From Postwar Germany To Hollywood, A Soap Star Dishes On His Journey

Feb 5, 2017
Originally published on February 6, 2017 8:38 am

The dynamic, sometimes evil and always enthralling Victor Newman has been a mainstay of CBS' daytime soap The Young and the Restless. The character is played by actor Eric Braeden, who is marking his 37th year on the show. Braeden also has a new memoir out called I'll Be Damned. In it, he shares stories from his career and his childhood in post-World War II Germany.

He tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro, "I was born in 1941 in a town called Kiel on the Baltic Sea. And that was a center for [the] building of warships and submarines, and hence it was obviously a target of Allied bombers."


Interview Highlights

On his father, who died when Braeden was 12

He belonged to the [Nazi] Party and he was mayor of the town that I grew up in, which was outside of Kiel. And as far as I knew, [he was] a very loving figure. Never saw him in uniform. I just was devastated when he died.

On how he learned about the Nazi era and the Holocaust

I found out in 1961/62 here in Los Angeles. ... [There] was a movie theater and they played a documentary called Mein Kampf, a Swedish documentary. And I went because I was kind of homesick; I said, "Oh, that's a German title." I honestly had not grown up knowing anything about Mein Kampf or really the Nazi era, except that Germany had lost the war. My early impressions were of English tanks coming through the village and arresting my father. So that was arguably the most shocking and, I would say, epiphanous moment in my young life, and awakened an enormous interest in history and politics.

On why he hadn't learned about the Holocaust sooner

The second world war was not discussed in German history classes until the '60s, and I left in '59. And in the middle '60s they began to really become aware, in Germany, of the dreadful stuff that happened in concentration camps. Before then, it was not discussed.

I don't remember discussing it, except once when I was a teenager. I walked home from school with a schoolmate and he said — I was about 14, I think, 15 — and he said, "I gotta tell you a secret." I said, "Oh? What is it?" He says, "I'm Jewish." And I didn't quite know what to do with that. So I went home to my mother — my father had been dead by then about two or three years. I said, "So and so ... said that he was Jewish. What does that mean?" And she just made a big sigh, and she says, "Oh, what one did to the white Jews is unforgiveable." By that I assume she meant the German Jews. That is the extant of my conversation about that subject matter until much later.

On moving to the U.S. in 1959 and how he ended up in Los Angeles

First, I dissected cadavers at the John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas, where a cousin of mine, a German cousin of mine, was a doctor. Then I ventured from that to Montana. I was a cowboy on a ranch outside of Missoula. Then I took that river trip [down the Salmon River] in Idaho with a promise that we would make a documentary film and with that film we would come to California. And I said, "I'm in," nevermind it was called "The River of No Return" for a reason. So that's how, by Greyhound bus, I then ... came to Los Angeles I think in the fall of '60.

On why he's stayed with The Young and the Restless for so long

The reason I stayed was after about five years, I think, four years, I became increasingly disgruntled with playing this rather one-sided character. And then Bill Bell, the head writer, came up with a storyline for me that I played on a Christmas Eve show with my then-early wife, Nikki, played beautifully by Melody Thomas Scott still. And she sort of asks this mystery character, Victor Newman, about his childhood and about Christmas. And he has reluctant feelings about Christmas and then finally kind of breaks down and tells her that he grew up in an orphanage where he was left at the age of 7 by a destitute mother who had been left by a drunken father. And once I played that scene, I walked into my dressing room and I said, "Now I'm staying," because it opened up a huge world of possibilities.

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The voice, the hair, the mustache, my God, the wives, the scheming...

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS" MONTAGE)

ERIC BRAEDEN: (As Victor Newman) You think you've won. You don't begin to understand the power of Victor Newman.

What exactly did you hear her say?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) She said you're my daddy.

BRAEDEN: (As Victor Newman) If I kiss you again, it can't stop there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The character of Victor Newman has been, to say the least, a pillar of CBS's daytime soap "The Young And The Restless." The dynamic, sometimes evil, but always enthralling business magnate is played by none other than actor Eric Braeden, who's just released a memoir tracing the twists and turns of his own life. He told me that he still found Victor, whom he's played since 1980, the most complex character he's ever had to portray.

BRAEDEN: I have always, in acting, been attracted to turning something that someone else wrote and making it real. It's a challenge that I've not tired of yet. I can't say that I'm bored with it. I get a kick out of doing a scene. The simplest scene is the most difficult to do in a realistic way. And the very dramatic scenes where you shout and anger and all that, those scenes are really not that difficult.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about the plotline of your own very interesting life, the subject of your new memoir. You were born in Germany during World War II in difficult circumstances.

BRAEDEN: I would say. I was born in 1941 in a town called Kiel on the Baltic Sea. And that was a center for building of warships and submarines, and hence it was obviously a target of allied bombers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us a little bit about your father - very revered figure for you. He died when you were very young. But you also reveal in this book that he was a Nazi.

BRAEDEN: He belonged to the party. And he was mayor of the town that I grew up in, which was outside of Kiel. And as far as I knew, a very loving figure. I never saw him in uniform. I just was devastated when he died at the age of 12. Then I found out in 1961, '62 - here in Los Angeles on Beverly Drive and Wilshire Boulevard was a movie theater, and they played a documentary called "Mein Kampf," a Swedish documentary. And I went because I was kind of homesick. I said, oh, that's a German title.

I honestly had not grown up knowing anything about "Mein Kampf" or really the Nazi era except that Germany had lost the war. My early impressions were of English tanks coming through the village and arresting my father. So that was arguably the most shocking and I would say epiphanous moment in my young life and awakened an enormous interest in history and politics.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You didn't know about the Holocaust, necessarily, you're saying.

BRAEDEN: No, because the second World War was not discussed in German history classes until the '60s, and I left in '59. And in the middle '60s, they began to really become aware in Germany of the dreadful stuff that happened in concentration camps. Before then, it was not discussed. I don't remember discussing it except once when I was a teenager. I walked home from school with a schoolmate and he said - I was about 14, I think, 15 - and he said, I got to tell you a secret. I said, oh, what is it? He says, I'm Jewish. And I didn't quite know what to do with that. So I went home to my mother. My father had been dead by then about two or three years. I said, so-and-so Oudabourg (ph) said that he was Jewish. What does that mean?

And she just made a big sigh. And she says, oh, what one did to the white Jews is unforgivable. By that I assume she meant the German Jews. That is the extent of my conversation about that subject matter until much later.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So after you see this film and you have this awakening, you talk in the book at length, during the many periods in your life, about how you tried to engage with that history.

BRAEDEN: You can't help it. You either become very defensive and deny it happened, as many Americans will deny, you know, 400 years or 300 years of slavery. Or, as many of us have - my generation have done, you fully, obviously acknowledge what happened, are horrified by what happened and want to make absolutely sure it never happens again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about - you know, you came to America after the war. You had an enormous sense of adventure. You traversed the Salmon River, which is amazing. And then you ended up in Hollywood. You worked, of course, in a lot of TV shows and films. But I want to come back to the daytime drama because, of course, that is what has given you such prestige. What do you love about daytime dramas? What do you think keeps the audience coming back to your show? It's the number one drama on daytime...

BRAEDEN: That is a very good question that I can't answer. I will just say that the characters established by Bill Bell, who originated the series, are very strong characters. The reason I stayed was after about five years, I think, I became increasingly disgruntled with playing this rather one-sided character. And then Bill Bell, the head writer, came up with a storyline for me that I played on a Christmas Eve show with my then early wife Nikki, played beautifully by Melody Thomas Scott still.

And she sort of asked this mystery character Victor Newman about his childhood and about Christmas. And he has reluctant feelings about Christmas, and then finally kind of breaks down and tells her that he grew up in an orphanage where he was left at the age of 7 by a destitute mother who had been left by a drunken father. And once I played that scene, I walked into my dressing room and I said, now I'm staying because it opened up a huge world of possibilities and complex storylines.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're talking about complex storylines, but one of the bits that I love in your book is when you're actually talking about all the things that annoy you about some of these plotlines. And you write - and it made me laugh - (reading) apparently any idiot can get past security at the Newman Ranch since anyone, everyone and their grandmother often show up at the door.

BRAEDEN: It's a much-vaunted security system.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

BRAEDEN: Victor Newman sits behind his desk, supposedly one of the most powerful businessmen in the world and runs a huge corporation. And suddenly someone knocks at the door - an enemy, perhaps - and they obviously got through security. And for budget reasons, they even got rid of the secretary to announce that guest. So we have addressed that problem. Now they do usually come in after having been properly announced.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eric Braeden's new book is called "I'll Be Damned: How My Young And Restless Life Led Me To America's #1 Daytime Drama." Thanks so much for being with us.

BRAEDEN: You're very welcome. I enjoyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARRY DE VORZON AND PERRY BOTKIN'S "NADIA'S THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.