For the past 14 years, Eric Braeden has portrayed wealthy Victor Newman on CBS’ top-rated daytime soap opera, “The Young and the Restless.”
A powerful, sophisticated and sometimes ruthless international businessman, his character has been involved for most of those years in a volatile , on-again , off-again relationship with ex-stripper and one-time wife Nikki Abbott, played by Melody Thomas Scott, and is now in love with blind farmer Hope Adams, played by Signy Coleman.
Braeden came to the daytime series after a successful acting career in films and in prime-time television, including a starring role in the 1966-68 action-adventure series “The Rat Patrol” under his real name, Hans Gudegast.
A native of Kiel, Germany, he was pressed to change his name upon landing a leading role in the 1969 Universal feature “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” when he says studio chief Lew Wasserman told him that no German actor would star in American films. Braeden had come to the United States about 10 years earlier after his high school graduation.
Unlike his “Y & R” character, Braeden has been married to one woman, Dale, for 28 years and has a 24-year-old son, Christian, a UCLA Film School graduate. A lifelong athlete, he won the 1958 German Youth Championship in track and field and the 1972-73 National Soccer Championship with a Los Angeles-based team, the Maccabees. In 1990, he co-founded the German-American Cultural Society to promote a positive, realistic image of Germans in this country and to advance German/Jewish dialogue.
Question: Daytime television is often compared to performing in Siberia, by actors and the entertainment industry at large. But you thrive on it. Why?
Answer: Prior to my work on “The Young and the Restless,” I’d worked for 16 years in this town, mostly as a bad guy. I’d run dry.
I think there was an enormous need in me as a German actor to show that we have feelings just like anyone else, that we have enormous conflicts just like anyone else, that we are very emotional people. I think that because of the dehumanizing effect of playing nothing but bad guys--and often, as it was in the very early parts, Nazis--there was an enormous need to connect with something in my work that had warmth, empathy, commiseration, that conveyed more positive feelings. I’m eternally grateful to this medium and specifically this soap for having given me that chance.
Q: Victor’s relationship with Nikki has registered an enduring appeal among viewers. Why do you think it has so captured their fancy?
A: Arguably, it’s the idea of this incredibly powerful, wealthy man taking a woman who comes from the wrong side of the tracks into his life, and shaping her and forming her more to his liking. But, of course, no one can shape or form anyone--she remains who she is, has retained her strength, and that causes conflict.
Those are the outward appearances. But what I think happens to us on screen is that she and I fight very well. When Mel and I have these emotional scenes, and there are many of them, something just clicks. I can’t explain it, except to say that you always hope to reach with an actor or actress some truth, some honesty, some reality, and in scenes with her I approximate that. And now I have that with Hope--Signy Coleman. I don’t know why that happens between some actors and not with others.
Q: “The Young and the Restless” celebrated its 21st anniversary last month. It has been the No. 1-rated soap for the past five years, week in and week out. How do you account for that astonishing track record?
A: Because (co-creator/senior executive producer) Bill Bell deals with basic emotions--love, hate, greed. Then he intertwines social issues in the stories that affect our lives in one way or another, be it alcohol, AIDS, divorce, teen-age pregnancy, teen-age marriage. So he taps into things people can identify with.
Now, you embellish that by creating characters like Victor Newman, for example, who’s enormously wealthy and can call up his pilot any day to fly to Paris at the wink of an eye, and is mixed up with beautiful women. So you have what Hollywood has always provided: a visual pleasure but also a means by which the audience can identify with the characters’ emotional metamorphoses, conflicts and ups and downs.
Q: Unlike most soap actors, you also appear occasionally on prime-time television, such as a Perry Mason movie, the miniseries “Lucky/Chances” and, most recently, “The Nanny.”
A: I usually do not do prime time, for a very specific reason. In the early 1970s, a studio--and I won’t say who--summarily lowered its guest-star salaries by two-thirds. That, to me, was one of the most egregious affronts to actors. Agents cowardly acquiesced, and nothing was done about it. I still resent that situation and will not help perpetuate it. That’s one of the major reasons I’m doing the soap. I did “The Nanny” because I have great respect for (series star, co-creator and co-producer) Fran Drescher and the way she brought the whole thing about. And my wife thought it was a funny show.
Q: Your soap role is not your only outlet to communicate the fact that Germans are not the cold, heartless people that historically inspired stereotypes would hold. Why did you help create the German-American Cultural Society?
A: I’ve listened for over 30 years to vilification of where I come from. The concept of Germany is usually synonymous with that 12-year period (surrounding World War II). I’ve always been deeply, deeply upset and angered by that, but it’s a kind of impotent anger, because what happened, happened.
We are trying to have open dialogues between Germans and Jews. You openly talk to each other and discover what we have in common as human beings, not what differentiates us from a stupid religious point of view. We’ve talked about whether normal relations are possible, about German and Jewish contributions in America, present-day Germany, the consequences of reunification.
What it really boils down to is this: Jews must not make the same mistake that was made about them. They were collectively and dismissively called “The Jews.” Don’t collectively and dismissively call us “The Germans.”