If actor Michael J. Benzaia’s portrayal of doctors, EMTs, and other medical professionals on TV shows like The Mindy Project, Shameless, How to Get Away with Murder, and General Hospital seems especially accurate, it’s because it is. For 15 years, the Orange County native worked as a radiologic and computed tomography (CT) technologist in Hudson Valley ERs, including Montefiore St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital and Orange Regional Medical Center.
The Pine Bush High School alumnus always loved performing — his first role, as a ’tween, was in Oliver at SUNY Orange. But at age 12, he also became intrigued by medicine, when he’d accompany his mom, diagnosed with breast cancer, to her doctor’s appointments.
And while he loved his subsequent career as a “rad tech,” Benzaia was still passionate about the arts.
After his first big acting break — on the TV show Camp — he moved out to Los Angeles in 2014. Parts requiring his first-hand medical knowledge soon followed, as did TV commercials for Sensodyne toothpaste and PepsiCo’s Rockstar Energy Drink, and print ads for OnStar and T-Mobile. He also became an on-set medical consultant for TV shows, when, as an actor, he politely pointed out to a director a mistake made in displaying an X-ray — it was backwards or showing the wrong body part; he can’t remember which.
Today, Benzaia, 35, continues to work per diem as a tech for LA hospitals — and has added another new role to his resume: on-set COVID compliance officer.
And while he is primarily a Studio City resident, he makes frequent visits back to the area to visit family in Montgomery and for work.
“Interest in filming in the Hudson Valley was growing even before COVID, with more prop houses and production companies moving to the area,” he notes. “I adore the Hudson Valley.”
And while the outdoor enthusiast enjoys hiking the canyons near LA, it’s more crowded there. “You’re out in nature and there’ll be a photo shoot or someone posting on Instagram,” he says. He also likes the chance to meet people here and learn their stories, something not always possible in LA, where most people are connected to the entertainment industry. Such opportunities inform his acting work and his latest passion: writing. Benzaia is developing both a TV series and a documentary.
In the meantime, he foresees no shortage in acting work that draws upon his unique background; as he says, people are always fascinated by the medical world. And acting and medicine are not as dissimilar as they would seem. “Both require an empathy for people’s struggles and what they are going through, as well as effective listening skills,” Benzaia says.
Of course, he adds, the stakes in medicine, where patients are often going through life-threatening situations, are much higher. “On a TV set, you can stop for lunch.”