Bartender-Model Rob Ramsel, Who Found Fame by Wandering, Topless, into a Camera Frame

updated 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It could be New York or Paris or Milan. Five women sit smoking over the lemon-and-caper remains of an elegant meal. As the red wine warms their flesh and the midday sun touches each with a luminescent glow, a woman on the right confides a secret to her friends and the table's solitary, older man raises his glass to a figure in the corner. There, standing as if caught in mid-stride, with tousled hair and an amused, slightly impatient smile, is a man wearing only his pajama bottoms.

With that bit of beefcake, seen in Benson & Hedges ads running in a slew of national magazines, Rob Ramsel, 35, has become one of the earthiest hucksters since Clara Peller demanded the whereabouts of the beef. But just what—besides cigarettes—is Ramsel selling? "I've heard hundreds of stories," he admits, "everything from that I woke up late to I was sick to I'm just lazy. They think I'm a rock star or just a husband who forgot the brunch."

He has plenty of time to listen to such theories. A Fort Worth-born actor who moved to New York in 1978, Ramsel currently manages the bar at Sam's Restaurant, a New York eatery co-owned by Mariel Hemingway. Two years ago, when he auditioned for the Benson & Hedges series, he recalls, "they told me, 'Just talk and smoke.' I said, 'That's what I do in life.' " Photographer Denis Piel, who designed the Big Chill-style campaign, scattered his upwardly mobile smokers throughout a Manhattan apartment. "I was in the bedroom, doing the postcoital cigarette scene," Ramsel says, "when it was time for a break. Denis looked at me and at the women in street clothes, and said, 'This is crazy. Keep the pajamas on.' "

"We never guessed the photograph would provoke so many fantasies," says Piel's partner, Mason Boyd. For Ramsel, who's single, it's also provoked some passes. "One woman said I was the talk of Smokenders," he relates. "She told me, 'You're very sexy.' " He adds, with a self-effacing grin, "I don't think I've ever heard that unless somebody was very drunk."

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