& Fortune: Ben Stein
Know Ben Stein's money
Author, actor, attorney, speechwriter
and all-around funny guy Ben Stein knows that the shortest distance
between two points is a good straight-line.
Where other actors spend years spouting countless
lines in pursuit of screen immortality, Stein achieved his cinematic
milestone with a single word droned over and over: "Bueller
... Bueller ... Bueller."
Stein's classic deadpan delivery, quick wit, encyclopedic
recall and hopelessly conservative suits have made him an unlikely
champion of the MTV set. Recurring roles in sit-coms such as "Charles
in Charge" and "The Wonder Years" cemented his reputation
as the square we love the most. His repartee with co-star Jimmy
Kimmel on their wacked-out Comedy Central game show "Win Ben
Stein's Money" catapulted him into a successful speaking career
that has him busier than ever.
In a less elastic world, Stein's comedic talents might
have been squandered on attorneys and judges in sidebars and a few
close colleagues in real bars. Following in the footsteps of his
father, the noted economist and writer Herbert Stein, Ben graduated
with honors in economics from Columbia University in 1966, and was
valedictorian of his class at Yale Law School in 1970.
He subsequently worked as a trial lawyer for the Federal
Trade Commission and wrote speeches for Presidents Nixon and Ford
("I am not a crook" wasn't his, however). He also taught
politics, civil rights and mass culture at Pepperdine University
in Malibu and the University of California-Santa Cruz, where he
was -- brace yourself -- a long-haired hippie professor.
It was during the '70s, while writing about Hollywood
for the Wall Street Journal, that Stein met, and ultimately worked
with, pioneering TV producer Norman Lear of "All in the Family"
fame. Hollywood started to note Stein's wit, and when director John
Hughes pulled Ben out of the classroom to play the monotonous high
school teacher in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," the buttoned-down
Stein became the funk-inducing lecturer of choice for comedic films,
TV and commercials.
Over the years, he has published 16 books including
seven novels, mostly about Hollywood, and nine nonfiction books,
mostly about finance. His latest, "How to Ruin Your Financial
Life," features 55 tongue-in-cheek suggestions for getting
into debt. Chapters include: "Collect as Many Credit Cards
as You Can and Use Them Frequently," "Know in Your Gut
that Only Suckers Work Hard for Money" and "Remember that
Retirement is a L-ooo-nnn-g Way Off."
Stein took a break from his Hollywood commitments
(he is currently a "Star Search" judge) to chat about
money with Bankrate.com.
Bankrate: Your father
was something of a financial guru of his day. How did he influence
you with regard to money?
Ben Stein: I was expected
to be frugal because my father was really frugal more than anything
else. He wasn't really a genius about investing. He was very frugal
and careful and he avoided making terrible mistakes in spending
too much, but he made terrible mistakes in not investing with sufficient
daring. He really could have made a lot more money in his life if
he had been more daring, because he always had a fair amount of
money to invest but he was so cautious about it that he made mistakes.
On the other hand, he did a few things that worked out incredibly
well. For instance, he bought variable annuities and they turned
out to be incredibly successful. He bought some diversified mutual
funds that turned out well. But he could have had much more expensive
real estate, he could have had a lot more stock. He grew up in the
Depression, so you can imagine he would be cautious. He talked me
out of making many investments that in retrospect would have been
very good investments. I was going to buy a couple different houses
in particularly great locations and he talked me out of them, and
they would have been great. Really great.
Bankrate: Did you get
your sense of humor from him?
Ben Stein: My father had
an unbelievable sense of humor, a fantastically good sense of humor.
Bankrate: It's a little
hard to picture you as a hippie.
Ben Stein: I was never
a hippie in the sense that I always worked; in that sense you can't
be a hippie. But I was also a pot smoker for part of that time.
I had long hair, I went around in fatigues and had lots of "romantic
experiences" that a more cautious person might not have had.
Yeah, I had a hippie lifestyle. I lived in the forests of Santa
Cruz while I was a teacher there, in 1972-73. That was sort of my
ultimate hippie days.