Kochavim / Stargazing

Jewish World Review August 14, 1998 / 22 Menachem-Av, 5758

Busy Ben (Stein)

by Curt Schleier

THE FIRST SENTENCE of almost every story about Ben Stein contains the word "unlikely." Stein is an "unlikely" game show host, an "unlikely" movie star, all of which is true--unless the movie in question is "Revenge of the Nerds." He looks like the classic pocket-protector-wearing geek and talks in the kind of monotone that would put the folks who make Maxwell House coffee to sleep. Still, "unlikely" is not a word Stein himself would use when writing an autobiography.

"My life has so many twists and turns, I don't consider anything unlikely," he says, before quickly qualifying that statement. "If I was to become the baseball slugging champion, that would be unlikely. But I think the story about me is that I've had a lot of jobs, some I liked better than others, and I have a great sense of adventure. I'll try anything. I guess that would be the story about me."

Try anything may be putting it mildly. He first achieved a modicum of celebrity in 1986 using his very nerdy qualities to play an excruciatingly boring high school teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Supposedly, Bueller's director, John Hughes, asked Stein to ad-lib a lesson on economics. At the end of the scene, the crew broke out in applause. Stein, of course, assumed, it was because he'd made a point that allowed all assembled to achieve an intellectual break-through in the field.

Actually the crew clapped in wonder, because they didn't believe even the greatest of thespians could act so boring. Little did they know he wasn't acting.

But the 53-year-old came to acting late in life. He'd already served as a government lawyer, Presidential speechwriter and law school prof. Since Bueller, in addition to sporadic acting assignments, (invariably typecast as the boring professor), Stein has written more than a dozen books, including the newly published Tommy and Me: The Making of a Dad (Free Press). He writes regular columns for a number of publications, ranging from the American Spectator to E! Online, the website of the cable network. And is professional product pitchman (most recently for Clear Eyes on television).

But the job that's likely to win him lasting fame is host of the hit Comedy Central quiz show, Win Ben Stein's Money (7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; rebroadcast at 11:30), which offers contestants an opportunity to literally take cash from Stein's wallet. In this program, Stein matches wits and intellect against three people. They first compete amongst themselves; the winner of this intramural contest ultimately goes against Stein for a potential $5,000 payoff. Both enter soundproof booths reminiscent of the old quiz show, 21, and answer the same 10 questions. Although the money is put up by the producers, whatever Stein preserves goes into his paycheck. What the contestant wins comes out of his check. And Stein is very, very competitive.


He approaches the game as he does everything else in his life, with a tremendous amount of intensity and gusto. He also seems to enjoy playing the provocateur, being just a little different, seeing how many hackles he can raise. For example, Stein spent much of 1971 protesting the Vietnam War, raising funds for the Black Panthers and wearing his hair in a large Afro that brings tears to Don King's eyes. Two years later, he was on Nixon's staff preparing speeches, the only war protester of record to make that particular transition.

Consider that he describes his background to a reporter for a Jewish newspaper this way:

"My parents, of course, are Jewish. I grew up in a conservative Jewish household. We briefly kept kosher, but not for very long. My parents were very assimilated Jews. They only went to services on the High Holy Days. There are few people in America who could have disliked services as much as I did. It seemed to me there was an awful lot of standing and rocking back and forth. The other people in the room seemed totally alien to me and did not look like anyone I knew or cared to know. At fund raising time there was a swaggering by the richer members of the community as they past by the poorer."

Nevertheless, Stein still belongs to a synagogue and his son goes to a Jewish Day School, a function in part to the deteriorated condition of the public schools in the greater Los Angeles area where he now resides. But there is also the memory of the anti-Semitism he experienced as a child. Though relatively affluent--his father is Herb Stein, who chaired the Presidential Council of Economic Advisers under Nixon--it did not protect him from both institutional and personal venom directed at Jews.

"The best private schools only admitted one or two Jews in a class. The best neighborhoods did not allow Jews to live in them. The best country clubs did not allow Jews."

He specifically recalls a group of young tough sin junior high school who used to have it in for him. "They used to cal me a f---ing Jew. They used to wrestle me on the ground. It was horrible. Absolutely horrible."

He remembers as a young child riding a bike and being approached by a visitor in the neighborhood and being told "get that bicycle away from my car you kike."

Clearly, he says, "I don't like anti-Semitism one bit. On the other hand, I recognize that there's such a thing as free speech. And I also understand that the most bitter mockery of Jews comes from Jews, especially from the Jews on TV and in the movies."

After time in the Nixon and Ford White House, Stein went to work for the Wall Street Journal writing a column about politics and the entertainment industry, so this is an area he's familiar with. "There's hardly a more mocking, derisive reference to Jews than what's on The Nanny. The way she sounds, and she's such a yenta, bossing people around, gossiping.

"Generally if you see a Jew on TV or in the movies he's a hustler and con man. The characterization of Jewish women is always aggressive, not sensitive, vain and badly dressed. Think of the characters in The Wedding Singer."

Stein feels that Hollywood Jews are tough and aggressive--far tougher and more aggressive than the Jews of political Washington. Yet when Marlon Brando publicly talked about the kikes of Hollywood, Stein wrote an impassioned and intelligent article for E! Online that pointed out the irony about Hollywood's founders, that it "took all these Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Jews to create the lasting worldwide image of America.

But of course that's not really the point, he wrote. "The only real reason why the question of whether Jews ‘run' Hollywood is at all interesting is because there is some residual thought --apparently as was in the mind of Marlon Brando--that Jews are sinister and alien."

Yes, Hollywood's product is made mostly by Jews--but these are Jews who love America. "I marvel that when people criticize the auto industry for making trucks that catch fire when they are struck and cars that turn over on a turn no one ever says ‘the gentile auto industry.' No one calls the pharmaceutical industry sinister or attacks it as alien even though it turns out a lot of pills that addict people."

Stein also goes against the trend when defending a former employer, Nixon, who he believes was a wonderful president. This despite Watergate, which he feels was a small blip when measured against an otherwise long list of accomplishments, including setting the structure for eventually ending the Cold War.

And, no, Nixon was not an anti-Semite. "The idea that Nixon was an anti-Semite is the biggest lie in the post-war world. He was incredibly good to the Jews around him and incredibly good for Israel, even though there was nothing politically good in it for him. He promoted Jews to unheard of authority and on a personal level was extremely friendly."

Among the many things he does, except for being a trial lawyer writing is what he likes least. Still, he does it. The latest tome is about the wonders of parenting, which like acting is something he came to late in life. His 10-year-old adopted son has become the center of a book-- and his life. As Readers of Tommy and Me quickly discover.

"I want them to know that it is the best possible investment of their time to be with their children. There's nothing else that they can do that will be more valuable to them, to their children and to their immortal souls. And that is the ultimate goal of their lives."

It is a beautiful sentiment and a wonderful way to end an interview. But he just couldn't let it go. He has to continue: "But they are not to be interfering or hovering when the kids don't want them to hover. That's vital and crucial."

JWR contributor Curt Schleier is a freelance writer and author who also teaches writing to business executives.


© 1998, Curt Schleier