. The breakdown, however, takes a fascinating form: when Benson’s name is announced, Clayton nods and smiles and goes up to the podium to accept the honor because his mind has totally snapped, and he now believes that HE is Benson.

Memorable moments: the entire episode is full of scenes and dialogue exchanges that flip-flop between being hilarious, weird, disturbing, and poignant. It is utterly fascinating to watch and listen to René playing Clayton playing Robert Guillaume playing Benson! (Whew!)

“The Flight of the Dodo” (Season 7)

The plot: in this elaborate two-episode story, Clayton invites the governor, Benson, and a friend to join him in a golf foursome at a fancy new golf course on the other side of the state. Furthermore, Clayton reveals that he is a licensed helicopter pilot, and offers to fly the group there and back in his private helicopter. However, nothing goes as planned. During the flight, Clayton somehow gets off course, and then the helicopter has mechanical problems and they have to make a forced landing in the middle of nowhere. There are a couple of injuries–a wrenched knee for the governor, a concussion for the friend–and worse yet, because they are so far off their flight plan, there’s no telling when a rescue team will find them.

This episode is memorable because of the way it illustrates the huge contradictions that are so much a part of Clayton’s character. On the one hand, he’s smart enough to be a pilot, and competent enough to get the damaged helicopter down to earth without crashing. On the other hand, he was incompetent enough to get them lost in the first place. As the story progresses, he reveals enough personal courage to offer to try to walk out of the wilderness and find help (Benson, it’s decided, has to stay and care for the concussed friend, who may die if he doesn’t get medical care).

Furthermore, Clayton remembers, and tries to use, his survival skills training from his days in the Marine Corps; they have no water, but he will suck moisture from cacti as he crosses the desert.

This being Clayton, however, his most well-intentioned plans backfire; twelve hours later he staggers back into camp, exhausted, skin all blotchy and eyes swollen shut. Turns out he’s allergic to cactus! Even after his encounter with the cactus, he kept going, but ended up walking in a circle and back to the crash site. In the end, Clayton (still unable to see) figures out a way that they might be able to fix the helicopter, talks Benson and the governor through the repairs, and then talks Benson through the job of piloting them all back to safety.

There you have it: some entertaining Clayton moments. If you are able to catch Benson in reruns (TVLand and other cable and satellite channels occasionally show all or part of the series), be sure to watch it. Clayton Endicott III is remarkable character: truly someone who has to be seen to be believed!