Ben There, Done That

updated 09/29/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

EVER SINCE THE 1986 COMEDY HIT Ferris Bueller's Day Off, in which he played a stupefyingly boring high school teacher, owlish Ben Stein has been known for a droning delivery so flat it makes Lurch, the Addams Family butler, sound like a carnival barker. "Ben's voice, to his luck or not, hits that one note," says Ferris star Matthew Broderick. Stein, 52, has also lent his deadpan presence to TV (both as a science teacher in The Wonder Years and in commercials, including Wendy's). "I'm me," he says, "a monotone person wrapped around a shrieking one trying to get out."

And getting more exposure. To an eclectic résumé that includes speech-writer, lawyer, professor and Hollywood columnist, Stein has just added, of all things, game show host. And player. In the offbeat Win Ben Stein's Money, which started on Comedy Central in July, Stein the host starts by quizzing three contestants; in the championship round, Stein the player faces off against one finalist to answer questions about everything from French statesmen to geometry to the Super Mario Bros. If Stein bests his opponent, he gets to keep the $5,000 pot (in addition to an undisclosed salary). So far the egghead host has trounced two-thirds of the competition—to the relief of sidekick Jimmy Kimmel. "Ben's a bad loser," Kimmel explains. "But if he wins, he's like, 'Yaaay! I am smarter than you.' " Admits Stein: "I'm very competitive."

Not to mention freakishly studious. In fact, once the show was green-lighted last March, "he went out and bought every encyclopedia," says his wife, Alexandra Denman, 50, an entertainment attorney in L.A., where the couple live in a three-bedroom home with their adopted son Tommy, 9. "He's been reading them constantly. He knows everything." That, says executive producer Andrew Golder, makes the show click. "Win Pamela Lee's Money," he observes, "would be significantly easier."

Growing up in Silver Spring, Md., Stein and an older sister, Rachel, were raised by their mother, Mildred, a homemaker, and their father—Herbert Stein, now 80—a "superfamous braino economist," his son calls him, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under both Presidents Nixon and Ford and, says Stein, the coiner of the phrase "voodoo economics." In their '50s Republican home, young Ben, says his dad, "would watch the McCarthy hearings with me in the rec room."

Once he landed at Columbia University in 1962, Ben, an economics major with a lifelong penchant for "pretty girls," discovered that coeds appreciated his wit. By the time he graduated at the top of his Yale Law school class, they were finding him downright groovy. "Hippies were having the most fun," says Stein about his longhaired, radical phase. His mother, a staunch anticommunist, nonetheless made him tuna sandwiches when he went off to protest the Vietnam War. "That was really touching," recalls Stein without irony. (She died in April at age 81.)

But in 1973, after teaching on both coasts and doing stints as a Wall Street Journal columnist and a lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission ("the worst job"), the former protester took a post in the Nixon White House drafting economic-policy speeches. "Nixon was an underdog," says Stein, who attended the former President's funeral in 1994. "I like underdogs."

Stein's romantic life also took some unexpected turns. He married Denman in 1968, two years after they met in Washington. By 1974, for reasons neither cares to discuss, they had divorced. "Then," says Denman, "Ben pursued me again—and won me all over again. He's very persistent." They remarried in 1977. "Alex," Stein insists, "is the finest woman on earth."

It was in 1985, after he had returned to L.A. and was pursuing a patchwork career, including screenwriting and teaching law at Pepperdine University, that Stein came to the attention of director John Hughes, who needed a dull-yet-droll professorial type for Ferris. Shooting an ad-libbed scene in which he effectively lulls a class to sleep "was the best day of my life," Stein says. It led to small comic turns in several dozen movies and TV shows and, most recently, to Win Ben Stein's Money. His close friend, series creator Al Burton, came up with the idea of casting Stein as an intellectual Wink Martindale. "Ben's a serious guy," says Burton. "But everything he does makes me laugh."

Reflecting upon his life, Stein, who also writes a Hollywood column for E! Online, grows humble. "It is a story," he says, "of incredible luck and blessings." Not the least of which includes a little harmless flirting with female fans. "In high school I couldn't even get cute girls to go out with me," says Stein. "Now I have my own show."

KEN BAKER in Los Angeles

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