SANTA ROSA BEACH — Actor, screenwriter and poet Francois-Marie Bénard calls Santa Rosa Beach home, but he was born in Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, where his French Royalist family had self-exiled two centuries ago to escape the French Revolution.
“My father was instrumental in giving Madagascar independence,” he said.
He lived in the jungle there, he said, for 20 years, before leaving to study acting and directing in Paris. While trying to reach his goal of becoming an actor, Bénard worked varied jobs, including as the artistic director for Club Med, a financial adviser at Rothschild Bank and a reporter for L’Express Magazine.
He also studied in Rome and learned photography, making a living as a photographer during that time. In 1974, he moved to New York City and worked for Salvador Dali as a photographer, then for an art director, and found some work on Broadway and in television.
“Working for Dali opened doors in New York,” he said.
One door that was opened was meeting his wife Jo Ann, who was working under the screen name Lee Warrick on the soap opera “One Life to Live.” He was appearing on “The Young & the Restless” at the time.
Bénard moved back to France for a bit, a move that gave him his biggest commercial — for Paco Rabanne cologne.
“I was the first guy he used to advertise in his campaign, and it was big at the European level with articles in every major campaign. It was sexy and won awards in all the countries. It really put me on the map. I did more than 100 commercials,” he said.
But the franc was high and the dollar was low, so he returned to the United States, this time to Los Angeles, where he met many of the big names and found more work in commercials and sitcoms.
Bénard appeared on “McMillan & Wife” with Rock Hudson, “Charlie’s Angels,” “Scruples,” “Dynasty,” “Hart to Hart,” “Falcon Crest” and “Jake & the Fatman,” to name a few. He also was in the movie “Hostage Flight” with Ned Beatty.
In 1990, Bénard began writing screenplays; poetry followed in 1993. He finds inspiration for his poetry living at the beach. Since moving to South Walton 15 years ago, Bénard co-founded the Emerald Coast Philosophical Society and is president of Bénard Enterprises LLC.
Here, he writes most of the time — sometimes poetry and sometimes screenplays — and helps his wife, who is a realtor.
“I have written all my life,” he says. “I have been writing poems since I was young for girlfriends, and seriously about 20 years now. I have written more than 2,000 in all. I don’t count any more. I used to write a poem a day and put it aside. Now it is time to deliver them.”
Bénard’s poetry books include “The Thread of Love” and “The Dream of Life.” He has appeared recently at Books Alive in Panama City and at the Tops’l Community Room for signings. He also has been invited to read twice for students and faculty at FSU.
“I write a lot in the spiritual category. I have about 1,000 in that category. I was raised, trained and educated in religious schools and I’m very much a believer — but not religious. I am extremely spiritual. Even my love poems show spirituality,” he said.
When Bénard moved to South Walton, he thought he would stay maybe three years, but he hasn’t been able to pull himself away. As for the future, he says he doesn’t know.
“I don’t know if we will stay. It’s great here for a poet, but I have written several screenplays and have options on them. I have 10 plays started. But I am not stimulated here to do that. I would love to perform my own work from my own material. I would like to go back to L.A. or New York and try one more time,” he said.