So what could the former silly ship's purser and the onetime redneck mechanic possibly have in common?

Try this: As actors, they both played co-conspirators in "The Lincoln Conspiracy," a quickly forgotten thriller filmed in Savannah, Ga., 14 years ago.

"It was an absolute dog," allows the former purser, otherwise known as Fred Grandy.

"It was no 'Gone With the Wind,' " agrees the former mechanic, Ben Jones.

They never saw each other again until they shook hands on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1989.

Which brings us to their current link: Today, they are both members of the U.S. Congress, writing laws for the land, eloquently pontificating on such weighty issues as flag burning and arts funding and, in many ways, successfully pulling away from the hapless personas that defined them as buffoons for millions of television viewers.

"Some professions," observes Iowa Democratic Rep. Dave Nagle dryly, "just don't lend themselves to instant credibility."

Grandy, now a Republican legislator from Iowa, came to Capitol Hill four years ago better known as "Gopher" on the hit series "The Love Boat" than for any intellect that might have lurked beneath his deck whites. And to many Americans Ben Jones, the one-term Democrat of Georgia, will always be "Cooter," the greasy, not-very-bright but good-natured costar of "The Dukes of Hazzard."

While some might argue that Congress itself is one big stage, with individual members all contributing to the theater of the absurd, Grandy and Jones are actually the first professional actors to serve in the House in more than 50 years. According to the House historian, Ray Smock, the only other was Rep. William Patrick Connery Jr. of Massachusetts, who came to Congress from the stage in 1923 and stayed 14 years. In 1964, screen actor George Murphy was elected to the Senate from California for one term.

Despite their different ideological bents, Grandy and Jones have been confronted with the identical Beltway challenge of proving they're not who people thought they were, while maintaining some degree of dignity about their past. (They both would have been well advised to take a few transition lessons from the most famous actor-turned-politician of them all, Ronald Reagan.)

Jones has proceeded by embracing his past, carefully studying the issues and happily campaigning for fellow Democrats -- either as Jones or as Cooter. He once even showed up at a Democratic fund-raiser driving Cooter's old pickup truck.

Grandy, a Phillips Exeter and Harvard graduate, has made his mark by being tagged one serious guy. He, too, campaigns for colleagues, but concedes that he may have been a bit leery of admitting he even knew Gopher, whom he once called the "consummate fool." Today he is more reflective: "I would not be here if it were not for Gopher."

Regardless of their means and styles, both have managed to pleasantly surprise the powers at hand by turning themselves into well-regarded legislative players.

"I expected when I saw actors elected to the House that these guys were going to be talking all the time -- actors wanting to act and play some roles," says William Pitts, top political aide to House Minority Leader Robert Michel. "This hasn't been the case at all. In fact, they both seem to speak only when they believe they have something to say."

Certainly a novel approach on Capitol Hill.

Cooter Comes to Congress Jones put himself on the political map when he opted to speak out about one of the more volatile issues of the year: flag desecration. He not only opposed the amendment to the Constitution that would have outlawed flag destruction, but he also took a vocal lead against the bill. While this may have been the Democratic party line, it was rather risky for Jones, who represents a conservative district and tops the GOP hit list for defeat in the November elections.

"Everyone was afraid to vote against the measure, afraid they'd be called anti-patriotic," says one Democratic leadership aide, "but Ben went out and showed members how, if you take the time and explain the vote, it won't be a danger. He helped our position immensely -- and certainly got himself noticed."

Jones, an affable, pudgy, quip-a-minute guy, says there was no real soul-searching, no anguish, no high-level political pow-wows behind his decision. "If I ever saw anyone burn a flag, I'd take a tire tool to 'em," he says matter-of-factly. "But to change that which the flag symbolizes -- that's no way to run a railroad. If I hadn't taken the stand, I wouldn't have slept at night."

If Jones sounds a bit too altruistic about his commitment to principle over politics, his personal history provides a clue. A recovering alcoholic who's been married four times and arrested more times (at least 10) than he'd probably like to remember, Jones jokes that he has "more skeletons in his closet than the Smithsonian Institution."

"I learned a long time ago to live one day at a time and know who you are," he says.

Ben Lewis Jones was born and raised in Tarboro, N.C., and settled in Georgia about 20 years ago. At 48, he says he's already lived several lives, the last one starting where it all could have ended for him: one night, 13 years ago, over two six-packs of beer. Jones hit bottom that night, he has said, and made his decision to dry out and turn his life around. The positive results were a marriage to his current wife of 12 years, Vivian, a son who's now 7 (he has a grown daughter by an earlier marriage), and a congressional race that was easily the nastiest in America.

His opponent, incumbent Pat Swindall, ran in the face of a perjury indictment for lying about his dealings with an undercover cop posing as a drug money launderer. (He was eventually convicted.) Defying the 'People in glass houses ...' adage, Swindall tried to portray Jones as a drunk and a wife-beater. Jones had been arrested and charged with battery against an ex-wife, for which he paid a $50 fine. Jones won anyway. "During the campaign I know people said, 'At least Jones is honest -- he had a problem and he dealt with it,' " he says. "I told people, 'This is not the story of falling down -- it's about getting up.' "

Despite the enormous pressure the 1988 campaign put on him and his family, Jones believes his endurance in the face of mudslinging afforded him a certain respect before his new congressional colleagues even met him.

He says it doesn't much bother him that some members might see only Cooter when they look at him. "It's a compliment if people think that character is who I am," he says, "because it means that I created someone who is very believable and dimensional who was not me."

He does bristle, however, at the way actors-turned-politicians are generally regarded. "We're always referred to as 'ex-actors,' but you never hear about ex-lawyers or ex-businessmen serving in Congress," he says. "It presumes something was wrong with us -- and we've recovered from it."

His positions have been pretty much straight party line: He favors abortion rights, supports a seven-day waiting period on handgun purchases and is opposed to budget cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts.

He says he's having a great time. "I've landed on an aircraft carrier, seen an oil spill, met Vaclav Havel at Shirley Temple's house, and accompanied Jimmy Carter to Nicaragua," he says. "If anyone told me two years ago that's what was ahead of me, I would have never believed them."

Gopher Gets Serious Fred Grandy says his decision to return home to Sioux City and run for Congress was the coming together of his "cerebral and visceral" instincts.

"It was not just a risk -- it was a suicide mission" he says, with classic understatement. "I kept being asked why I would want to leave the entertainment capital of the world and move to the hog confinement capital of the world... . It was a combination of purpose, fulfillment and yes, self-aggrandizement."

After winning his first election by a whopping 3,000 votes, Grandy has since solidified his base. He won in '88 with 65 percent of the vote, and is believed to be quite safe this November.

And those who made an initial mistake of underestimating this intense 42-year-old soon learned better. On the Hill, Grandy quickly developed a reputation for preparedness and seriousness. ("He actually reads the bills," says his administrative assistant, Craig Tufty.) In fact, some might say he's a trifle too serious.

Rep. Jim Leach, a Republican colleague from Iowa, recently came away with that very impression after watching Grandy speak out against the parental-leave bill on "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour." "You wouldn't have believed what a terror he was," says Leach. "The seriousness was funny."

Grandy does allow that he may have overcompensated at first in the serious department, uneasy perhaps that his colleagues would have only Gopher as a reference point by which to judge him. But he denies that he tried to have a congressional elevator operator fired for asking if he wanted to be taken to the "Lido Deck."

"I guess I thought there might be a tendency to laugh at me without even trying," he says. "So the way to avoid that was to become very knowledgeable, very serious and maybe even somber... . Rather than say 'Gimme some credibility,' I got very involved in various issues -- that's where I figured I'd cut my eyeteeth.

"The more you know about a subject, the more your colleagues are inclined to say, 'He may be a lightweight but he really does know quite a bit.' So you win them over a little bit at a time."

He good-naturedly calls himself a "knee-jerk moderate" and says that when he jumps the GOP ship, "I really bolt." Grandy bolted at least twice during this Congress -- and neither jump went unnoticed. Just last month, he joined Democrats in opposing the flag-desecration amendment, to the consternation of his right-leaning colleagues. He's also been particularly vocal in his support of full funding for the NEA without any content restrictions.

He denies he felt compelled to speak out for free artistic expression simply because of his former career. "This was not an issue I really cared much about until the forces on the far right started making it into a bogus moral issue," he says. "When you look at what most of the money has gone for -- this is probably the best example of an excellent return on federal dollars that you're going to find.

"I just sense that there's some kind of conservative residue or backlash," he says, "that is indirectly attacking the homosexual community through artistic expression. That is misguided and incorrect."

Arts and flags aside, Grandy does tend to follow his colleagues to the right on other issues. He's antiabortion and anti-gun control, for instance.

On the Iowa front, he's particularly proud of his efforts to move an obscure agricultural measure -- the ground water quality bill -- through the process to the point where it may actually pass the House this session as part of the 1990 Farm Bill.

"You have to adopt a whole new standard of patience here," he says. "I just came from a business where everything was done in six shootings."

As he has developed a sense of confidence and purpose, Grandy has permitted Gopher to reemerge, at least a bit, signing autographs here, lending a fund-raising hand there. Of course, he says, he's always accommodated congressional tourists who accost him. "What else would I do? Insult them and demand to know their position on parental leave?"

Last week, he traveled to Anderson, Ind., to campaign for Rep. Dan Burton. "There were a couple of hundred people on a front lawn -- and these people were not there to see the author of critical amendments to the Agriculture Credit Act of 1987," he says wryly.

But that doesn't bother him. In these kinds of situations, he acknowledges, perhaps Gopher can make a few points that Grandy can't. "If 165 people are there to see Gopher and 35 are there to hear my views on the farm bill, they are going to get my views on the farm bill. So I win."

In any case, he now wonders if one career really does take on greater intellectual significance over the other, out there in the real world.

"I was in Israel in January and I figured, 'I'm a member of Congress and I'm going to be treated with tremendous esteem.' " he says. "Well, I got to {Prime Minister} Yitzhak Shamir's office -- and I had to wait because he was meeting with Goldie Hawn."