Upper West Sider Marc Benhuri on his novel being adapted for the screen
by angela barbuti
Only speaking basic English when he arrived in New York, Dr. Marc Benhuri went on to become one of the founders of dental implants in America. Benhuri, whose family he said has studied medicine for 20 generations, was the first to immigrate to the States. In 1975, after earning a total of four degrees in both engineering and dentistry, he founded the Benhuri Center for Laser and Implant Dentistry on West 57th Street. When the shah of Iran had a skiing accident, he chose Benhuri as his implant surgeon, and the pair established a friendship. “When I saw how the press, without knowledge or investigating, told so many lies about him, I said, ‘I have to tell the truth because I was inside the palace; I know what happened,’” Benhuri explained. This led to his eight-year labor of love, writing the novel, “Price for Freedom” in the evenings while running his dental practice by day. Based on true events, the story centers around a Jewish family living in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution. It revisits the history of the time, when the shah was overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Filmmaker Kenneth Del Vecchio was so captivated by the book that he turned it into a film starring Paul Sorvino as the shah. It will be premiering at the Hoboken International Film Festival on May 29th.
What did you think when you first arrived in New York?I came to go to Queens College to get an English proficiency certificate. I was totally amazed by all the high-rises. At that time, the tallest building in Tehran was maybe eight floors. When I came here, I wanted to make tea, so they showed me the teabag. I said, “Wow, what an easy way.” We used to boil tea leaves and mix them with water to make the consistency that we wanted. Then, a student from Turkey came. He was homesick, so they asked me, since I speak a little Turkish, to make him feel welcome. I took him to the cafeteria, and got two cups of hot water and two teabags. He said, “I don’t want hot water; I want tea.” I explained, and then he said, “This is amazing.” And then he asked, “Where is the sugar?” So I showed him the sugar in the packs. And he got two packs of sugar and threw them in the tea — with the bags! [Laughs]
You are one of the six founders of dental implants. How did you enter into that field? Because my family was all in medicine, like a teenager, I decided to rebel and go into engineering. I went to the University of New Haven which had a really great engineering school. After I got my BS, I got a job at the Atomic Power Commission to write the codes and standards. After three months, I realized the job was not for me ... then I decided to go to dental school at the University of Pittsburgh. The chairman of the department of surgery came to me and said, “You’re the only student accepted with an engineering background. We have a new idea called dental implants, but sometimes it doesn’t work. We are doctors, not engineers. Maybe we have an engineering problem. You want to come and take a look?”
You started your relationship with the shah of Iran after becoming his dentist. In 1976, I came back to New York and opened my practice. Then I went to Columbia University, which didn’t have a research department for dental implants. I talked to the dean and explained that implants were the future of dentistry. He said, “I know, but there aren’t people who know how to do it.” When he saw my credentials, he asked me to be the chairman of the department. Then, the shah of Iran had a ski accident that broke his jaw in Switzerland. The Swiss dentist removed three of his teeth, and told him about the American idea of implants. There were four centers of research – me at Columbia, Harvard, Pittsburgh and UCLA. So they invited all four of us to see the shah. They didn’t know that I was Iranian because my first name was Marc, the American version of Mordekhai, my Hebrew name. When the shah found out I was Iranian, he was amazed and chose me.
When did you decide to write the book?I got to know the shah really well and he started using me as an outside advisor... . Because I’m a college professor and orator, I bought a tape recorder and told my story on tape. And I have 186 hours of tape. I have a big mouth. [Laughs] I hired a secretary to transcribe it and that’s how I got my first copy. Fortunately, one of my patients is a famous writer, Ring Lardner Jr.; he’s the one who wrote Mash. He told me that I wrote it like an engineer, and it took me another two-and-a-half years to fix it. Every free moment that I had, I worked on it.
How the movie come about?I got a call from Universal. They said they liked my book and wanted to make a movie. What they would do was give me $100,000 for a one-year option. After they decided to make the movie, they would give me another $100,000, but after that, I would have no control over the contents … . Then somebody took my book and gave it to this independent producer, Kenneth Del Vecchio, who was looking for a subject about Iran. He said, “I’ll sign a contract with you that you have 100 percent rights. When you approve the screenplay, we’ll start shooting. You can also come as an advisor on the set.” As they were writing the screenplay, every 20 or 30 pages they would send to me. I would read it, correct it and send it back. In the end, everything was exactly politically 100 percent correct.
To learn more about Benhuri’s dental practice, visit: www.implantsnyc.com