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SPORTS ILLUSTRATED // back to articles


August 7, 1995 Interview by Franz Lidz All Victor's Children Victor Newman of "The Young and the Restless" has a hold on jocks young and old. Part of the glamour of big-time athletics is the glittering lifestyle that we imagine the athlete leads. Fancy cars. Mansions with endless corridors. All the champagne and caviar one can gulp down. The idea that a top athlete might run down to the 7-Eleven to pick up a can of tuna or recline on a Barcalounger to watch a soap opera doesn't quite fit our image.

And yet . . . around lunchtime you would be surprised how many athletes munch tuna sandwiches and watch soaps. Though the brands of tuna vary, many jocks watch one particular soap. And many watch one particular character, the same character who enthralls homebodies, students, the terminally unemployed and those who keep up with their favorite soap via VCR. His name is Victor Newman, and he is a mainstay on The Young and the Restless. This spectacularly affluent tycoon runs his business with the ruthlessness of a Chinese warlord and sheds his redundant wives as easily as he does his tuxedo.

Newman's boardroom power plays and bedroom reconciliations are followed slavishly by boxers and ballplayers, golfers and gymnasts. "Jocks relate to Victor," says former Philadelphia Phillie pitcher Larry Andersen. "He relies on intimidation, manipulation . . . He's got most of the '-ations' down pat." Jocks relate as much to Newman's Machiavellian intelligence as to his swaggering reserve a sense of throttled rage that gives him an almost sinister allure. "Victor never lets his emotions show through," marvels former NBA star Mychal Thompson. "He can explode, but it takes a lot for him to lose it." The unflappable Newman hangs tough no matter how many barbarians try to crash his gates. "Victor's a guy's guy," says New York Yankee slugger Danny Tartabull. "Always poised, always in control. And he always gets his revenge. We all strive to be that way."

Professional athletes have so much time and so little to do with it that many get swept off in the sudsy flood of soaps. "Teammates used to tease me about watching them," says Thompson, who in his days with the Portland Trail Blazers taped as many as five a day on road trips. "But they all knew the characters' names even the exotic ones like Cord and Blade and Suede. Obviously, the players were secretly kicking back on their beds, watching too." In these more tolerant times, few soapstruck athletes feel compelled to hide their habits behind chained hotel doors. "I don't watch sports," says Chicago Bull guard Ron Harper. "I do sports for a living. Soaps relax my mind and keep me out of trouble."

No soap has athletes in more of a lather that Y and R, a sprawling epic that is as hard to summarize briefly as Finnegans Wake. The show is set in real-life Genoa City, Wis., where, at least on Y and R, marriages fail with depressing regularity and everyone is desperately involved with everyone else. The crises faced by these New World Genovese run from straying affections and frayed reputations to comas and bouts of amnesia.

In the middle of this melodramatic maelstrom is Victor Newman, a Fortune 500 buccaneer whose very name couples winning and rebirth. As played by Eric Braeden, Newman is among the most mercurial of TV characters. One minute he'll warble some soap-opera aria such as, "Defer to your elders, or I'll crush you." The next, he'll peer soulfully through candlelight and whisper, "I love you with every fiber of my being." Newman is higher in fiber than oat bran. Newman was soap scum when he surfaced in Genoa City in 1980. He sealed his first wife's lover in a basement dungeon and fed him baked rats. He met his second wife at a strip joint, where she performed erotic aerobics. After a failed third marriage he got hitched to the glamorous chemist who had been his lover during his second marriage. Newman stumbled onto his fifth wife a blind farmer named Hope after his Rolls-Royce was car-jacked at a diner. For months he was presumed dead because he never bothered to phone home.

Immediately after meeting Braeden on an L.A. street a few years ago, Harper called his mother. "Mom flipped out," he recalls. "She said, 'You didn't really meet Victor Newman!' I said, 'Yeah!' It was hard to tell who was more excited."

Newmaniacs often talk of their hero as if he were about to step through the front door. "As cool as Victor is, he's not my role model," Thompson insists. "I'm not going to jump into different beds or pull off some dirty business deal. But if I had to, he'd be the one to show me how."

"Victor Newman can make your life so miserable, you're going to sit on your grave and wish you were buried," says Houston Oiler wide receiver Haywood Jeffires. "He has power, and with power you can be as ugly as you want because you know you'll look beautiful in the end."

The three-time Pro Bowler has followed Victor since his freshman year at North Carolina State. "Victor's got all the money," he explains. "He'll say, 'It costs $10 million? Call my accountant.' He'll say, 'Let's go to Europe for dinner.' The jet will be waiting and the Dom PĂ©rignon will be on ice. Is that power or what?" Jeffires doesn't call his favorite soap The Young and the Restless anymore. "To me," he says, "it's just Victor."

Jeffires is such an avid Victorite that he rushes home from practice to catch the last 45 minutes during lunch break. Clutching three remote controls, a glass of milk and a stack of Oreos, he'll move from room to room, TV to TV. Jeffires gets so lost in Victor that his wife, Robin, makes him wear a receiver in his ear. "Haywood!" She'll shout into a mike. "Didn't you come home to be with me and the kids?"

"No, honey," he'll shout back. "I came home to look at Victor! I want to see who he's messing up today."

If Newman goes a few days without messing somebody up, Haywood goes haywire. "I've thrown my glass at the screen 15 times," he says. "Repairs have run me $6,000." Robin jokes that she used to worry that he would hurl his infant son, Haywood III, at the screen. "I need Victor to be controversial," Jeffires says. "The Lone Ranger and Tonto ain't no more. It's the '90s. Time for the bad boys."

They don't come much badder than Victor. "When he loses, he just finds another way to win," Jeffires says. "In my next life, I want to be Victor Newman." Victor Newman has all that knowledge and yet he doesn't know about women," 59- year-old Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson says. "He loves everybody and divorces everybody. But he never gets rid of his ex-wives. He still wants to control them."

It's 11 a.m. and a telephone rings in Bellevue, Neb. And rings and rings . . . "Call me at 11, chances are I'm not pickin' it up," says Gibson, now a St. Louis Cardinal coach. "That's my time for The Young and the Restless." The man with the glare, the man with one of the meanest dispositions in baseball history, spends the off-season watching soaps. "The only way to get me mad now is to interrupt my watching," Gibson says.

His memory of his first soap-opera is as indelible as soap-opera lipstick: "One day when I was about 30, my first wife told me, 'Tom died.' I said, 'Who?' She said, 'Tom.' I said, 'How long have you known him?' She said, 'He's on my soap.' I said, 'Oh' and pulled up a chair. The next day I was back in front of the set. I wanted to know what happened next."

Gibson tries to keep up with Y and R when the Cards are out of town, but when that's not possible he enlists his second wife, Wendy, to watch for him. "I call home to ask if Victor has left Hope yet," Gibson reports. "I couldn't see him staying with her to begin with. With Hope being blind, Victor thought he could control her. He's finding out it's not that way and starting to reach back to his ex-wife Nikki. As self-assured as Victor is, he's insecure about Hope." Last Christmas, Wendy bought her husband a portable television for his car. "Reception's a problem," he says. "Makes me nuts."

That and Victor's teenage son, Nicholas. "How could Nick send his girlfriend a $500 coat and not tell her it was from him?" Gibson sputters. "If Victor cares about you, you'll hear about it and very soon! What the hell could Nick have been thinking? Teenagers! Puppy love! Drives me up a wall."

Gibson shakes his head like a pitcher who's just walked the bases loaded. "I don't know," he says. "Some of that stuff just isn't real."

Victor Newman is the height of swa-vay!" says cruiserweight boxer Thomas Hearns. "He got it going, and what's going he gets done. I like how smoothly he talks, and how he squashes people in a sneaky way. I once saw him driving around Los Angeles. I was in a Rolls with darkened windows, and I had the driver pull my car over next to his. Pulled up besides Victor Newman! Rolled down the window and said, 'Victor! My man! Anytime you have trouble with those beautiful women, you give me a call.'

"I only get to see him on TV. I watch him two, three times a week, except when I'm in training. Can't watch him then. He's got way too much going on. I can't concentrate on what's going on with me. Victor won't let me concentrate. Women can rob you of your concentration too. They can make you do things you had no intention of doing. Victor's the same kind of treacherous. Which is why, when it comes to training, I don't have no Victor.

"Tommy Hearns has got it goin' on in boxing. But in soaps, Victor's got it goin' on. Get in his way and it's all over. We approach women, business, life the same sort of way like cobras. Before I became the Hit Man, I was the Cobra. I pass that torch on to Victor. I just wish he could pass the smooth and the swa-vay on to me."

"Victor Newman," says Sam Cassell. "Vic-tor Newman. Vic-tor Newman. Victor New-man." "On the final day of the Houston Rockets' regular season, the point guard repeats this pregame mantra to his locker room cubby. "Sam!" says teammate Vernon Maxwell. "You know about Victor?" "Who don't know about Victor?" says Cassell. "He's the man. The Victor Newman. Victor is cold."

"Cold and debonair," says forward Robert Horry. "Very sure of himself." "Man with that much power coulda married anyone," Cassell says. "But he fell in love with a blind woman. Not for what she is, but who she's about." On the road Horry, Maxwell and Cassell watch Victor in the privacy of their hotel rooms. "You need to be lying on your bed," says Horry. "Stretched out," interjects Maxwell.

"Buck naked," says Cassell.

The three were initiated into the Newman cult as teenagers. Cassell would skip class at Florida State to watch the show. Happily, his political science professor taught the same course at night. "I didn't tell him why I needed to take a later class," Cassell says. "I couldn't. What would I say? 'I got to see my Victor?"

Cassell claims to have sighted his hero a few years ago in the Memphis airport. "He was talking on the phone," Cassell recalls. "I screamed, 'That's my man right there! That is Victor!" He didn't say anything. He didn't have to. He's Victor Newman."

"Victor Newman is the kind of guy I wouldn't put up with," says 31-year-old golfer Cathy Johnston-Forbes. "He's too controlling. I'd tell him to go jump in a lake. It probably wouldn't come out like that, though." The 10-year LPGA veteran has been hooked on The Young and the Restless since 1973. But Newman still perplexes her. "Sometimes I like him," she says, "sometimes I hate him. He has everything he ever wanted, except satisfaction." She doesn't see why women find Victor so irresistible. "He's not that handsome," she protests. "Maybe they like being treated like queens. As domineering as Victor Newman is, he can be sensitive, a gentleman. He treats women like a crystal he never wants to hurt them. But in the end, he hurts them anyway."

She likes Victor best in those heady months after one of his innumerable marriages. "No other women are in the picture," she says. "Everything's going good." Inevitably, other women enter the picture and everything goes bad. "I thought Victor and his fourth wife were perfect for each other," she exclaims. "And then he falls back in love with wife number two. For the next six months I hated him."

It didn't take long for number two to give way to number five. This left Johnston-Forbes puzzled. "It's not like I can't understand men," she says. "I understand my husband, Foster. He's nothing like Victor. The only similarity is that Foster is real thoughtful to me." Foster caddies for Cathy. At lunch they watch Y and R. During the show Foster has been known to pick up an imaginary phone and say, 'Hello, this is Victor Newman.' When Monday Night Football is on, Foster sometimes says, "I'm going to have a Victor drink." Then he'll straighten up, puff out his chest and pour himself a Wild Turkey and water.
"Victor Newman reminds me of Tony La Russa, the Oakland A's manager," says umpire Rocky Roe. "Tony's a good-looking, swashbuckling kind of guy who's always in charge. Unless he's arguing with me." Ever wonder what umps talk about between innings? If you're Roe, you're asking your crewmates: "Has Dimitri found out the truth about Erica's daughter?" Roe is a dyed-in-the-gut All My Children fan. "I like Erica," he says. "She still looks good after 47 marriages."

On this dull spring day in Orlando, Roe is folded into his family room La-Z-Boy, a pouch of chaw in one hand, an empty Juicy Lucy's cup in the other. Until recently he didn't know Victor Newman from Alfred E. Neuman. "I'll watch," he says, "because I like the actor who plays him. If I'm not mistaken, he was Captain Dietrich on The Rat Patrol." Roe is not mistaken.

At first Roe finds Restless as mysterious as Kabuki. But within 10 minutes he's tracking story lines as if they were forkballs on the inside corner. "After 17 years of soap watching," he explains, "I know the drill." Roe anticipates, if not relishes, every telling pause, every heartfelt stammer, every Mysterious Fatal Disease.

The camera pans the cabin of a Learjet and settles on a man in black whose face is bathed in white. "You know Victor's wealthy," Roe says. "He's making phone calls from the air." Newman speaks in a deep, rich German accent that hangs thickly on his sentences, like wet snow. "Great resonance!" says Roe, dribbling tobacco juice into his cup. "Extremely expressive face. You can see he's anguished. He doesn't even have to say a word."

Newman has flown to Kansas to persuade his blind wife to return with him to Genoa City (it would take too long to explain). "I can see why Victor wants her back in Wisconsin," cracks Roe. "The cheese is better, and the beer's colder." He reaches across his ample belly to grab an iced tea. As surely as the world turns, Roe says he can predict how the episode will end: "Victor will be standing outside the door of a hospital room, looking in anxiously at his bedridden wife and her old boyfriend." But it's still early, and Newman is leering in his Lear. His nostrils twitch as if at an offensive smell.

"Oh, my!" says Roe. Newman curls his lower lip into the most malignant of sneers. His face suggests a clenched fist. "Jeez, Victor's foaming like a Maytag!" Newman swells with righteous indignation and begins talking LIKE THIS. Roe's lips tremble like strawberry Jell-O. "Oooooooooh! Evil!" The episode ends with Newman standing outside the door of a hospital room, looking in anxiously at his bedridden wife, who has just given birth, and her ex-fiancé. "I think I'll give Victor another look tomorrow," Roe says. "If he doesn't grab me, I'll put my finger on the remote and switch to another channel." In other words, he'll give Victor the thumb.
"Victor Newman is not only omnipotent, but omniscient," says Braeden. "He's forceful, yet reacts in an emotional way. That is what athletes dream about." The man who is Victor Newman is exercising his acting muscles on an L.A. soundstage. He has just taped a wrenching scene with Signy Coleman, who plays Hope. Coleman continues weeping. Braeden has long since detached himself. He and the crew are playing catch with a balled-up page from the script. "Sports keep you honest," he says between tosses. "The joy is real, the pain is real. Acting is innately fake. The challenge is to be real."

It is somewhat ludicrous, Braeden says, to be alive in the time of your own legend. This was never more apparent to him than the day he met George Foreman in a dressing room at CBS Television City, where The Young and the Restless is taped. "Oh, man, I am blessed," said the heavy weight champ. "Oh, man, I am blessed. I met Victor Newman."

To keep himself Victorious, the 54-year-old Braeden spars and pumps iron in the home gym he calls his "temple." He plays tennis with Alex Olmedo, the 1959 Wimbledon champ. He coaches the Los Angeles Soccer Club on which his 25-yearold son, Christian, is a sweeper. The team successfully defended its Golden West League title this year.

Soaps, Braeden doesn't watch. Even his own. "I watch sports," he says. He sees in premier athletes an arrogance that borders on the Newmanesque. "My admiration for Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard is boundless," he says. "Joe Montana's self-possession was almost unshakable."

Compromise has never come easy to Braeden. Born Hans Gudegast in Kiel, Germany, he grew up under difficult circumstances. "My father died when I was 12," he says, "and I saw a lot during World War II. One assumes a kind of armor to cover the pain." At 18 he came alone to the United States, where he attended Montana State on a partial track scholarship. He left Montana without graduating and wound up in L.A. While taking some courses at Santa Monica College he heard that Hollywood was looking for Germans. He turned actor. Braeden got typed as a Nazi. "The experience was dehumanizing," he says. "I wanted a chance to play a complex human being." That chance arrived 15 years ago when he became Victor Newman. It is now difficult to say where Eric Braeden ends and Victor Newman begins. "We're both capable of enormous tenderness," says Braeden. "And 'Don't screw with me' attitudes."

That attitude sometimes gets Braeden in jams that even Newman couldn't bail him out of. In 1991 he got in a dressing room brawl with the actor who plays Victor's nemesis. Braeden and his publicist refuse to comment on the incident. Braeden does say that "I have a lot of anger, defiance, rage. You need not to squelch that. Anger is the fuel that fires many people."

Sports, says Braeden, help channel his rage. "They're a way of expressing deeply felt emotions," says Braeden, who has been married to the same woman, Dale, for 29-years. "Isn't love just a jockeying for position? You worship and are worshiped. You leave her, she leaves you. Jealously is a form of defeat. You fear you've lost the struggle to be Number 1 on the playing field of another's life."

For all Braeden's love of competition, last year's ice escapades of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding left him cold. "I saw the difficulty," he says, smoothing the corners of his mustache. "I saw the artistry. I saw the athleticism. But ultimately, it bored me. And you know why? "It was soap opera."
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