He was buff. He was bad. He was dressed head to toe in tight red leather. And he hardly broke a sweat dangling from a ledge 10 stories above downtown L.A. without a safety net. No wonder Ben Affleck attracted crowds of adoring females when he did his own stunt work for his upcoming action film Daredevil. “We all swooned,” says his costar Jennifer Garner. “He’s your basic tall, dark and handsome. He’s it. You want him to save you. I can’t imagine anyone the world would rather see swoop in and save the day than Ben.”
Being a superhero takes more than good looks—and the same goes for being crowned this year’s Sexiest Man Alive. “Ben’s really loyal and really honest, really smart, really funny,” says Matt Damon, Affleck’s best buddy since boyhood. “He’s got more going for him than just about anyone I’ve ever met.”
The 30-year-old actor is also intriguingly complex. In private that big-screen big hunk (he’s 6’2″) displays impressive range: An easygoing charmer. A passionate political activist. An Oscar winner. A devoted son. A self-aware grownup. A flirt. A brainiac. A goofball. A head-over-heels romantic.
And—perhaps you’ve heard—husband-to-be to a certain Jennifer Lopez. Despite the hullabaloo over the joined-at-the-lips stars’ flashy four-month courtship—and much public clucking over Lopez’s short-lived pair of previous marriages—those close to Affleck applaud the engagement. “They understand each other,” says his mother, Chris, 59, a Cambridge, Mass., fifth-and sixth-grade teacher. “She’s just a lovely person. She’s very connected to her family. She’s very warm. She’s like the ideal daughter-in-law. The only downside is that she is so famous, but on the other hand, so is Ben, and who’s going to put up with that if they’re not in that same world?”
Meanwhile Affleck’s move into the world of commitment marks an important milestone for the never-wed star, who stepped out with the likes of Shoshanna Lonstein and Famke Janssen following the 1999 breakup of his intense romance with Gwyneth Paltrow. “Recently he has matured a lot,” says his mother. “It’s no longer ‘I’m in love, but I’m young,’ it’s ‘I want to make a life now, I’m ready for this.’ ” Before Lopez came on the scene, recalls Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson, “I used to joke with him about how he was going to be in his 50s hitting on 18-year-old girls. He laughed and said, ‘No, I won’t.’ ” As Affleck himself told Good Morning America in April, “What’s going to mean the most to me [is] being a father, being a husband, being a person of whom I can really be proud.”
Over the years his charm has attracted plenty of hopefuls. “Chicks gravitate to him,” says longtime pal Kevin Smith, director of Affleck and Lopez’s upcoming Jersey Girl. “The word on the street is that he’s the ideal man, chatty, gorgeous, generous and intelligent.” Affleck’s friend and Daredevil costar Michael Clarke Duncan thinks Ben’s secret is simple: “If you can get a woman to laugh, no matter how much money you have, no matter how much charisma you have, you can have that woman, and Ben can do that. He’s not this stuck-up guy who you can’t talk to.”
On movie sets Affleck is known for his eagerness to chew the fat with anyone from electricians to camera operators. “He’s a hugger,” says Phil Alden Robinson, who directed him in this summer’s The Sum of All Fears. “He loves being around people, and consequently he makes them happy. You can’t fake that kind of warmth.”
Then there’s plain old brains, that attractive but all too rare accessory to brawn and a $350,000 Bentley. “Ben has this nerdy smart-guy side to him,” says Liv Tyler, his love interest in 1998’s Armageddon. “He’s obsessed with the New York Times crossword puzzle. He reads a lot. He’s really interested in knowing more about the world.” The die-hard Democrat’s homework shows in his dedication to causes, from stumping for Al Gore across the country to urging Harvard University to raise wages for blue-collar employees. At a rally at the university in 2000, Affleck and Damon addressed a crowd of more than 500. “They spoke very passionately,” says noted historian and author Howard Zinn, a fellow speaker, “Ben talked about how his father had worked at Harvard at a menial job [like Matt Damon‘s Good Will Hunting character, Tim Affleck, 59, labored as a custodian from 1988 to 1990] and how he understood what it was like to work for an enormously rich corporation and get a pittance.”
Tim and Chris (who separated when Ben was 11 and later divorced) raised Benjamin Geza Affleck and his brother Casey, 27, in a working-class neighborhood in Cambridgeport, Mass. A rambunctious, outgoing youngster, Ben “was very good at imitating people, even when he was 3 or 4,” says Chris, who still lives in the blue clapboard house her sons grew up in (although Ben bought her a summer home on Cape Cod). By 7, he was an avid reader, Little League baseball player and budding actor. Dark End of the Street, an independent film directed by a family friend, marked his movie debut in 1979—and the first time Affleck would be smitten by his leading lady. “He had an appropriate 7-year-old crush on the 19-year-old girl” who played his big sister, recalls Affleck’s childhood acting coach David Wheeler. At 9, Ben landed a role in an educational series, The Voyage of the Mimi. “He was very bright and intensely curious,” says Wheeler.
And soon he became just a bit devilish. Thanks to his acting gigs (including a Burger King commercial and the 1987 miniseries Hands of a Stranger), “he was adept at age 13 or 14 at dealing with adults,” says Gerry Speca, his drama teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin public high school. “When he had to, he could turn on the charm. Like the Eddie Haskell syndrome.” Unbeknownst to his mother, Ben sweet-talked bank tellers into letting him withdraw earnings that she was socking away in a college fund. Affleck was more of a partyer than was his neighbor Damon, two years older and a pal since 1980. But the two “weren’t heartthrobs by any means,” says Damon’s brother Kyle, 35. “They weren’t even considered cool kids. They were drama geeks.”
Affleck—who grew almost a foot his junior year of high school—attended his 1990 prom with a group of friends. He met his first serious girlfriend, Cheyenne Rothman, now 30, at summer camp when they were teens; their relationship would continue on and off over the next seven years. The following fall Affleck headed to the University of Vermont. (He applied to Harvard but was rejected despite high SAT scores.) He dropped out after one semester to head for Hollywood. “I would always say, ‘Oh, Ben, you shouldn’t do this. You should go to college,’ ” says his mother. “But secretly I sort of suspected that he was going to make it.”
She was right. Roles in 1993’s Dazed and Confused and 1995’s Mallrats raised Affleck’s profile as he and Damon, crashing with two other roommates in a cluttered apartment, labored on the Hunting screenplay. “He had a hard time getting cast as anything but the biggish bully type,” recalls Kevin Smith, who directed Mallrats. “I had some producer try to talk me out of casting Ben in Chasing Amy  because he was ‘too big’ to be a romantic leading man. But I figured, if I’m a guy and I can see what a catch this dude is, there’ve gotta be women out there who’d agree.”
Then Hunting sold for $600,000. On the first day on the set “Matt and Ben cried,” says coproducer Chris Moore, a longtime Affleck pal. “They had believed in it so much.” With his mom as his date—”It was such a rush,” she says—Affleck picked up the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1998 alongside his best friend.
Hollywood quickly saw Affleck’s beefcake potential. For Armageddon, director Michael Bay got a dentist to cap his teeth and hired a trainer to pump him up. The cameras took over from there. “I remember Ben coming to me one day and saying, ‘You’re not going to believe what happened to me,’ ” recalls costar Liv Tyler. “Basically Michael Bay had just made him stand there and have running water poured over his bare torso. He didn’t even know what scene it was for.”
He also discovered the world of celebrity dating. Sparks flew between Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow at Good Will Hunting‘s 1997 premiere. The couple were an item on and off for the next two years and remain friendly. “In Gwyneth he found a match of the minds,” his Forces of Nature director Bronwen Hughes said earlier this year.
Affleck found the single life after their breakup action-packed—but unfulfilling. “I felt very adrift,” he told Talk magazine in 2000. “So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll go to these parties. I’ll try to embrace this life people think I have.’…And I found myself even more miserable.” In July 2001 he made a move that surprised most pals: He checked himself into Promises rehab center in Malibu for treatment for alcoholism. According to friends, his excess drinking was a problem he wanted to tackle early. “I think he figured out, ‘If I keep doing this, I’m going to wind up in a place that I don’t want to be,’ ” says Michael Clarke Duncan. Affleck knew the perils better than most: His father, Tim, now a still-life photographer in Indio, Calif., is a recovering alcoholic who got sober in 1990 with his ex-wife’s help. “I’m proud that he took stock of himself,” says Tim. “And like most things in Ben’s life, whatever he’s decided to undertake, he’s been successful at.”
The experience has changed more than Affleck’s attitude toward partying. “It involved a lot of introspection,” says his mother. “He’s very, very happy right now, really easy to talk to about difficult things,” adds Don Roos, who directed him in 2000’s Bounce. That transformation made it the right time to meet Ms. Right. “When you first get sober, you’re nervous about staying sober and you tend to stay close to home,” says Roos. “I credit Jennifer”—herself a teetotaler—”with being there to open up his life for him again.”
Now, it seems, Lopez, 33, is his sole addiction—unless you count diamonds: Her tokens of affection from Affleck (whose Daredevil salary is $12.5 million) have included a yellow-and-white diamond bracelet and, of course, the 6.10-carat Harry Winston pink diamond ring he gave her when he proposed. In an e-mail to Diane Sawyer, Affleck called Lopez “a truly graceful beauty with an artist’s soul”—and himself “the luckiest man alive.”
The news came as little surprise for director Kevin Smith, who watched the relationship deepen over the past few months during the Jersey Girl shoot. “After day one of watching them in rehearsals, I pulled him aside and said, ‘Within a year,’ ” Smith says. “I know there are a ton of cynics out there, but they haven’t seen these guys together. This isn’t just Nookie Betwixt the Rich and Famous. There’s obscene mutual respect and adoration. They both came from working-class backgrounds that led to these over-the-top career successes. Plus she finds everything he says funny.”
Their jet-set itinerary has included a few unadvertised stops. In August Affleck took Lopez on a tour of his old haunts in South Boston, including a favorite chicken parmigiana joint and a bar featured in Good Will Hunting. They also recently lunched with Affleck’s father at Ben’s new Beverly Hills home, on the property where Drew Barrymore lived before a house fire last year. “I think she’s nifty,” Tim Affleck says of Lopez. “I didn’t see her as a flashy movie star any more than I see my son as a flashy movie star. They’re just a couple of schlub dubs like the rest of us.”
He may be a secret schlub, but Affleck seems comfortable with his celebrity—and savvy about how to leverage it for creative as well as political causes. “Ben is not a guy who is handled by handlers,” says pal Moore, a partner with Affleck, Damon and Sean Bailey in the entertainment company LivePlanet. “He does what he wants.” With LivePlanet, Affleck developed the innovative HBO reality series Project Greenlight and this fall’s critically acclaimed but short-lived ABC drama Push, Nevada.
One crusade close to Affleck’s heart began serendipitously. In 1998 he noticed Joe Kindregan, then 10, in a motorized wheelchair watching him film a scene for Forces of Nature at Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C. Affleck came over to joke with the boy, who suffers from the rare degenerative disease ataxia-telangiectasia. The two struck up an e-mail friendship, and last year Affleck testified before Congress about the need for medical research into the condition. Affleck arranges for Joe and his family to see him about four times a year, including a recent 14th-birthday party on the set of his romantic comedy Gigli in L.A. “They had cheeseburgers and chocolate cake in his trailer,” says Joe’s mother, Suzi, 44, a Springfield, Va., homemaker. “I’ll love Ben forever for the way he puts light in my son’s eyes.”
Moments like that make it easy to envision Affleck doting on a child of his own. “You can just tell he’ll be a fantastic dad,” says Mark Steven Johnson, whom Affleck often quizzed about his experience as a father of three on the Daredevil shoot. “He’s a Boston boy. He wants his kid playing baseball—you know, a Red Sox boy.” Chris Affleck can’t wait. “I’ve been urging him for the longest time,” she says. “I want grandchildren.”
Lopez, too, has often spoken of her desire to start a family. But right now there’s only one Red Sox boy in her life—and forget those who say the match is too hot not to cool down. “I didn’t need People magazine to tell me he’s the sexiest man alive,” Lopez says. “The difference between me and People magazine is that he’ll still be the sexiest man alive in my eyes when he’s 100 years old.”
Anne Dricoll in Cambridge, Elizabeth McNeil in New York City and Julie Jordan and Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles