From his roots in war-torn Germany to a show-biz career in which he’s crossed paths with Hollywood legends (including his Titanic director, James Cameron, and Marlon Brando) and athletes (Muhammad Ali, George Foreman) — and, of course, his remarkable, decades-long run as the most powerful man in Genoa City (including the off-set feud with a co-star who tried to get him fired) — Eric Braeden leaves no stone unturned in his candid, captivating autobiography. On the eve of its February 7 release in bookstores and online, he talked about his extraordinary life with Digest.
Soap Opera Digest: It’s such a cliché to say that when I read your book, I couldn’t put it down, but it’s the truth!
Eric Braeden: That’s so nice to hear, because when you write it, and afterward [record] the audio version of it…. It gets boring, hearing myself talk! I’m very glad you found it to be interesting.
Digest: When the idea was first raised for you to write your memoirs,
did you embrace it? Did you have reservations?
Braeden: I was approached many times to do it, and I was most reluctant. My wife [Dale] had asked me for a long, long time to do it, and for years I did not entertain the idea. I didn’t even know where to start, to be honest with you. I did it with Lindsay Harrison [who collaborated on the memoirs of the late Jeanne Cooper, ex-Katherine, Y&R], and she knew how to organize it and divide it up and all of that. She’d done it before; she knew what questions to ask.
Digest: I’ll Be Damned is such a perfect title for the book. Did you come up with it?
Braeden: It actually came from someone on Twitter! Someone on Twitter knew that I was writing my biography and someone said, “How about I’ll Be Damned,” because I say that a lot on the show. I said, “That’s it!”
Digest: It seems like such a daunting task to undertake, to write one’s life story. Where did you begin?
Braeden: At the very beginning, very simple. And then we started going more or less chronologically. You go back and forth, obviously, because one makes associations and a certain subject will then remind one of something that happened much later.
Digest: To begin at the beginning of your life, I was both mesmerized and quite heartsick reading the story of your childhood, which was not an easy one. You were born in Kiel, Germany, in the throes of World War II. You lost your father at a young age; you experienced extreme poverty. Was it painful to revisit your formative years?
Braeden: Time does heal most wounds, but you don’t forget. It’s a scab over certain things, and then once you dig a little bit, it starts bleeding again. I would say [life during World War II] was an experience that I remember more viscerally than consciously. When I hear certain sirens, or hear airplanes, for example, there’s a visceral reaction to it. Every so often in L.A., on the Fourth of July or whatever, they fly these old-fashioned planes in squadrons. When they fly, I say, “Whoa.” All of it comes back, all the sounds come back. When you happen to smell certain smells, [like] the aftereffects of a burning building or whatever — that brings back memories. The more conscious, visceral memories really relate to my father’s death, I think. That had an enormous impact on me.
Digest: Were you relieved to move on to happier subjects when you were writing?
Braeden: Not really, no, because I really am not unhappy about my life. I really am not. I’ve dealt with it all, and it gives you a more humane perspective. I’ve known people who have gone through tough times who’ve became ass—-s! Suffering certain deprivations certainly does not [guarantee] an empathetic life, but I think to be a good actor, you need to be empathetic. You need to be able to feel what others feel, or at least approximate that feeling, and you cannot do that when you have not dealt with yourself. In the very impressionable years after my father’s death when I was 12, 13, 14, 15, I asked a lot of fundamental questions. One thing that really appealed to me is the notion of forgiveness, the notion of a kind of universal acceptance of people of all backgrounds. I gravitated toward that. I grew up [admiring] Albert Schweitzer; he devoted his life as a doctor to helping the poorest of the poor, namely the lepers, and that so inspired me at the time. I don’t know why, but it did. The notion of giving and forgiving — that has always stayed with me.
Digest: Especially considering your remarkable success as an actor, it was interesting to learn that you had no acting aspirations growing up, nor did you come to the United States to make it as an actor.
Braeden: Yes, but it was there. In high school in Germany, when there was a time at certain occasions to recite poetry or do a reading, they always asked me. I don’t know why, no idea, but I was good at it. In German high school you have to read classical literature aloud, and you were graded on how well you did, how well you interpreted it, and that helped me more than anything in this profession.
Digest: When you broke into show biz, it was as Hans Gudegast, your birth name. Ultimately, you changed your name to Eric Braeden, in essence to open up more career opportunities.
Braeden: I did not change my name lightly. It was arguably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was proud of my name. I thought, “This is ridiculous! I won’t do that.” Lew Wasserman, who was the head of Universal Studios, wanted me to star in that picture called Colossus, but he said, “No one with a German name will star in an American picture.” My wife knew how frustrated I’d always been about often playing bad guys — initially Nazis, and then bad guys. It just was dehumanizing! I’d done a play on Broadway with Clarence Williams III and Geraldine Page and Curt Jurgens [1965’s The Great Indoors]. Curt was a big shot in Germany, and he said, “Listen, you’re wasting your time in America playing nothing but Nazis, nothing but Germans.” I said, “No, I’m going to get out of [that pigeonhole].” My wife, in all these important moments, reminded me of the words of Curt Jurgens, and how frustrated I had been and how determined I was to get out of it — and [Colossus, in which he played an American scientist] was a chance. Hence the name change. But for a while it was very difficult. I’d been doing a film at that time with Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds and Jim Brown in Spain called 100 Rifles and none of them wanted me to change my name. “No! You can’t change your name!” But they didn’t have the same kind of needs that I did, so there you are.
Digest: Do you think of yourself as Eric now? Or are you still Hans?
Braeden: That’s a good question. I don’t think of it at all. I am completely comfortable with most people calling me Eric now, but if my old friends were to call me that I’d say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m Hans to you!” With old friends it is Hans. With my family it is Hans. With everyone else it is Eric, and I’m fine with both. But it took me a while.
Digest: After amassing a wide swath of credits in film, prime-time and theater, boom, in 1980, you land on YOUNG AND RESTLESS. Dabney Coleman has a cameo in that story, encouraging you to take the job.
Braeden: Yes, because he was the only one I trusted! He was a very good actor, and he had done a soap on NBC [BRIGHT PROMISE] before.
Digest: I love the piece of advice your wife gave you about playing Victor, which was to view the stories you found preposterous as a challenge, not as if “you’re privately winking at the audience, saying, ‘I know, I don’t believe this either.’ ”
Braeden: She said, “Make it a challenge. Make those limiting parameters a challenge instead of fighting it.” And I suddenly looked at it very differently.
Digest: I was struck by how different your career might have gone without the benefit of that insight.
Braeden: No question about it. Absolutely! It changed my attitude about that medium, which was arguably, as an actor, the toughest medium in our business. The film business? That’s a laugh, it’s a joke!
Digest: In the book, you give as eloquent an argument about being proud to be a part of this genre as I’ve ever seen, and I deeply appreciate that.
Braeden: Thank you. That took me a while, to learn that, to really, really put it all in perspective. I learned a lot doing this show. A lot. I also learned the reason for being an actor. During the ’60s, the only things that interested me were [high-art projects], like Ingmar Bergman films or Fellini or Woody Allen or whatever, and those are few and far between. The essence of what we do in this business — we entertain! And that I learned doing what I’m doing now.
Digest: You give a very entertaining review of the ups and downs and loves and losses in Victor Newman’s life. Were there storylines that you looked back on as you were writing that you had forgotten about?
Braeden: No, I remember it all, but to be honest, it is not something that I spend time doing. I don’t spend time remembering. I take it very seriously when I do it, but then I forget about it immediately, only to be reminded of it later on when I happen to see it or someone reminds me and I go, “Oh, yeah, I remember now.” I’m far more interested in politics and history.
Digest: You don’t shy away from tackling some of the more controversial aspects of your Y&R career, such as what you call your “worst day at work as an actor”: your on-set altercation with Peter Bergman (Jack) back in 1991. Why did you feel that was important to address?
Braeden: Because it was such a big thing at the time, and something that obviously I wish one could have avoided, and also to show how it is possible to get beyond something like that and develop enormous respect. We just have different ways of approaching [the work], but we respect each other a lot. There was a time when I said to Peter, “Look, we may not like each other, but we are both good for the show. This storyline that you and I have, this enmity between us, is good for the show. It makes for drama and conflict.” And he, of course, is a bright guy and agreed with me, and we have nothing but respect for each other, but it took a while to get to that point. I came from a world of sports. I’m used to having altercations on the sporting field, and then afterwards you shake hands and have a beer. You know what I’m saying? I felt the need to not gloss over that because I have such respect for Peter.
Digest: You also talk about a conflict with a former cast member who you do not name, but as you write, “Those of you who are fans of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS will know who I’m talking about.” I have the same question: Why did you decide to address it?
Braeden: Because it was so egregious, and I remember at the time, a lot of people in the audience listening to a side of the story that simply was not so. And that, when it happens — to be quite frank with you — pisses one off a lot. So, that’s why.
Digest: Victor is unquestionably one of the most popular characters in the history of daytime TV, and you tell some great stories about being recognized and embraced as Victor all over the world, by superstar athletes like Muhammad Ali to villagers in Istanbul and Israel.
Braeden: You’d be amazed by how many of the top jocks watch the show and love the character I play. Love him! It’s wonderful. I used to box in the ghettos of L.A., and was only welcomed in the warmest way possible. I long ago stopped analyzing or trying to analyze [Victor’s appeal] and said, “Screw it. It is what it is.” I remember my son and I walked through Little Italy in New York one day, and you have no idea how many of the Italian guys and women came out of the restaurant: “Victor, come in here!”
Digest: Not every actor in this genre embraces that, being known primarily by the name of the soap character they play.
Braeden: Right. But is anything more wonderful than evoking a warm feeling in people? I don’t think so! Even the hardest characters — prisoners and fighters — they see me and go, “Hey, man!” What a wonderful thing! George Foreman comes to my dressing room and says, “Hey, man, I’m honored!” I said, “You’re honored? Are you kidding?” I mean, I’m a huge sports fan and boxing fan, and it’s so touching. I remember walking through Istanbul, walking the streets, and suddenly you would be approached by women in veils, and you see them sort of blush. I mean, what a privilege. What a wonderful thing in a completely different society! I’m walking in Jerusalem up the Via Dolorosa and suddenly, “Victor! Victor!” It’s extraordinary! [Former Israeli Prime Minister] Shimon Peres, his sister was a big fan. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Digest: Now that the book is finally being released, do you have any reservations about exposing yourself and your life to Y&R fans in this way?
Braeden: No, no, not at all. I have nothing to hide. You know, when you write an autobiography, you obviously don’t want to hurt certain people and so one abstains from that.
Digest: As you wrote in the book, you think, “What will my granddaughters think about this?”
Braeden: Exactly, yeah. But you also want to be honest.
Digest: If readers come away with one insight into what makes you tick or what you stand for, what do you hope it is that they take away?
Braeden: My basic attitude, my leitmotif if you will, is to embrace people. I’m basically a nice man — but you f— with me, I’ll come after you. When you lose a father that [young], it leaves you with a lot of anger because you don’t understand it. You feel abandoned. Obviously, that notion plays a great part in my playing of my character of Victor Newman, because he grew up in an orphanage. When [Y&R Co-Creator] Bill Bell came up with that storyline, I said, “Now, I’ll stay,” because I knew that would open up a world of truth in how I play the character. And we are now getting back to the complexity of Victor Newman. For a while, it was ridiculously one-sided, and it’s a more complex character that Bill Bell understood very well. What I never liked about Victor’s character is his coldness to his children sometimes. I hated that because that’s totally antithetical to who I am in regard to my children. But, can I be tough? Yeah. Very.