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Ben SteinFame & 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."

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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.

 
 
Next: ... "The only bad part about Hollywood is not working."
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