Eric Braeden: An Astonishing Man
By: Jim Longworth
When I was a little boy, I dreamed of becoming a great athlete, a rugged cowboy, or a famous actor. None of those dreams came true for me, but all of them did for one little boy who grew up poor in war-torn Nazi Germany. His is a remarkable journey which even he is astonished by, thus the title of his new book, “I’ll Be Damned: How My Young and Restless Life Led Me to America’s #1 Daytime Drama.”
For the past 38 years, Eric Braeden (real name Hans Gudegast) has starred as Victor Newman, the iconic, EMMY-winning antagonist of “The Young and the Restless”. He arrived at the fictional Genoa City in 1980, first by way of Bredenbek, Germany (the town from which he took his stage name), then Galveston, Texas; Montana and California. As a young man he was a track and field champion in his native land, then after immigrating to America he took jobs as a ranch hand, a furniture mover, a car valet, a lumber mill worker, and a documentary filmmaker, before his good looks and considerable talent led him to a full time acting career. Like his alter ego on T.V., Eric is a serious man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He is a deep thinker who is passionate about politics and the state of the world around him. He has a wry sense of humor and a strong sense of self, and, above all, he is fiercely devoted to his family. I recently spoke with Eric about a wide range of topics, including his decision to write an autobiography.
JL: Why did you write the book? And Why now?
EB: Several people had prevailed upon me, including my family, to write it down, so finally I succumbed, and it was not as painful as I thought it would be. Not that it was painful, but there’s a point where you just don’t want to talk about yourself. I’m interested in things outside of myself …because a constant preoccupation with oneself leads to nowhere.
JL: Your love of and proficiency in athletics is a common thread that runs through the book. What does the competition of sports teach us about life?
EB: Essentially what it teaches you is not to give up. Even if you suffer a loss, you come back and say, “OK, how do I improve what I do?”, and then try it again, and the next time you’ll probably be better. I grew up competing in discus, shot put and javelin, and what’s so great about track and field is that it is qualitatively measurable. There’s no bull shit about it. And you never give up, and that has become a guiding principle in my life. I don’t take “No” for an answer. I don’t listen to people who say I can’t do something. I say, “Oh really? I’ll show you”.
JL: That defiant spirit manifested itself in 1966 when you landed the role of a Nazi officer in “The Rat Patrol”. The producers wanted you to play the character in stereotypical fashion, but you refused because you wanted him to be a three dimensional human being. Did it occur to you that ABC might have fired you for not taking “No” for an answer?
EB: I didn’t care. If I know that I’m right about something, then I don’t care. I was not insisting on something that was morally wrong. I just wanted it to be a truer representation of what it meant for a young German to be in the Africa corps for heaven’s sake. There are so many stereotypes about Germans, about Russians, about Americans, and those stereotypes are dangerous.
JL: Is it true that while filming “Rat Patrol”, you actually showed up in court one day wearing your Nazi uniform to defend against a speeding ticket?
EB: You know (laughs) I hate to say it, but yes I did. We were shooting at MGM and I had to rush to court, but there was no time to change. So I walked in with my hat under my arm and the marshals had a big grin on their faces, and I apologized for the uniform. (during the hearing) I asked the officer, ”When did you have your speedometer calibrated last?”, and he couldn’t answer. I won the case.
JL: How could you not? (both laugh). In 1970 you had a chance to break out of playing German soldiers, when Universal offered you the starring role in the Sci-Fi classic, “Colossus: the Forbin Project”. But the studio would only hire you if you took an Americanized name, so Hans Gudegast became Eric Braeden. Did you ever regret changing your name?
EB: To be honest with you, at first, almost every day, but the name Braeden gave me an emotional tie to the village I came from. Still, it was a difficult thing, no two ways about that.
JL: Does anyone still call you Hans?
EB: Only close friends. It’s an extraordinary separation. Anyone who knows me as Eric, and calls me Hans, I say, “No, no, you don’t have that privilege, don’t do that”. And vice versa.
JL: After “Colossus”, you were in demand as a guest star on a myriad of TV dramas, then in 1980 you were hired for Y&R.
EB: When I made the choice to do a soap. A lot of actors said, “You’re doing what?”, as if I had contracted some type of disease (laughs). A lot of those people have not been heard from since, but I’m still working. I’m still standing.
JL: I heard that you never watch yourself after an episode’s been shot.
EB: Doing a film you have all of the time in the world, big deal. Doing night time television, big deal. But doing what we do is a harder medium than any in Hollywood. About a month ago I had to learn 74 pages of dialogue in one day. It’s hard work under very limiting circumstances and I have great respect for our production company, but I’m hard put to watch something that I was a part of. No, it’s on to the next thing.
JL: Speaking of the next thing, you are quite fervent in your beliefs about helping others. One way to do that is by holding elected office. Your Father once served as Mayor, so why haven’t you run for Governor or Congress?
EB: (laughs) Good question, but I would have pissed off too many people. I say what is on my mind, and in that sense, I am not politically correct. Has it occurred to me? Vaguely. Am I interested in politics? Passionately, because we all need to be engaged, otherwise they (career politicians) run roughshod.
JL: Too bad you won’t run, because all of your fans would vote for you. By the way, I know you receive a lot of fan mail from women. Have any of them ever expressed a desire to know you in a carnal way?
EB: (laughs) Yeah, of course ! Why not? And I’m very grateful to them.
JL: Eric, the title of your book isn’t so much one of profanity as it is one of astonishment, especially considering the journey you’ve made and where you ended up. Right?
EB: Absolutely. Totally astonishment.
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).