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The 'Sum' and The Substance

"My mother could have taken any career path she wanted to," says Affleck. "She's an excruciatingly bright woman who decided that she wanted to be a public school teacher."

And his father, Tim? That's a bit more complicated.

Actor-writer Ben Affleck, who plays CIA analyst Jack Ryan in "The Sum of All Fears," says he is more interested in humans-in-progress than heroic caricatures. (Michael Williamson - The Washington Post)

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Ben Affleck Filmography
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The back story is set in Cambridge, Mass., where Affleck grew up "working middle-class" in a union household. Neighborhood pastimes included boozing and betting on sports. His dad indulged in both.

"My father was a sort of jack-of-all-trades. He was an electrician, then he was an auto mechanic, then he was a bartender," Affleck recalls. "In fact, he worked in a janitorial capacity at Harvard University, which is where some of the 'Good Will Hunting' stuff comes in. Very smart guy." (Damon's theorem-solving character mopped floors at MIT.)

Timothy Affleck did some writing and acting, too, performing in the Theatre Company of Boston with such greats as Robert Duvall and Blythe Danner. But Ben was discouraged from a stage career, his parents citing "the failure and misery" endemic among struggling actors and playwrights, he says.

"They wanted me to go to college. They wanted me to become a professor of history or a teacher like my mom."

The marriage broke up when Ben was 11. "My father was a pretty serious alcoholic," Affleck says, solemnly. "And so my mother kind of -- basically -- threw him out."

(Timothy Affleck, who later worked as a counselor at a California recovery center, could not be reached for comment. He has been sober for 11 years, his son says, adding: "It's something I'm enormously impressed by. I'm real proud of my dad, and we have a good relationship.")

Whatever his parents' misgivings, they let young Ben act in a Burger King commercial and an educational TV series, "The Voyage of the Mimi." With brother Casey and classmate Damon, he acted and wrote in high school, auditioning for roles in New York during the summer. Though Ben's report cards often declared "Not working to potential," his SAT scores were exemplary, and he was accepted at the University of Virginia.

Instead he went to the University of Vermont. "To follow a girlfriend -- it was so stupid," he says. Affleck lasted all of a month. At 18, he struck out for Los Angeles, full of adolescent confidence.

"You just think, 'Why wouldn't it work out?' I had no idea, in a way, what a poor decision it was."

Heavier and more awkward then, he was typecast in offbeat teen flicks as a lummox. In "Dazed and Confused" (1993), Affleck was the paddle-wielding hazer of smaller high school kids. "I was battling that 'You're not a leading man' perception. 'You're too big.' "

In "Mallrats" (1995), Affleck took a part as another "unlikable, beating-up-people guy" but also got to know director Kevin Smith, "which turned out to be the canniest career move I ever made, in that we became friends." Smith later called Affleck and said, "I'm writing a movie for you. I think you can play a leading man."

That turned out to be "Chasing Amy," the bittersweet tale of a studly comic book artist's love for a self-described "experimental girl." It proved to be Affleck's breakout role.


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