THE WASHINGTON POST // back to articles
DOWNLOAD PRINTABLE VERSION
Interview by Michael E. Hill (Washington Post Staff Writer)
August 30 – September 5, 1987
Finding A Role, Finding Himself
Los Angeles – At 46, Eric Braeden is still youthful but no longer young. And after a period of study and contemplation of his roots, he is a man at peace with himself, if not totally square with the world. So why is a man of middle years and solid philosophical outlook starring in a TV show called “The Young and the Restless”? And, more to the point, why is he so happy about it?
His is the pride and joy of a man who feels he has taken something that was handed him and made it his own. “My character, Victor Newman, started out as a bad guy,” said Braeden. “The head writer and our executive producer began to surmise that I was tired and emptied out from playing bad guys for years on television. They picked up on the emotional displays I began to put into the part.”
The character, he said, is now more rounded, with good sides as well as bad. “It was an extraordinary thing for me, who is German and who has played nothing but bad guys – they are synonymous in America – to show people we are human with emotions, human beings. That was extremely gratifying to do. It’s the first time a German-born actor has been able to do that. For that I’ll be forever grateful.”
Eric Braeden, relaxed in shorts and a knit T-shirt, sat at a patio table beside his family’s swimming pool, adjusting the table’s umbrella to ward off a warm afternoon sun. His house is located on a hillside in the Pacific Palisades.
Past the pool is a deck jutting out over a valley. The day is near perfect by California standards, but a haze hides the Pacific Ocean, just visible off to the left on a clear day. Over on the right, on a slightly higher hill, a house is going up. It’s the latest Steven Spielberg production. A higher hill behind Spielberg’s is vacant, and Braeden said Sylvester Stallone has had designs on it. This is a nice neighborhood. The career that helped get Braeden to the Palisades had its first high visibility 21 years ago when he co-starred in a television series called “The Rat Patrol.” He played Capt. Dietrich under his real name, Hans Gudegast. He resisted pressure to turn Dietrich into a more sinister-looking character – someone suggested he wear an eye patch, among other touches.
When he landed a starring role in “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” a gripping 1970 thriller, he caved in to Universal Studio’s urging that he change his name. “It was one of the most painful decisions I’ve ever made,” he said. He chose Eric, a family name, and Braeden, derivative of Braedenbek, a village near his German home. A number of other films followed, along with an endless string of television series and movie appearances.
He was reluctant to go into daytime television, but when “The Young and the Restless” came along, he called a friend, Dabney Coleman, and asked his advice. “He said do it.” That was in 1980. Since then, he has come to know the peculiar adulation that is showered on daytime TV stars – he was mobbed at a shopping center in Toronto last year, for instance – and this year he was nominated for an Emmy for best leading man. While deeply immersed in a business that deals in image and illusion primarily and fact and reality secondarily, Braeden has always been sensitive to the difference. Take “The Rat Patrol,” for instance. Please, he might add.
“It was a total farce, a cartoon,” he said. “It was the height of wishful thinking, that two American jeeps with guns mounted on them could defeat whatever the Germans put against them. . .
“I’m part of this industry, and I love it. But [we must come to grips with] the myths that we perpetuate. . . That’s why I love what I do now – it deals on a daily basis with problems that are all human. For the first time I feel I’m playing a character that is not a caricature – either a good guy or a villain. Daytime TV affords me the opportunity to create a character who is not a cardboard caricature of good and evil.” Myth and reality. It has to do with who Eric Braeden is as well as with what he does. For him, it has to do with being German.
“I was welcomed everywhere here with open arms,” he said. Everywhere included Montana, where he worked as a cowboy; Montana State University, where he enrolled on a partial track scholarship; and the lumber mill where he worked to help meet school expenses.
And that’s how it was in Los Angeles, where he and a friend came to sell a documentary film they’d done on a Salmon River adventure and where he heard Hollywood was looking for actors to play German roles. By 1962 he was acting, something he’d thought about since his early teens.
There was no open hostility in his early days in America, but Braeden noticed little things. “Many people pull back upon meeting a German, as they do upon meeting a Jew,” he said. “There’s nothing overt. But there are subtleties. When I did ‘Colossus,’ a head of a studio said no one with a German name could star in an American movie. “In personal life, I never overtly experienced hostility – I have experienced reservation, in the other person’s eyes, misconceptions about me, presumptions. Because of where I was from.
“But someone can become obsessed because of frequent reminders of the excesses of Nazi Germany. . . Unless you have a strong sense of self and history, you succumb to one of two reactions: You become very hostile and defensive, or you become guilt-ridden and overly apologetic.”
Braeden reached a turning point in 1961 when he saw “Mein Kampf,” a Swedish documentary on the horrors of Nazi Germany. “It was the beginning of an enormous odyssey for me,” he said.
During that odyssey, he was playing soccer for the Maccabees, a mostly-Jewish team, some of whose members had survived concentration camps. Their uniform includes a Star of David on the shirt. “It was by coincidence, not out of guilt” that he joined a Jewish team. And an interesting thing happened: “I began to experience anti-Semitism.” (While playing a Nazi on “The Rat Patrol.”) He recalled a game in which an opposing player, in a moment of anger, growled at him, “You Nazi! You Jew!”
“Only after [this odyssey,] I’ve arrived at objectivity concerning who I am, what Germany was, who the Jews are – after a lot of reading and discussion.” And after study, discussion with friends, including German Jews, and visits and letters home.
Eric Braeden was born in Kiel, Germany. He remembers it as home, and he remembers it as a target. “It was a navy yard city – submarines were made there,” he said, “and the city was bombed from 1940 on. The hospital was in ruble when I was born, and we moved outside of town.
“I remember images of bomb attacks – the noise of planes approaching, bombs falling, and anti-aircraft shooting back. I remember clinging to whatever adult was close by in shelters. You would come out and find families crying, animals screaming.” Hamburg is 80 miles away, and he remembers the horizon glowing red when the city was fire-bombed.
“It is those images that make me have absolute loathing for people who think problems can be solved through fighting,” he said. “After the war, we played in rubble,” he said, recalling children who died when they accidentally set off unexploded bombs. Braeden’s father, he said, was the town mayor and, like most Germans of his day, a member of the Nazi party. “Everyone, 90 percent, were members,” said Braeden. “He had serious doubts about what was going on. He helped three Jewish families escape to Denmark, including our family dentist. . .” “I have an uncle who was imprisoned by the Gestapo because he had enough foresight to be against Hitler. He ridiculed him at the beginning. There were enormous conflicts within families.”
Braeden’s father died when his son was 12. It was his mother, “an apolitical housewife,” who took him around when he returned home in 1964 and showed him the remnants of a concentration camp at a nearby town. “She didn’t know about it then, and she thought Dad didn’t either. . . I’m convinced he had doubts but didn’t really want to know.” It was a time, Braeden said, when most Germans were primarily concerned with and aware of the need to rebuild a country that had been ravaged by the First War, to establish law and order, and to deal with unemployment and the threat of communism. To understand that period, he said, it is important to maintain a “sense of what it was like then, rather than viewing it only with the righteous indignation of twenty-twenty hindsight.”
The hills of the Palisades are alive with the sound of hammers and saws, and the racket is coming from the Braeden garage. Soon the structure that used to house two cars would be a small private gym for Braeden and his son. Weight and exercise equipment is everywhere, and a heavy punching bag is already hanging from the rafters. It will also be a place of meditation for Braeden, a place to think while he maintains a taut, athletic frame and indulges his eclectic musical taste, from Pavarotti and Mozart to Willie Nelson and Tina Turner. The garage adjoins the open, airy, comfortable house whose decorations include paintings by Braeden’s wife, Dale.
As the sun sets, the workmen gather up their tools. During the afternoon, the entire Braeden family has come by the patio – the Braedens’s son, Christian; Tiger, the large, friendly orangish cat, and Maxie, the very large and very friendly german shepherd. “After all is said and done,” said Braeden, reflecting on Hitler’s regime, “what you generally can’t escape is the extent and degree of its viciousness and racist attitude. There’s no getting around the fact that it happened. If there’s anything to the saying that the sins of the father are visited on the sons, this is such a case, and I have to live with that.
Many Germans of his generation went to work at kibbutzim after the war, said Braeden, driven by enormous guilt. “German psychiatrists’ couches are full of Germans of my generation,” though that has not been part of his own odyssey. Now, upon meeting a Jew, he usually notes a hesitation. “I understand that I feel the obligation to make the Jewish person feel at ease,” said Braeden. “And then there’s a need to explain. Because in essence, we all want to be liked, whoever we are.”