Driven Woman, Driving Man

updated 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

BEN THOMAS LEARNED VERY quickly that driving Miss Roseanne around L.A. isn't like driving anyone else. "This was my first assignment," recalls Thomas, the beefy 28-year-old bodyguard-chauffeur who, after a year and a half in the sitcom star's employ, was promoted to fiancé last month. "She and a friend got in the car, and she said, 'Take us to Bullock's department store.' I had already mapped it out, so I knew the right way, but after a while she said, 'Turn right here.' I knew that wasn't right, but I wasn't gonna say anything. She got me lost. Finally, I got back to my original route, and we got there. When she got out of the car she said, 'Sometimes you're such a stupid jerk.' " He pauses. "I knew it was going to be exciting from the git-go."

His fiancée cackles. "I love the fact that he knew but he didn't say nothin'," says Roseanne, 41. "He doesn't have to correct me." What counts, in the eyes of his intended, is that Thomas is "half James Bond and half surfer," 6'2" and 240 lbs., with blond hair, green eyes and a smile so genuine, she says, that it "hit me like a sledgehammer."

Roseanne had to look no farther than the front seat to be hammered. "The whole time Ben was working for me, I was falling in love," she says, adding that when Thomas was hired in April 1993, she was already feeling "emotionally severed" from Tom. But the romance didn't begin until last summer, after Roseanne filed—for the second time in less than a month—to end her four-year marriage to her onetime Roseanne producer. Thomas accompanied Roseanne on a vacation to Italy, where they stayed for two months at a castle in Trequanda, a small town in Tuscany. "We came in from a hike," he says, "and she pushed me into the pool. That's when I knew I was in love. That night she reached out for my hand, then she bit it. I was surprised. I didn't know what to do. So I said, 'I'll just bite back.' We kept biting and, you know, eventually, whatever..."

Now that is a rarity—someone holding back a detail in the ever-erupting volcano that is Roseanne's life. "Ben is so mature and normal," says Roseanne, dismissing their 13-year age difference. David Groves, who shared a house in El Segundo, Calif., with Thomas back in 1991, describes him as "a basic, simple person. He would get excited about little things like what he was going to eat." Rick Cooley, who trained Thomas as a bodyguard-chauffeur at L.A.'s Executive Chauffeuring Group, praises his pupil as "very quiet, very levelheaded."

That coolness, says Thomas, comes from experience. "I learned at a very early age things that regular people didn't," he says. As one friend notes, "Ben didn't have a strong home life." He was born in North Hollywood to Carmen Enright, whose varied résumé, says her son, included tractor driver and bullfighter. His father was Benjamin "Buck" Williams, a "kind of biker-Army-type-gangster hell-raiser," says Thomas. Buck owned a string of bars in Hollywood. But the father listed on Ben's birth certificate, and the source of his surname, is judo instructor Al Thomas, who is also father to Ben's sister Linda Thomas, 33. Pressed to clarify this tangled family tree, Thomas refuses. A half brother, John Williams, 29, son of Buck, now works for Roseanne. He's the new driver.

Burly young Ben grew up hanging out at Buck's bars and dropped out of school by 16. Infatuated with cars, he worked as a mechanic and body welder before being hired four years ago as chauffeur and bodyguard for a wealthy Los Angeles couple. Their son introduced Thomas to Tom Arnold, and thus Ben ultimately found himself working for Roseanne and Tom, getting lost on the way to Bullock's and sometimes being drawn into the Terrible Two's spats (he gave a deposition in their ongoing divorce suit).

Now, instead of waiting in the limo outside Rosie's Brentwood mansion, Thomas resides within with her and three of her four children. So far, there are no signs that, like the previous male occupant, he wants to have any part in the fur-flying tussles that have so frequently accompanied production of Roseanne's hit ABC sitcom. "He's no Tom Arnold, thank God," sighs a relieved Roseanne staffer.

Instead, Thomas has been teaching Roseanne to snorkel, jet ski and camp. "He can make a fire real quick," notes Roseanne, who sunnily proceeds to list his other accomplishments. "He's fun, he's earthy. He gives me peace and stability of every kind. I have a great guy."

Thomas, of course, is well aware of what happens to lovers, employees and relatives when Roseanne's expectations are frustrated. "But I think she knows I'm not perfect," he says.

Roseanne will have none of it. "He's perfect for me," she says.

LYNDA WRIGHT in Los Angeles

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