February 21, 2000 12:00 PM

The initial plan was to rent a Winnebago. But that was before Ben Affleck had finished rounding up recruits for the 710-mile trip from L.A. to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, last month. By the time the road-trippers were tallied—among them childhood friend and Good Will Hunting partner Matt Damon, younger brother Casey, a couple of showbiz pals and a handful of hometownies from Boston—a Winnebago was inadequate. “We ended up getting this Axl Rose-tour-bus kind of thing,” says Chris Moore, a longtime friend of Affleck’s who coproduced Hunting and the star’s darkly comic caper movie Reindeer Games, which opens Feb. 25. “We even got two drivers because it was an 18-hour drive.” But the 27-year-old tour operator never got to set foot—or, rather, crutch—on board. The day before departure, Affleck sprained his left ankle playing basketball at the Beverly Hills YMCA. But the injury didn’t keep him from hooking up with his gang (he flew in instead), and not just because he wanted to show support for Casey, 24, an up-and-coming actor whose film Committed was screened that weekend. He had to skip the skiing—but hobbled along for a night of drinking at Harry O’s with the guys. Says Moore: “That’s what you gotta love about Ben.” That and his way with the kids eating the popcorn. Since 1997’s Good Will Hunting put Affleck on the megastar map (and a best original screenwriting Oscar in his and Damon’s hands), the college dropout from Cambridge, Mass., has turned himself into the actor Hollywood sees as “Tom Cruise: The Next Generation.” He can do tough (1998’s sci-fi thriller Armageddon, with Bruce Willis, pulled in $624 million worldwide), he can do sensitive (Forces of Nature, last year’s romantic comedy with Sandra Bullock, earned $118 million), and he can definitely do Hollywood’s Hot New Hunk—complete, as brother Casey says, “with fake teeth and a tummy tuck.” (He is joking about the tuck but not the capped teeth.) “Ben is having a good time,” says Moore, 32. “He bought a nice house, he’s got a couple of cars, he’s not afraid to take a trip or two on a private jet.”

Let the good times roll: Just three years ago, Affleck was struggling to pay his $300-a-month rent; now he can pretty much name his picture, his price (up to $12 million per film) and his costars. Still, the party list for the New Year’s Eve bash he cohosted with Damon, 29, at Boston’s Sonsie restaurant had fewer showbiz honchos than grade-school teachers. “It was very family-like,” says Costas Panagopoulos, a hometown friend of Damon’s who sipped Dom Pérignon and nibbled from a buffet of turkey and pasta and steamed vegetables with some 250 other guests. “At midnight, Ben was on one side of the room, hugging his family, and Matt on the other, with his family. Then the two of them moved to each other in the center of the room and gave each other a long hug, as if to say, ‘We’ve come a long way together—thank you for being there with me,’ ” says Panagopoulos. “It was a really special moment.”

Not to be confused with the special moments Affleck has been known to share with another striking blond, Gwyneth Paltrow. Since the two began dating in late 1997, they have been seen together the world over: from the Italian island of Ischia, where they took in the local cuisine during the shooting of The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1998, to the lawn outside the Southern Berkshire District Courthouse in Great Barrington, Mass., where they sneaked a kiss in December after he paid a fine for driving on a suspended license. At last month’s Golden Globe party at the Beverly Hilton Stardust Room, Affleck was seen gently touching Paltrow’s back as they stood apart from the crowd, smoking cigarettes and talking on the terrace.

“Ben worships Gwyneth and Gwyneth worships Ben,” says screenwriter-director Don Roos of the on-again, off-again, who-can-tell-anymore romance that officially ended in early 1999—despite recent stolen kisses. “She cares about him; he cares about her,” says Affleck’s pal Moore. “But I’m pretty sure they’re not dating now.”

Too bad. By all accounts the 27-year-old daughter of actress Blythe Danner, 57, and producer-director Bruce Paltrow, 56, is just the gal for the guy whose idea of the good life is, as Moore says, “eating at Subway and playing video games.” “She’s funny, bright, charming and strong,” says Affleck’s father, Tim, 56, a photographer living in Southern California who, he says, happened to be friendly with Paltrow’s mother when they worked together at Boston’s Theater Company more than 25 years ago. “She’s been in the business a long time and is very balanced, as is Ben. So they get along. I like Gwyneth a lot,” says Affleck Sr. So does his son, even though she won’t leave him alone about his party-animal image—or taste in decorating. “He gets lots of unsolicited advice from Gwyneth about his decor,” says Roos. “To hear her talk, you’d think there were mattresses on the floor and Led Zeppelin posters on the wall.”

Well, he does have vintage Ms. Pac-Man and Millipede video-arcade games in his Manhattan loft. But that’s quibbling better left to the un-couple. “They don’t talk to each other like boyfriend and girlfriend; they talk to each other like husband and wife. They’re like each other’s best friend,” says Roos, who first met Affleck last April. Paltrow was talking him into broadening his acting range by costarring with her in Bounce, Roos’s brooding romance, which is due out in the summer. “Ben’s not just this great guy that you’d love to have over to paint your house and watch Showgirls with. Gwyneth wanted to show that there’s a real man inside him, a thinker and a sensitive guy. She doesn’t let him skate by on that frat-boy thing.”

Which may be part of their problem. The real man inside may be able to quote Shakespeare, but it’s not nearly as much fun as floating around the world’s largest underwater tank at NASA headquarters in Houston, sharing dirty jokes with Bruce Willis while filming a scene in Armageddon. “They didn’t know their every word was being transmitted over the NASA [closed-circuit] system,” says production designer Michael White. NASA officials advised the actors to tone it down. “But I think the astronauts [on base] appreciated it,” says White. “It was a break from the rigor.” And breaking the rigor is, as first-time director Ben Younger found, Affleck’s speciality. To ease the tension on the set of the low-budget drama Boiler Room (see review, p. 33), Younger, 27, says that Affleck, who has a small part, “kept putting me in a headlock.”

Most of the time he just puts his costars at ease. “There’s no ego involved with Ben,” says his Reindeer Games costar Charlize Theron. She recalls everyone’s fright when Washington Redskins defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, who has a cameo in the film, slipped and accidentally knocked Affleck cold during filming in Vancouver last year. Despite losing consciousness and suffering a concussion serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital and a middle-of-the-night call to his mom (who flew in immediately from Boston), Affleck emerged unharmed. “He’s not afraid of falling on his face,” says Theron—or shamelessly courting your mother’s affection: “Every morning he’d come by my trailer and make sure to say hello to my mom [who was visiting from South Africa], and that, of course, blew her away. She always says, ‘He’s my favorite!’ ”

Affleck does well by most parents—none more than his own. Born in Berkeley, Calif., to Chris, now 57, and Tim, he was in grade school when the family moved into the blue clapboard house in Cambridge, where the star still returns—and where his mother still makes him wash dishes after dinner whenever he shows up. Though the neighborhood was what his father calls “kind of rough,” Affleck’s upbringing was as much Boston Brahmin as blue-collar. With the local kids—including Damon, whose bedroom Affleck could see from his own second-story room—he played Little League and practiced the art of break dancing. But his home environment was pure artsy-intellectual. Tim worked at a variety of odd jobs (janitor, electrician, bartender) but spent his free time backstage at the renowned Theater Company of Boston. Politics, literature and social issues, meanwhile, were favorite topics at family dinners chaired by mom Chris (a Radcliffe graduate who teaches in a Boston public elementary school) and joined by Harvard-connected friends. “Chris has a very strong sense of morality and justice and thoughtfulness,” says her longtime friend Peter Garrison, now a freelance writer in Los Angeles. “She cultivated that in Ben.” Not always to her son’s liking. When as a boy he asked her for a dog, she made him walk an imaginary mutt for a week. “When he came up two days short, he didn’t get a dog,” she told PEOPLE in 1998. “That was harsh. It was wise, but harsh.”

Not as harsh, however, as another fact of home life: his father’s drinking. Unable to control what he calls “a severe, chronic problem with alcoholism,” Tim Affleck was divorced from Chris when Ben was 12. Soon afterward he headed to California, where, he says, he checked himself into the ABC Recovery Center near Palm Springs “to see if I could reorganize my life.” That led him to quit drinking—”I’ve been sober going on 10 years,” he says—and in 1992 establish an adult-education program for the clinic. Today, Tim Affleck sees and talks to both his sons regularly. “Kids are endlessly forgiving,” he says. But after leaving, the self-professed “absentee father” had virtually no involvement in their rearing save passing on an interest in drama. Seven-year-old Ben got his first taste from a small role in the film The Dark End of the Street. Next, he won a part in the PBS adventure series The Voyage of the Mimi. “He was an alert, intelligent kid,” says Affleck’s former coach David Wheeler, now resident director of Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre. “He had no self-consciousness on film.” Most important, says his father, “he had fun.”

Affleck grew to take that fun seriously. Along with Damon, he starred in plays at Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school. They plotted their careers, putting away money in a joint bank account for future audition trips to Manhattan and, as Damon later told Interview magazine, held “business lunches” in the high school cafeteria. His high-B average was not enough to get into Harvard (like Damon), so Affleck enrolled at the University of Vermont in 1990, but quit after a semester. With dreams of making it in showbiz, he headed for L.A.

Heeding Mom’s request, he spent his first several weeks in town with her friend Garrison and his family at their home in Echo Park. Also at his mother’s insistence, he enrolled in Occidental College in nearby Eagle Rock, where he showed an interest in Middle Eastern studies. Garrison spent his time pounding Affleck on the basketball court—”He smoked too much; a few times up and down the court and he would practically collapse and be on the verge of throwing up”—and trying to “pressure Ben into staying in college.” It didn’t work. After about a year he dropped out. Affleck didn’t wait long for work—whether small parts in such films as 1992’s School Ties, 1993’s Dazed and Confused and the 1995 flop Mall Rats, or a starring role in 1997’s Sundance hit Chasing Amy. Still, he was unsatisfied, and he and Damon—who had recently moved out West—began cowriting a screenplay. In 1994, just when friends thought Affleck might reconsider college, Garrison recalls, “he called up and said, ‘We just sold the script for Good Will Hunting. Guess how much?’ ” The answer: $600,000.

Fame did not change Affleck so much as unleash him. Just months after his Arrival in Good Will Hunting, he was sitting with his arms outstretched on a couch in the Hollywood office of Armageddon producer Jerry Bruckheimer. He was, says director Michael Bay, “cocky—cocky and goofy.” After he left, Bay recalls, “I said, ‘Jerry, he’s a geek.’ ” But a geek confident enough to hold his own with Willis. Says Bay: “I figured, Okay, so he’s this kind of pale Boston guy. We can work him out, give him a tan, do everything to make him a star.”

Now if only someone could do something to make him A Boyfriend. Affleck’s affection for Paltrow is undeniable—witness the three-carat Harry Winston diamond earrings he gave her for her September birthday. In recent months, she has had several other reported dates, including Maverick Records exec Guy Oseary and Felicity hunk Scott Speedman. But when Affleck turns up at such favorite haunts as Manhattan’s Lot 61, he is solo—not counting his buddies or a persistent fan. “After the Dogma premiere [in October] someone came up to him and asked if he would take a picture with him,” says owner Amy Sacco. “I never let that happen, but Ben said, ‘No, that’s all right.’ He’s incredibly sweet and mellow.” And for now, it seems, content with bachelorhood—complete with five motorcycles and what Moore calls “an amazingly messy” house. Friends like Roos can’t argue—but they’re not sitting idle, either. “I get right in there and tell them they should be together,” says Roos of Paltrow and Affleck. “And they say, ‘Yeah, I know, I know. We’re having dinner tonight.’ ” Who knows? A Subway rendezvous just might do the trick.

Karen S. Schneider

Elizabeth Leonard, Mark Dagostino, Alison Gee and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles, Eric Francis, Jennifer Longley, Sharon Cotliar and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City, Tom Duffy in Great Barrington and Pete Norman in London

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