February of 2017 is going to be a big month for Y&R’s Eric Braeden. Not only will it mark his 37 years of playing the enigmatic captain of industry, Victor Newman, on daytime’s top-rated soap, but on February 7, HarperCollins will release Braeden’s autobiography, I’ll Be Damned. Braeden shares that the tome, which was written by the actor and Lindsay Harrison, who also collaborated on the late Jeanne Cooper’s (ex-Katherine) memoirs, was a sentimental and sometimes difficult journey to relive.
“It was an emotional ride,” Braeden tells Digest. “One inevitably lives life on a daily basis and sometimes you don’t take time to reflect, and when you do look back upon certain periods in your life and discover deeply buried emotions, well, let’s just say it’s a good thing there was someone to edit it [laughs]. The most interesting and sometimes upsetting was childhood and youth, growing up in the most cataclysmic war of all time. The first years in America were interesting but tough times, as well. What I enjoyed most was reminiscing about all the wonderful actors I’ve worked with, from Marlon Brando to Betty White [ex-Ann, B&B] to Mary Tyler Moore to GUNSMOKE to MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, all of them. And, of course, my reminiscences of working with Jeanne. I had enormous affection for her. I know how tough it is to maintain a career in this business and I have great respect for her for that. She and I always laughed together. We had an enormous amount of fun.”
Nearly four decades into his Genoa City run, Braeden admits even he’s surprised by the length of his tenure. “If anyone had suggested I would still be here, I would have said they were out of their mind,” he chuckles. “I had no clue. I am deeply grateful to the fans and I must say that I learned on Y&R to embrace the part of our profession that entertains and makes people engaged and happy. I am deeply grateful to encountering fans all over the world. Next to supporting my family through acting, that is the most deeply gratifying thing in what I do — the response of the audience.”
That audience is quite vocal when it comes to Braeden’s popular alter ego, and the actor is aware of how Victor has changed since he first arrived on the scene. “To be frank with you, I think that over the last few years, the scales tipped toward [Victor] being a bad guy,” Braeden states. “And, I have asked them to kindly not pull back on it but to remember that Victor always justifies his actions because something preceded it. Now, sometimes he overreacts but basically — and this applies to Eric Braeden, as well — I don’t take s–t and the point is, if you come at me, I will come back at you twice as hard. That’s all there is to it. But what must not be forgotten and has been forgotten in the last few years is that Victor has also done good. That was the genius of [Y&R Co-Creator] Bill Bell, and that is what he and I discussed in the early years, that he is capable of goodness. When they had the entire family testify against him in court, I found that outrageous. I’m sorry. But, you play it as best you can.” Braeden says he did enjoy the tale of Victor’s subsequent incarceration. “Yes, I liked some of that a lot,” he adds.
The actor remains a staunch protector of his character, and reveals that he almost left Y&R shortly after his 1980 debut because of what was happening on-screen. “The thing that made me stay is when I went to Bill after a year and I said, ‘Bill, I’ve played nothing but bad characters for years on nighttime television. I’ve always played the heavy,’ and I said I was on empty. It made me feel so dehumanized. I said I couldn’t do it anymore and I asked him if there was any way to imbue this character with a social background that explains who he is. I was very close to leaving because playing nothing but heavies, I was so f—ing bored with it. Then, Bill came up with a storyline that we had to play, Mel [Melody Thomas Scott, Nikki] and I, with Nikki and Victor on a Christmas Eve, where she didn’t know much about his background, and she asked him about it. Bill came up with this brilliant storyline — and that is the reason I am still on the show — where Victor explains to Nikki that he grew up in an orphanage. When I finished those scenes, I called my wife at home and said, ‘Now, I will stay,’ because that story opened so many possibilities of emotion and vulnerability. I love Bill for that. He gave me the gift that very few actors are ever given. And, of course, the Victor/Nikki relationship means a lot to me. I’ve loved working with Mel all these years and still do. We understand each other, and I’m blessed with that.”
Since Bell’s retirement in 1998, Braeden and the cast have faced numerous regime changes, some more popular with fans than others. “I don’t want to be specific about any of the writing teams,” Braeden demurs. “I respect them all. I think it is the hardest job in this town, to write for a soap. They all tried to do their best and that’s all we can do. To be honest with you, I unabashedly enjoyed the time under Bill, and beyond that, there were some wonderful storylines but I do not remember who was responsible for them after that — and I don’t really want to because I don’t want to be pejorative about anyone. I’m very lucky to be working. Usually I’ve been given great storylines to work with and if it is sometimes not to my liking, then you make it work. That’s my responsibility. I am an actor who is paid to act while others write, and we must not forget that. I am conscientious and I try to do the best I can but I’ll be damned if I don’t protect my character.”
As he looks to the future, Braeden has no thoughts about retiring anytime soon. “Ah, no!” he asserts. “No, I am an ornery son of a bitch and I will fight to the last. I still work out. I still do Olympic lifting. I still box, so no, I don’t give up.” In fact, the actor says that there is still more he’d like to do in his career. “A few years ago, I would have told you that I would love to do more films because I loved the process of making [2008’s] The Man Who Came Back. I enjoyed that enormously but I have not found a way yet to ensure getting the right distribution that is needed when you make a small film. That is the bane of existence for most independent producers, to find the right distributor without getting screwed. That has caused a large chagrin in me. I would have done another film or two already because I love the process almost more than anything else I’ve ever done.”
Despite that experience, however, Braeden stresses that he’s never been cynical when it comes to his career. “That’s why I am so grateful to this medium,” he reflects. “It’s so easy to become jaded in this business. If you just stay in Hollywood, you don’t realize what you do has an effect on so many people. I was in Biloxi, Mississippi, and Charlotte, North Carolina, a few weeks ago and the comments I got from fans…. What a wonderful thing to know that you can directly affect people’s lives. My God. This little boy from a small village in Germany … look at where the world has taken him.”
Like Victor Newman, Eric Braeden is all about his family, which includes Dale, his wife of 50 years, his writer/director son, Christian, and the three little ladies who have captured his heart, his granddaughters. “The only thing that really softens me completely are my grandchildren,” he smiles warmly. “Tati [Tatiana, the oldest] is now 13. I adore her. She now has two sisters, Oksana and Angelika, and I adore them. It’s a clichéd observation but man, do they soften your heart. When Tati was 4 or 5, she looked at my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and she said, ‘Opa, what does that say?’ I said, ‘Sweetheart, that’s my name,’ and she said, ‘Oh, yeah. Opa Cacca-poopoo-peepee [laughs].’ That put things into perspective very quickly! I love that, and I will never forget it.”