Dec. 1, 1987, was one of the worst days of Ben Stein's life. That was the day Joan Rivers tearfully announced that she was slapping a $50-million libel suit on Gentlemen's Quarterly magazine and Bert Hacker, the pseudonym of the writer who penned the piece about her.
Ben Stein, you see, is Bert Hacker.
"You can say I wrote a draft of the story," he says in his Beverly Hills office.
The night after Rivers' announcement, Stein was lying in bed with his wife and dogs ("We sleep with all four dogs in bed with us"), still wound up.
"I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the civil rights movement," he recalls. "A lot of time. And I said to Alex--that's my wife--'Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.' " He sings it defiantly, his brow furrowed.
"Do you know that one? So we started singing, 'Ain't gonna let Joan Rivers turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.' And we sang civil rights songs till about 3 in the morning.
"And I think to myself when I'm feeling really low, like when I was served with my complaint, we are not ashamed, we shall not be moved, we shall overcome. I think the whole country should draw strength from the example of the civil rights movement. I certainly do.
"I love to sing, by the way."
In an interview done against his lawyer's wishes, but which he taped in compliance with his lawyer's demand, Stein admits that Bert Hacker was his pseudonym. The GQ article titled "Big Hearts, Little Pizzas" that triggered the suit has made the December issue a hot item.
"I have known Joan Rivers for more than 20 years," began the first-person account that allegedly quotes Rivers complaining bitterly about her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, before and after his suicide last August.
'He Makes Me Crazy'
"I think things are just about finished with Edgar," Rivers was quoted as saying to the author of the article. "Since (Twentieth Century Fox chairman Barry) Diller ended my show, he's been all over my case like a maniac. . . . Listen, when I think of the way he makes me crazy, I really wonder if they didn't execute the wrong Rosenbergs."
Later in the piece, the author said Rivers was on the phone with her publicist negotiating for a People magazine cover after her husband's death. " 'I want either a firm yes or a firm no,' Joan said. 'I've done a lot of crappy stuff for People that I didn't want to do. They owe me this one. Who's got a bigger story this week?' "
Rivers called the piece a "total pack of evil, vicious, sick lies" in her press conference, where she also demanded a full retraction. "On the night that the article claims I had dinner with the author in Los Angeles, I was not in Los Angeles," she said. "I was not even in the United States. Unfortunately, I was in the emergency room of a hospital in Dublin with my late husband, Edgar Rosenberg, because he had been taken ill during the night."
At the time of her press conference, the author's identity was unknown, so Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, offered a $5,000 reward to the first person to reveal the name. Three days later, when the lawsuit was filed, Stein's name had been added.
In his new office, with his "beautiful assistant Ann Marie" sitting on the sofa, Stein is willing to talk about the suit. But before he does, he announces, "I have to do this for 60 seconds." He pulls off his glasses, closes his eyes and gently rests his head on his desk.
"I learned that when I was in kindergarten," he says upon rising. "I have nap time in my house, and now since I've bought this"--he points to the beige sofa--"I lie on it. And I do not get any starlets coming in here. And if I did, I'd make them leave because I have to write."
Opening a desk drawer, he pulls out a box of cough drops, a bottle of aspirin, a jar of Vitamin C and some antihistamine capsules, pops a Pine Bros. honey cough drop ("These are my favorite") and begins his monologue on the Rivers case. It is done in an italics-punctuated nasal drone unique to Ben Stein. His speech pattern earned him cult status in the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" as the economics teacher whose lectures turn his students into catatonic zombies. To hear him is to know him.
What She Is Saying Is ...
"Essentially what Joan Rivers is saying in this lawsuit is, Yes, I am a famous comedian. Yes, I have been spending all my adult life saying to people, come look at me, make jokes. Yes, many of those jokes are about dead people. Yes, many of them are about my husband. And yes, I told a number of jokes about my husband after he was dead. But I didn't tell these specific jokes. Because these specific ones went a little too far and I didn't tell these.
"My response to that is when you have spent a whole lifetime making jokes about dead people and making jokes about your husband and jokes about your husband after he's dead, I think it's a little surprising for you to invoke the entire machinery of the law and ask for a completely unrealistic, bizarre amount of money for damages, all because one woman said, This time when I was telling jokes, I didn't want anyone to listen."
No Response Through Lawyer
Rivers' attorney, Robert Chapman, responded to Stein's comments by saying: "Ben Stein has not made any sort of response through his lawyer to the lawsuit, so we don't know yet what his legal position is going to be. What he says about the lawsuit is a mischaracterization of what it is representing. This is the first time I have heard either Stein or the magazine assert that what was in the article was a supposed attempt at a joke. . . . The lawsuit speaks for itself."
For Stein, the lawsuit is more than Joan vs. Ben.
"What right does a wealthy plaintiff have to suppress discussion of her in the press?" he says, swallowing an aspirin. "If this kind of lawsuit is allowed, and not just allowed to go to trial, then she's already won an important point. Because she has already scared GQ, scared and chilled me, and probably nobody much is going to be writing about her for a while."
Stein asks the next question and answers it. "Now, why did I want to write about her in the first place? . . . Here's what I thought when these stories about Joan came my way. Here she is, she's up there on TV preaching. And what she's preaching is a social ideology. And that ideology is materialism: Don't worry about whether or not you love him, get the ring. Don't worry about whether or not you enjoy having sex with him, that's a fake anyway, worry about how much money he's got. Don't worry about whether he or she is a nice person, worry about what he looks like.
'I Think She's Preaching
"This to me is a coherent social ideology and I think an extremely unfortunate one. I think she's preaching, just as much as Jerry Falwell or Jim Bakker, and I think she deserves to have her life examined just as much as they do."
On the other hand, he says, "I don't like being sucked into Joan Rivers' publicity machine and having my life and my wife's life and my son's life and my beautiful assistant Ann Marie's life and my parents and my sister and my friends chewed up (by it)."
But, he says, "People ask me if it's hard fighting this lawsuit against Joan Rivers. And I always say it is hard, because basically I'm not a very strong person. But it's not hard when I think to myself that my father was in the Navy during World War II, my wife's father won the Silver Star fighting against the SS in Germany in World War II and then when he was in his 40s won a second Silver Star in Vietnam. And I think compared to those people, what I'm doing is nothing! Nothing! This country is filled with brave people and what's going on here is just a tiny footnote of a publicity stunt, a misguided lawsuit that should have never happened."
While uttering this last sentence, he winds up a tiny pair of chattering teeth. Then adds: "I'm sorry, I really am becoming in sane . I'm going to have to put myself in a hospital for people who talk too much."
Has Had Many Careers
Given to superlatives and organizing his thoughts into lists ("You want me to tell you the smartest people I've ever met in my life?"), Stein is always working and admits he doesn't feel alive unless he's communicating.
At 43, he has juggled more careers than most go through in a lifetime. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1970, he did a short stint at the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington, then went to work for the Federal Trade Commission, taught at UC Santa Cruz and was back working at the FTC when an Op-Ed piece he wrote for the New York Times defending then-President Richard Nixon caught the eye of presidential adviser and speech writer Patrick Buchanan, who recruited him as a Nixon speech writer. After Nixon's resignation, he stayed to work under Gerald Ford's Administration for a short time before joining the Wall Street Journal, where he wrote editorials and a column on mass culture.
Stein went west again in 1976, landing in Los Angeles to write a book, "The View From Sunset Boulevard," and free-lance occasionally for the Journal. Producer Norman Lear hired him as a consultant on a show called "All's Fair" and "Fernwood 2-Night." With producer Al Burton, Stein tried in 1977 to start his own show where all the characters would be dressed as dogs. It never got on the air.
He parted company with Lear in 1978, continued to free-lance and was brought on by editor Jim Bellows as a writer-in-residence at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. His column lasted until last October.
Writes, Teaches, Consults
Now he divides his time between writing magazine articles and books (he has already written about a dozen, fiction and nonfiction, on everything from economics to life in the Hollywood fast lane), teaching a course in popular culture at Pepperdine University, and legal and financial consulting for corporations and stockholders.
He is the son of economist Herbert Stein, whom he describes as "A super brain-o. I got that term from my Valley Girls."
The Rivers case, he says, has shown him who his friends are.
"The night that Joan had her press conference I went to Morton's. I go there two or three nights a week, that's why I'm always so broke. I was worried that people might look at me strangely, because that's a big show-biz hangout. And high-powered people, like this one woman, just say she's a high-powered executive, gave me a big hug and a kiss and said, 'I'm with you.'
"And the waiters, who are really my friends by now--I don't look upon them as servants, I'd be just as happy to wait on them --they all stood around and patted me on the back and asked if they could be helpful in any way. . . . Gosh, I'm awfully long-winded, aren't I?"
Stein has also found out who his friends aren't. After the suit he received three pieces of hate mail-- one he said was signed by a well-known Southern California writer, the others anonymous--and a death threat phone call that his "beautiful assistant", Ann Marie, took.
GQ, for which he wrote one of his most talked-about series of articles, an insider look at Hollywood, is high on his list of concerns. He says: "I had better not comment on GQ's behavior as far as paying legal bills. I will just say it's a matter of acute concern to me and maybe the subject of future litigation and therefore I better not say anything about it right now."
The magazine's managing editor refused to comment on the case on advice of attorneys.
Irked by Column
Stein is incensed at a series of Herald Examiner Page 2 gossip column items that named him as the author of the piece and said other things he found unpleasant.
A few weeks before that, the newspaper, which had run his by-lined column for 10 years, stopped running it.
"I believe," Stein says, launching into another monologue, "that without any question at all, I was the most widely published writer the Herald Examiner ever had in the entire history of the paper. I got paid almost nothing. When I was fired, the only specific criticisms I was told were that (an editor) I had never met said he found my work hard to edit, and he also said his boss wanted to know why I couldn't ever say anything nice about the Russians."
Herald editor Maxwell McCrohon refused to comment on Stein's termination.
'They Hated Me'
"There's been very little animosity (other than the items in the Herald)," Stein continues. "But that has been a long time brewing. They hated me there although the readers liked me. Why did they hate me so much? Jim Bellows (the paper's former editor who first brought Stein on as a writer-in-residence) used to say, 'They hate you like poison.'
"Why? Because one, I worked for Nixon, and two, they imagined I earned a tremendous amount of money, which is not true, alas. And three, I think they must hate me because of my beautiful wife. She's so beautiful and wonderful and they must be jealous of her."
Rarely is there a neutral reaction to Ben Stein. His detractors love to pounce on his view of women, specifically his research assistants who have been seen through his columns and magazine articles as perky twinkle-ettes low on typing and filing skills.
"I like to have capable people around me," he says, moving papers from a drawer in his desk. "If they are pleasant and have pleasant personalities, so much the better."
Called Job the Best
Juliette Capretta was one of Stein's research assistants for five years, starting when she was a student at USC. Now an agent at Marshak-Wyckoff and Associates in Beverly Hills, she described her tenure as "the best job I ever had. He's such a character," she says, laughing. "He's done a lot with his life, with politics and entertainment. He completely influenced my life in every respect. He made me believe that I could be anybody I wanted to be."
She adds, "It's kind of a fallacy that all his assistants are beautiful. Just because a couple out of 10 are, they're stereotyped."
Stein's link with Nixon as one of his speech writers 13 1/2 years ago still triggers vitriolic reactions from liberals, but it's an identity he can't shake, and wouldn't want to.
"I am very proud of having worked for him," he says, unscrewing the top of the Vitamin C jar and carefully placing one in his mouth. "Say what you like about him, he got us out of the war in Vietnam. It did take longer than it should have, but I will never turn my back on Nixon, who brought peace to America."
Nixon Still a Factor
Stein gets up and adjusts the Venetian blinds.
Does he feel animosity from others? Generally no, he says, but "I do, incident by incident. I notice that when my books are reviewed, I often seem to have people reviewing them largely with reference to their feelings about me or about Nixon. I try to think of what I do each day . . ." he says, his voice trailing off, his mind preparing to make a list.
Larry Dietz, Stein's friend and former editor at New West magazine, says: "People just react with visceral anger (about Ben). But they are almost without exception people who have never met him, although they act as though they have. In person he is a charming and personable human being."
He adds: "I think part of the reaction is that Ben has appeared a lot on television (talk shows). There was a time a couple of years ago when you couldn't turn on TV, whether it was CNN or a noonday talk show, without seeing him. That sort of blowing of one's own horn without there having been a specific product to sell, like a book, may have angered people."
No Problems With Facts
Dietz also says that as an editor he never had problems with Stein's stories, and that New West had a rigorous fact-checking department at the time. Other editors contacted also says they had no problem with facts in his manuscripts.
"He thrives on controversy, not dishonesty," says Peter Bloch, executive editor at Penthouse magazine.
Producer Burton, now executive producer of the show "Charles in Charge" on KTLA Channel 5, recalls Stein when he first came west.
"He had the whimsy and wit that was unusual for me to find in someone as well-educated and intellectual. He was also an archconservative, and I only knew liberals."
Audiences Like Character
Burton's writers have twice put Stein in the show, and plan to do it again because, Burton says, audiences adore his character Stanley Willard, who pops up as the nemesis of star Scott Baio.
After Stein's screen break in "Ferris Bueller" (people still stop him on the street and chant "Bueller, Bueller"), commercial director Mark Story spotted him on a late-night talk show and was captivated by his voice.
"I was looking for an eccentric character for a Godfather's Pizza (a pizza restaurant chain) commercial," Story recalls. "I thought he was an effete, slightly pompous intellect. That's the way it came off to me. Really the thing that makes Benjamin is his face and voice quality, and the fact that he absolutely cannot act. That works if you put it in the right context."
Story's casting agent tracked down Stein, who was more than happy to become the character "Charles," another bizarre droner who lounges in pajamas and given to phrases like "Hey, duuuuuuuuude." With Story, Stein has also done commercials for an East Coast beer, a spot for Nikon cameras and Pan Am airlines, and Western Union.
'Unhinged Side to Him'
Story says: "There is a very unhinged side to him that works for him on film. He can take that insane side, and he's not at all afraid to let it out. He's an interesting mix of intellect and crazy person."
What drives Ben Stein?
"I do believe I work very hard. My agent says I'm the hardest working writer in America and I believe it's true.
"I have a lot I want to express. I mean, I wrote in my book 'Her Only Sin,' which I think is a very good book--and I can get you a copy of it, it would be my pleasure, I could get you copies of all my books--that man has incredible experiences. He remembers when he was 8 years old seeing butterflies flying over a creek on a May day. He remembers the first time he ever went out on a date and the girl kissed him as if she liked him. He remembers what it was like to have a charco-broiled cheeseburger that cost 35 cents and tasted like heaven itself. Unless you do something about it, when you die, all those memories die--unless you can put those memories outside you in some permanent place like in a book.
'Many Vivid Feelings'
"I have many vivid feelings and emotions about my life and I want to put them outside me so they exist somewhere. I frankly don't even care if it's under my name. At least someone somewhere will by accident even take it down off a library shelf and see it and the idea will still be alive."
Stein and his wife, Alexandra Denman, former vice president of legal affairs for United Artists, are in the process of adopting a baby they call Tommy. Thinking about Tommy gets him thinking about the lawsuit again.
"I'm not going to have Tommy growing up thinking that his father ran from a fight," he says, "especially when his father was totally right and had the facts and the law on his side. Tommy is not going to have a father, if I can help it, who he is ashamed of for not having stood up to an extremely unmeritorious lawsuit."
That leads him into another subject, and he takes off for a few minutes on the fact that the country isn't working hard enough. Then he pauses for a few seconds, looks across his desk and says, "Shall we stop now?"
Writer Jeannine Stein is not related to Ben Stein.