Editor’s note: This entry from Ben Stein’s Diary ran on March 16. Since today, June 5, marks the 30th anniversary of Ferris Bueller’s actual day off (how Ben’s roll in the movie came about is discussed below), we’re reposting it as an instant Flashback.
Here we are in my favorite town on the East Coast, Oxford, Maryland. Bob, driver and friend, wifey, and I headed off to the Eastern Sho’ at lunchtime. It was a gloomy day but cleared up just as we passed over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. To my shock, the Bay was clogged with ice. I have never seen it frozen over before. This was a cold winter indeed.
We stopped just east of the little spot called Kent Island and ate lunch at Chick-fil-A. As you know by now, this is one of my very favorite places. Delightful food, great, bright rooms, cheerful staff. It was a little slice of Nirvana.
Then, off like lightning to the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge. That is a spectacular 25,000 acres of marshland, wetlands, unbelievably huge flocks of ducks and geese, screeching and cawing through the sky. We drove along a narrow road and beheld the beauty that God had wrought. If you go to D.C. and have a day, you cannot do better than the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, just south of Cambridge.
Then, to Oxford, just as the sun was setting. The views from the town over the Tred Avon River and the Bay were stupefying: yellow, then orange sunset, dark blue water, naked branches of trees. I will enclose a photo (above).
As usual, Bob dropped me off at the Episcopal Church and I walked through town while Bob and Alex waited in the nice warm Camry.
As I walked by the adorable homes, I thought of how so many people have more money than I do, and so many are younger and stronger and better looking than I am, but only I get to have Alex, my wifey, world’s most nearly perfect human being. We have been together since 1966, off and on, and how we got together and stayed together is really a Washington story of two young State Department interns meeting at a July 4, 1966 Junior Foreign Service Officers’ Ball. I was with my college girl friend, the marvelous Mary Just, now a successful lawyer and housewife and mother in Vermont. Alex was with a young man named Gary, who was, by chance, a friend of one of my closest friends, David Paglin, former roommate, with whom I have been friends since 1962.
I will tell more of that story some day–it involves a miraculous college fraternity at Columbia called Alpha Delta Phi–and a wonderful woman named Susan Sgarlat.
But for now, I want to tell how some glorious things happened in my life that led me to be a 1980s movie cult figure. It is also a Washington story.
I could begin it with my reading a book about RN when I was 7 years old and liking him immediately. And I could go on to talking about how I wangled a job at the Nixon White House in 1973 as a speechwriter and sometime lawyer. That was immensely through the help of the world’s two most helpful people, my mother, Mildred Stein, immense Nixon fan, and my father, the economist Herbert Stein, who was an even bigger RN fan and was at the time Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (sic).
My job was tremendous fun. I worked with two of the smartest men on this planet, Aram Bakshian, Jr., and John R. Coyne, Jr., and under the leadership of two more great men, Dave Gergen and Ray Price. And with a super beautiful and smart researcher, Anne Morgan, and two floors down from my Pop.
Pop often took me for lunch at the White House Mess, where top dogs from the White House Staff were allowed to have delicious meals, served by Navy Mess NCOs. We saw many famous people there but one day roughly three years before I started working at the White House, when I was a miserable lawyer at the OEO, in December of 1970, my Pop took me to lunch there just to be his usual kind self.
As we sat there, my father leaned towards me confidentially and said, “If you saw Elvis Presley in person, would you recognize him?”
“I think so,” said I.
“Well, look behind you.”
I swiveled my hairy head around, and to my total shock, there was Elvis Presley eating with Mr. Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Bob Haldeman, a much feared but extremely pleasant and smart man.
I got up, made my excuses to Mr. Haldeman, and said to Elvis, “Sir, everyone in the world is your fan, but I am your biggest fan.”
In a voice and with a phrase that is incredibly famous, he simply said, “Thank yew ver’ much.”
I was dazed. But I did not forget.
OK. Let’s proceed. In 1974, when I was working at the White House, I was invited, as a guest of my parents, to a dinner party at the home of the famed former speechwriter and then super-successful New York Times columnist, Bill Safire.
At that party, I met one of Bill’s former college roommates, Ed Bleier, a high official at Warner TV. I told him an idea for a made-for-TV movie. He liked it and invited me to come to New York to discuss it with him.
I made the trip and while there, met a very young colleague of Mr. Bleier’s named Steve Greene. Steve, Ed, and I smoked it over, and then time passed.
Steve and his stunning wife, Denise, moved to L.A. for Steve to make a go of it in Hollywood. I moved there June 20 or so in 1976. Steve and I became fast friends.
Steve introduced me to a handsome, smart young rascal named Michael Chinich. Chinich was a very high official at Universal. I was trying to be a screenwriter and Mr. Chinich was generous enough to buy some of my work.
Michael was close friends and did major casting duties for the great and powerful John Hughes, already a major power in youth movies. One day, John heard me telling the story about meeting Elvis to Michael Chinich. He liked the story, loved RN, loved Elvis, but he also loved the sound of my voice. It was the perfect teacher’s voice, he said.
Time passed. In roughly 1984, I spent several months sitting in on a class taught at Birmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley. The teacher had a funny habit of saying, “Anyone? Anyone?” and interrupting her lectures to see if anyone was paying attention by asking, “Anyone? Anyone?” I filed that away.
In November of 1985, Michael Chinich said John Hughes wanted me to do a voice over for a new movie called “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Hughes had written the whole movie in one weekend. He was an unbelievable genius.
I went to stage 15 at Paramount (Michael Chinich was by then head of John Hughes Pictures and all interiors were shot at Paramount). We were running late so sat with Chinich and Hughes in their Winnebago just shooting the breeze for hours.
Then, I went on stage to do a voiceover–not on camera–of my taking the roll. “Adams, Adamley, Adamowski, Bueller, Bueller, Bueller, Bueller…” The high school age extras screamed with laughter and so did John. He directed that I do the scene on camera. I did it and got even more laughs. Then he said I should do a scene I just ad-libbed about something I was knowledgeable about and cared about.
In one take, making it up in my head, I talked about the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act and compared it with supply-side economics. The whole crew and cast gathered around the set and applauded when I was done. I have not seen that before or since. Matthew Broderick asked me if I usually worked on Broadway. I told him it was my second acting job ever and he said, “You have a career.”
Now, bear in mind, I thought I had given a fascinating talk about economics. But the audience thought it was a comedy. And after that I acted for three years in The Wonder Years as Mr. Cantwell, the science teacher for Kevin Arnold. And in many TV shows and innumerable TV shows and became at 1980s icon.
And if you were to ask me to cite a lesson from it, it would be a line from a great Joan Didion novel called Play It As It Lays: “You can’t win if you’re not at the table.”
I had to be in Hollywood for that to all play out. It would not have worked in Foggy Bottom or Georgetown. I had to be in the eye of the mass culture machine. And yet, it all happened, in many ways, because of Richard Nixon and events in D.C. That was when the original connections were made and connections are golden. PURE GOLD.
I finished my walk, met my wife and Bob at the Robert Morris Inn and had a superb meal of calf’s liver.
“You can’t win if you’re not at the table.”
“Connections are golden.”
Well worth remembering.