Actor Ben Stein gives boredom a good name The Teacher Is In

January 04, 1995|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

He looks at best humorless, at worst dangerously depressed. Certainly he never, ever looks enthusiastic about anything.

But the offer of a cinnamon bun, a bag of fudge, pillows, blankets and other such simple human kindnesses have left Benjamin J. Stein virtually singing Baltimore's praises -- at least you sense he would sing if he could escape the deadpan drone that has made him one of America's most familiar character actors.

"A dream life would be to live in Baltimore," intones Mr. Stein, whose real-life accomplishments are as surprising as his on-screen persona is lifeless and boring.

He has been a speech writer for President Richard Nixon; columnist for the Wall Street Journal; lawyer; professor; TV sitcom writer; and author of "A License to Steal," a book on the junk bond king Michael Milken, among other volumes. But he is perhaps best known to the American masses for his roles remonstrating Matthew Broderick in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and Fred Savage in the TV show "The Wonder Years."

Lately, this professorial figure has been lecturing WMAR-TV viewers on the network affiliation switch that struck Baltimore television stations this week.

Mr. Stein's kind words about Baltimore are the result of the warm treatment he received in November when in town taping the promotional spots for WMAR and the W.B. Doner & Co. advertising agency, including pillows and blankets he used to nap during a taping session. He also describes the recognition he received earlier this week on a stroll through Harborplace, including the fudge and the cinnamon bun from merchants who all knew him as "the guy on Channel 2, right?"

"I really, really hated to leave when I was done. People are really so very nice," he says, in between appearances on WMAR news programs yesterday to reinforce the station's new identity as an ABC affiliate.

These are nice words, and seemingly sincere. But it's hard to tell as they come out in Mr. Stein's trademark metronomic rhythm.

"I would like to have all the friendliness and neighborliness of Baltimore, and be able to act in New York or L.A. when called upon, but to know that my son, the world's sweetest angel human being [7-year-old Tommy], was growing up in a friendly, cheerful neighborhood like many of the neighborhoods I've seen here in Baltimore," says Mr. Stein, who lives and works in Los Angeles.

The actor himself grew up in Silver Spring and went to Montgomery Blair High School. He is the son of Herbert J. Stein, who was chairman of Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers.

Mr. Stein, 50, worked for Nixon as a speech writer and lawyer in 1973-74.

He got to the White House after graduating from Columbia College with an economics degree and from Yale with a law degree, then working as a lawyer in the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Federal Trade Commission.

"I remember he said the day he left, in 1974, 'This White House is not the biggest executive mansion in the world . . . but it's the best house because it has the best people working for it,' " he recalls, then segues:

Baltimore's WMAR spots "are not the biggest commercials I've ever done, but they're the best because the people I worked with are the best."

Throughout his career, Mr. Stein says he has always been a writer. He was a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and currently writes for such publications as American Spectator, Cosmopolitan and New York magazine. He has also written books and television screenplays, the latter including Norman Lear's unsuccessful series "All's Fair" and the talk-show parody "Fernwood 2-Night." He also teaches at Pepperdine University Law School.

He acknowledges he's something of an oddity in Hollywood -- there can't be too many conservative Republican economist journalist professor authors at the power tables of Spago -- but Mr. Stein has no great admiration for the new Republicans taking over Washington.

Nixon "was a compassionate guy in terms of his feelings for the poor," he asserts. "The present crop of Republicans, although many of them are fine and intelligent men and women, really have set in motion a process that is going to make the lives of the poor in this country even more miserable than they now are. They are using the poor as the scapegoats for all the nation's problems."

Mr. Stein says he is as surprised as anybody that people recognize him in public. He almost even looks surprised, if a nearly raised eyebrow means something.

"I see myself as a character who often acts," he says, adding that the dry demeanor of his screen image is "absolutely" the way he really is.

That demeanor is what prompted the Donor agency to suggest Mr. Stein as the spokesman for the WMAR ad campaign, says agency vice president David R. Groobert.

The station decided early on "we wanted to take an educational approach, and the idea of having a teacher instruct viewers came up," says WMAR creative services director Marc Robertz.

After the agency showed a videotape of Mr. Stein's work in "The Wonder Years," "Ferris Bueller" and other places, recalls Mr. Robertz, "We said this is the guy."

Despite the fact that Mr. Stein has written TV criticism -- indeed, his association with Norman Lear began after the director offered a retort to a Wall Street Journal column in which Mr. Stein criticized "The Jeffersons" as racist -- the actor admires the medium.

"I think TV overall is a very good influence in American society," he says. "It shows families as being loving, supportive, caring, nurturing places. And I think it is the primary role model and exemplar for Americans in trying to figure out what is a good family."

Further, despite criticism of TV's violent content, he suggests "there is also no place in society that is providing a model of upholding the law," in the way that the medium's police and other dramas do.

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