The daytime Emmy-winning actor discusses his recent memoir I’ll Be Damned.
Actor & Author Eric Braeden
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with actor, Eric Braeden. For decades, fans have welcomed “The Young and Restless” star into their homes as the complex, self-made billionaire, Victor Newman. But few truly know the man behind the character, so he’s out now with his first book. It’s a memoir titled “I’ll Be Damned: How My Young and Restless Life Led Me to America’s #1 Daytime Drama”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Eric Braeden in just a moment.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Eric Braeden back to this program. He has, for nearly 40 years now, played Victor Newman on America’s 1one daytime drama, “The Young and the Restless”, Y&R., He is out now with his first book. It’s a memoir filled with adventures and anecdotes from old Hollywood.
It’s called “I’ll Be Damned; How My Young and Restless Life Led Me to America’s #1 Daytime Drama”. Eric Braeden, I’ve known you for some years now. I consider you a friend and yet there were things I learned about you in this book that I had no idea about.
Eric Braeden: Really?
Tavis: Like the river rafting and how that actually got you to L.A. Tell the story.
Braeden: And that’s how I came to L.A.
Tavis: Tell the story, yeah.
Braeden: I was at the University of Montana on a track scholarship. To make money, I worked in the lumber mill at night from six to two in the morning pulling lumber on a green train. Slept an average of about four to five hours a night. The first lecture, eight in the morning, track and field at one, back to work.
So a fellow student came up and said, “Do you want to do a river trip on the River of No Return in Idaho?” I said, “What the hell is that?” He says, “Well, it’s the River of No Return, the Salmon River, and we may not return.” [laugh] I said, “What’s the upshot?” He says, “We’ll do a documentary and then we go to California.” I said, “I’m in.”
Anything to get out of the cold of Montana, you know. I’d escaped it from Germany, so the first year in Montana, it was very cold in the winter. So that’s when we embarked upon the trip. We went up and down and made a documentary and that was shown in L.A. in 1960, Tavis. It’s a hell of a long time ago when I was really young and restless [laugh].
Tavis: So that’s how you actually got to L.A. I’m jumping around here. Upon arriving in L.A., you had some advice from a just brilliant actor and I’m glad that you didn’t take his advice. But when Marlon Brando tells you maybe acting isn’t what you want to do…
Braeden: No, it’s not because of that. He just said — we had lot of discussions about German history, about the racial situation in America, about the treatment of Native Americans. He said, “You’re too interested in other things. I mean, acting is too boring.” I said, “How wrong you are. If you were a German, French or English, then you would now do Macbeth or Richard III or whatever on Broadway.”
What happens, I think, in this town for a lot of actors is they get stuck in this movie star syndrome and that makes you cynical. It just is too limiting and you need to be out in touch with the audience with people who watch your films.
I said, “You’re the most influential actor of our generation, if not of any generation, and you’re a leading example for all of us and you should be on Broadway right now doing Hamlet or Macbeth or whatever instead of sitting here in Mulholland in a big mansion and contemplating your navel.”
Tavis: For all these years, all these decades now, how have you fought the cynicism?
Braeden: Good question. Because of what I do on “The Young and the Restless”, we have public appearances everywhere in North America and Canada. I’ve learned that the essence of what we do is to entertain. In the 60s whilst guest starring on more shows than probably any other actor, I became cynical myself and devoid of a meaning, of a feeling of contributing something.
When I did my first public appearances, I realized, my God, what I do makes a difference in peoples’ lives, and that’s gratifying. And that is really the raison d’être for all of us, for you, all of this in this entertainment business. But actors who do nighttime television or film don’t go out often enough. They don’t realize that they influence so many lives, fundamentally influence them.
Tavis: You do, though, draw a distinction between what you do and who you are, do you not?
Tavis: And what’s that distinction between what you do and who you are?
Braeden: To be frank with you, I’ve always had a somewhat cynical attitude towards what we do. I love it. I do it as best I can, but there’s always a kind of a cynicism and a kind of intellectual distance from it. So when they say cut, it’s the end of the day, I forget about it completely unless I did a scene somewhat badly. Then I think about it, wish I could do it again.
And beyond then, I have a very private life. Read a great deal, I’m interested in a lot of things other than the business, mostly politics and history and a lot of sports. That saves me. Sports is what has saved me always in my life.
Tavis: I saw you with our friend, Stephen A. Smith on ESPN the other day.
Braeden: That’s right.
Tavis: That was a great conversation.
Braeden: Thank you.
Tavis: I think a lot of people who don’t know that part of you were surprised. Like why is Victor Newman, why is Eric Braeden, on ESPN? But you’re a big sports enthusiast.
Braeden: I love sports. Love American football, love basketball, love track and field and love boxing. Feel enormous respect. I used to box at 70th and Hoover and 108th and Broadway. 70th and Hoover doesn’t exist anymore, but 108th and Broadway does.
Tavis: Still does, yeah.
Braeden: I must say, some of the most fundamental lessons I’ve learned in those two gyms and the warmth of old fighters is enormous.
Tavis: You can’t set me up like this and think I’m not going to follow you in. So some of the lessons learned in the gym include one or two?
Braeden: Let me put it this way. Let me juxtapose it with those people who have not been in the ring, who have not been in the sports, who have never gotten their ass kicked, and we have someone like that right now in the White House [laugh]. You know, born with a silver spoon in his mouth and mouthing off because he was never checked. He was never checked.
Tavis: Never got chin checked, yeah.
Braeden: When you get in the ring, you’re checked. Your heart goes like this. As Henry Davis, my old coach, used to say, “It’s like walking through fire”, and it is. And I think men need to be checked. Look at Hitler. He was never checked. Some political leaders were never checked. Mitch McConnell pronouncing to the world that he would not give an inch to Obama.
When you do sports, you learn respect for other human beings of all races, of all ethnic backgrounds, of all religions, because they can all check you,. I don’t care who they are. So the notion of Germany, for example, of Hitler Germany, of an Arian race, such [bleep], unmitigated [bleep]. Excuse me.
Tavis: Let me ask, since you went there. It is impossible to know anything about your story, much less to read this wonderful text and not come to terms with what it has meant for you even all these years later to have been when and where you were. Tell me about the role that that particular factor has played in your journey.
Braeden: I was born in 1941 in the midst of the bombs that they began to throw in Germany. My town, Kiel, near the Baltic Sea, was 96% destroyed and they threw approximately 500,000 bombs over the town alone. But after the war, you grew up with simply the task of rebuilding the country that you were born in. And you didn’t deal with the horrors of the Nazi regime until much later. In my case, until 1961.
I saw a documentary in an old movie theater on Beverly Drive on Wilshire Boulevard. The movie was called “Mein Kampf”. I thought, oh, that sounds — I was real homesick. I thought, “Hmm, let me see what that is all about.”
In Germany in the 50s — I left in ’59 — we had not heard anything really in detail about Hitler or his horrors. That film was a documentary film, Swedish documentary, and I must say arguably the most epiphanous moment in my life which then aroused an enormous curiosity about politics and history.
I then subsequently in a vain attempt to, I guess, make up for the sentence committed by the fathers, played for a Jewish team with a Star of David on the shirt, and during the week, I played Nazis, Rat Patrol and Combat and what have you.
Just to show that I was not part of that, I was not synonymous with that time, I would say that most members of my generation are very angered by the fact when they come to America that there’s a constant, immediate blithe identification of German/Nazi. I resent that enormously. Germans are the largest ethnic group in America, the largest. Did you know that?
Tavis: I did not.
Braeden: The largest ethnic group in America that have contributed enormously and fundamentally and substantially to what is America. Yet we’re oft measured by that 12-year period run by that nut case from Austria.
Tavis: Yeah, I hear you. What’s fascinating about that is that I’ve been to, if I may, I’ve been to a few places in my life where I could feel that burden. It was almost palpable when you walk through the streets. And my very first trip to Germany — I’ve since felt less and less of that. I’ve gone a few times over the years.
But on my very first trip, I could almost feel the burden that the people still bore. The same was true for years when I went to Memphis, that city where King was assassinated. You could almost feel — again, it was palpable. You could feel the burden that the people felt that this is the city in which Dr. King was assassinated.
I’ve heard people say the same thing about Dallas for years after the assassination of JFK. So what do you say to those persons who still, for whatever reason, feel that sort of burden, that sort of weight?
Braeden: Go to Germany, talk to Germans. It’s a modern country. It’s the only country in the world that has really dealt with its past sins. No country has done that more than Germany. They must get credit for that, and they have. By the way, Memphis. I remember meeting B. B. King on Beale Street. Is that what it’s called?
Tavis: Beale Street, absolutely.
Braeden: Beale Street. I’ll never forget it.
Tavis: It’s hard to forget [laugh].
Braeden: It’s hard to forget, exactly.
Tavis: If you remember. You take my point, though [laugh].
Braeden: That’s right. I mean, modern Germany is an absolutely intricate part, a leading part, of the modern Europe. Out of that war came something with a silver lining with the European Union, although it is being stretched enormously at the moment by the influx of refugees from the Middle East who, as far as I’m concerned, came in as a result of the Bush invasion in Iraq.
The consequences of that have not been fully understood by most people. Most people have no understanding of history. You need to understand history fully. You need to go back to 1915 and the Sykes-Picot Treaty, the dibby dab of the Middle East between Great Britain and France, arbitrarily.
Then in 1953, we had a Democrat-elected President of Iran called Mosaddegh. Democrat-elected, he was summarily dismissed by the CIA and British Intelligence so as to allow us to have unimpeded access to oil. We installed the Shah who in turn brought about Khomeini.
So the west has an enormous amount to do with the mess in the Middle East and that was exacerbated by the invasion of Iraq where we fundamentally disturbed the geopolitical balance that had been created where Iraq had been a natural enemy of Iran. By removing Saddam Hussein, we allowed the Shiites to consider the majority.
So now we have Iran and Iraq as allies and we created 300,000 Sunni terrorists overnight by dismembering — Bremer did that and Wolfowitz — – by dismembering Saddam Hussein’s Sunni army. They joined Al Qaeda, they joined ISIS. So we need to remember who was involved in the mess that right now Europe is suffering from with the influx of refugees.
Tavis: I’m glad you brought that full circle and it raises this issue for me in part because some of my viewers already know this, of course. It became such a huge story just a week or so ago. I got embroiled in this when I appeared on Meet the Press.
A couple of weeks ago, our friend Chuck Todd, and it was the weekend where President Trump had made this statement in an interview with Bill O’Reilly about Russia and the U.S. This is the conversation where he says, “What do you think? We’re so innocent?” The U.S., you think we’re so innocent?
So they jumped all over him for making this ugly comparison between Russia and the U.S. My point on that was basically the point I hear you making on about a different set of facts here. But my point was that, on that one issue, Donald Trump is right.
I quoted my grandmother who said to me all the time that a broken clock is right twice a day. And when he says that we have not been innocent, that we’ve not been so perfect, he was right specifically and singularly about that point. Now I’m not talking about making a comparison to Russia…
Braeden: I understand.
Tavis: But he was right about that. That’s the point you’re making now that we’ve not always been perfect.
Braeden: I understand and we have to, in our tendency to be righteous that includes Great Britain and America, France, the victorious allies in the Second World War. There’s a sense of righteousness that came about as a result of that war, rightfully so.
But we have forgotten that we’ve committed our own sins. You know, when you read “The Best and the Brightest” in regard to Vietnam, a huge mistake based on a notion perpetrated by the best and the brightest who were intellectuals, George McBundies, etc., and the MacNamaras.
Tavis: Who later apologized.
Braeden: Who later apologized. It’s extraordinary. “The Fog of War”, he apologized. I respect him greatly for that. But it was based on the notion of the domino theory. One country falls, all the others will fall. Underestimating the enormous drive in people to be nationalistic. Nationalism in Vietnam was far more important than being a communist ally of China. They hated the Chinese.
We don’t understand enough about the history. I don’t understand what happened to their think tanks that they don’t research a little bit and realize that the notion of wanting your own nation, being proud of it, is far stronger than an ism, in this case, communism, for example.
But, you know, America is a country who did so much damned much to this world. All the institutions, the United Nations, came out of the League of Nations. All that was given an impetus by the United States of America. Let’s not forget that.
Tavis: I know we’re a great country. There’s no doubt about it. I just think a true patriot like you — I think a true patriot doesn’t excuse the sins of its own country. And I think by confronting that history and that reality, it makes you a stronger country, which leads me to ask this. I want to circle back to this book in a second.
What it leads me to ask is what you think the role of the artist ought to be in this critical moment? Clearly, people watching this program tonight see that you are much more than just Victor Newman on Y&R and most other actors in this town have more to them than meets the eye as well. But what is the role of the artist in this critical moment in our country?
Braeden: We need to speak from the heart. We need to not engage in a conversation in which we don’t express what we really feel in the heart. In other words, if we circumscribe it and are careful, then we are doing an enormous disservice to the people that we play to. Yeah, I think we need to speak out against what we consider an obvious injustice or huge mistake.
You know, where I fault the Democratic Party is for not pointing out enough. The Democrats were responsible for women’s suffrage, for the Civil Rights Act, for social security, for Medicare, for all the social agendas that we all profit from now.
I would like to ask many of the right wingers how many of your parents are receiving social security? How many of you are receiving Medicare? Would you like that to go away? Of course not. It’s [bleep]. So the notion of doing away with government, government needs to be restrained and constrained, no question. But it does a lot of good.
Tavis: There’s a legitimate role for it to play.
Braeden: Look at Obama’s bailing out of the auto industry. That, I must say, I wish Hillary couldn’t have done more of to remind people that Obama bailed out a lot of workers in the Midwest by bailing out the auto industry. And we have been paid back many times, many fold.
Tavis: There are others in this town come to mind who not only considered, but indeed ran for office, some successfully. Ronald Reagan comes to mind, Arnold Schwarzenegger comes to mind. There are others. Do you ever consider? Have you ever considered giving up Victor Newman to run for office, since you are so connected and passionate about these issues?
Braeden: I love California. I love America. No, not any more at this stage in my life, I don’t think. But talking about Ronald Reagan, you would think that I would disagree with him as far as domestic policies were concerned. I did, but he and Gorbachev are the two most important people in the second half of the 20th century.
And in this book, I give a speech for Gorbachev. They prevented an almost certain Third World War, which would have been so cataclysmic that you and I might not have been talking here now. I give Ronald Reagan huge credit for that. I love him for that.
Tavis: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Braeden: But that was one thing. But his willingness to initiate and push on with Gorbachev, they met in Reykjavík in Iceland. They met in Geneva. And that was the side of Ronald Reagan that I appreciate enormously and deeply. And only he could have done that. Only he as an arch capitalist could have done that and met with Gorbachev.
Tavis: Y&R, I was surprised to learn, started out really as just a three-month stint for you. How do you take three months and turn it into almost 40 years [laugh]?
Braeden: Most important thing is the change of story lines. There was a moment when my wife, Nikki, on the show, Melody Thomas Scott played beautifully by her all these years, asked me about my background. This mysterious character, ruthless and a billionaire, she didn’t know anything about him.
So Bill Bell came up with a story line that made me stay. I then explained to my wife that I had been left on the doorsteps of an orphanage at the age of seven. Once I played that scene, I said, “I’m staying.”
It opened up — I’d been playing nothing but bad guys bored to tears with it. was too humanizing. Russian bad guys, German bad guys, every bad guy imaginable. And this opened a whole array of possibilities and I’ve been there ever since.
Tavis: Y&R has outlasted so many of the other daytime soaps.
Tavis: To what do you attribute that enduring legacy?
Braeden: If I knew that, Tavis, [laugh] I would bottle it and create another one. You know what I’m saying?
Tavis: I’d say Victor Newman has something to do with it, yeah.
Braeden: Well, I don’t know. I’m very skeptical about that always. Once actors believe that, without them, something won’t go on, you’re in trouble, big trouble.
Tavis: What do you hope for fans Victor Newman’s enduring legacy is?
Braeden: I don’t know that. I can only talk about a personal legacy. I hope to be in it for a while longer, many more years, another 37 years. You and I would be on crutches.
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Braeden: And it has given me an opportunity to support my family, to give them a great life, to put my son, Christian Gudegast, through school. He is now directing a film that he wrote called “Den of Thieves” with 50 Cent, O’Shea Jackson and Gerard Butler. Called “Den of Thieves”. I’m so proud of him. You have no idea.
Tavis: I get an idea now [laugh]. I didn’t get it before, but I get it now [laugh].
Braeden: Exactly, yep.
Tavis: The book is called “I’ll Be Damned: How My Young and Restless Life Led Me to America’s #1 Daytime Drama”. I told my staff when we confirmed that Mr. Braeden would be back on the show that we’ll get into some of the book stuff.
But in the times that we live, I can assure you knowing him as long and as well as I do that there were so many other things that were going to come up in this conversation tonight that are timely, given the state of this country and the state of the world. So he did not disappoint.
So I hope that you’ll get the book and read it for yourself because there’s so much stuff that I couldn’t even get to tonight. But it’s a good read and it’s climbing with a bullet, as they say. Always honored to have you here, sir.
Braeden: Same to you.
Tavis: Thank you, my friend.
Braeden: And thank you for your kind words in the back here.
Tavis: Oh, thank you. I’m glad you asked. I blurbed the back of the book. So read my blurb.
Braeden: Tavis, you’re a very important voice.
Tavis: I appreciate you.
Braeden: Especially now.
Tavis: Thank you, sir.
Braeden: All right.
Tavis: That’s our show. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.