Eric Braeden is Channeling Hamlet:
The Patriarch of Daytime Television Talks About His Fascinating Life
With his chiseled features and signature facial hair, Eric Braeden cuts a debonair figure. Perhaps you’ve been watching him as the ruthless (yet beloved) villain Victor Newman on The Young and the Restless, or you may have simply noticed him gazing out from the daytime magazine covers that line the grocery store check out (he has appeared on over 800 magazine covers, more than double the amount of any actor in daytime history). While there is no doubt that Victor Newman has dominated daytime television for nearly four decades, there’s little about the character in common with the man who portrays him. Eric Braeden shares his experiences on The Young and The Restless and so much more in his new memoir, I’ll Be Damned.
In case you were wondering, that slightly affected European accent of his is German. Born in Bredenbeck, Germany as Hans Gudegast in 1941, he came into the world in the midst of chaos during World War II. Once the war ended and Germany went about trying to rebuild, he lived a loving and privileged childhood as the third of four boys until age 12 when his father, the town’s mayor, unexpectedly died. His father’s death was catastrophic—he lost his hero and the family lost all their financial security. He found comfort through sports, specifically track and field, where he excelled.
Once he was old enough to strike out on his own, he immigrated to the United States. He took odd jobs, including work in a mortuary and as a cattle rancher, until he landed at the University of Montana on a track and field scholarship. Fate stepped in when a friend asked him to spend his summer break attempting to be the first to traverse a noted river by explorers Lewis and Clark known as the River of No Return. A documentary film crew captured some of their successful adventure, and they were off to Los Angeles to sell their film. Once he was in Hollywood, he split his time between building a career as an actor and as a professional soccer player, played on the Jewish American soccer club Maccabi Los Angeles for 13 years (and eventually winning the 1973 National Challenge Cup).
Braeden’s breakout role was in the World War II-centered television series The Rat Patrol that aired on ABC from 1966–1968. His portrayal of the show’s Nazi villain Hans Dietrich won over American audiences who were accustomed to viewing German characters as strictly bad guys. In 1970, he started using the stage name Eric Braeden (a nod to his home town) when he took the starring role in the film Colossus: The Forbin Project. Following was a decade of guest appearances on shows including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Wonder Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Gunsmoke. In fact, he contends he appeared in more shows as a guest star than any other actor working in the 1960s and 70s. Due to his rakishly handsome features, he was considered as a replacement to Sean Connery as James Bond. He went on to star in other landmark blockbusters including roles as Dr. Otto Hasslein in Escape from the Planet of the Apes and John Jacob Astor IV in James Cameron’s Titanic.
Eventually, the accolades arrived. In 1989, Braeden was chosen as the only actor on the newly formed German American Advisory Board, which included Dr. Henry Kissinger, Katherine Graham, Alexander Haig, Steffi Graf, and Paul Volcker. In 1998 he won the Daytime Emmy for his portrayal of Victor Newman and received The People Choice Award as “Favorite Actor in a Daytime Drama Series”. In 2007, he earned his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first German actor since Marlene Dietrich to receive that honor. That day he was surrounded by longtime friends including Esther Williams, the comedian Bill Maher, George Kennedy, Jesse Ventura, his castmates from The Young and The Restless, and last but not least, his wife Dale and son Christian.
Braeden sat down with American Senior to discuss his career and rise to his alter ego, Victor Newman, his passion for Shakespeare, and his greatest achievement in life, his son Christian.
American Senior: Reading your memoir, it’s fair to say that your life has been fateful. How did you manage to navigate yourself from a small village in Germany and eventually into Hollywood?
Eric Braeden: Every phase of my life, I must say, probably had a normal amount of trepidation about whether I was going to make it or not. From sports, or genetics, or my upbringing, I’ve always been accompanied by an enormous faith and drive in what I could do. It’s a process of overcoming that fear and acknowledging it. There is always that sense of defiance—I don’t know where I have that from—and also that sense of knowing that I can accomplish it and it comes from sports. That’s why sports are so important.
To become German youth champion in discus, javelin, and shot put with my team, in a country that produces a lot of good athletes, is unusual that it’s almost preposterous to think about. I was a little boy from a village in northern Germany and yet, we had a team that beat all these big towns like Frankfurt and Berlin. From early on it imbued me with a1` sense of being able to conquer that.
American Senior: Early on before your came to the US, you had a wealthy, well-connected girlfriend and you were successful in sports. You could have stayed in Germany and done something impressive with your life. Why did you leave?
Eric Braeden: It was never merely enough for me. Upon reflection, I think from early on I knew I was not made for ordinary, by-the-book bourgeois success. I really didn’t give a damn about that. I always had these dreams of doing larger-than-life things. I think that had to do with growing up in the countryside under very tough circumstances. I needed to get out of the confines of a very provincial life and full of conflict because of my father’s early death. I’m not surprised that I ended up in acting or in some form of expressive art to express my deep feelings of anger, frustration, and questioning. I’ve very much a Hamlet figure. The wonderful thing is I fell into a profession where I could express a lot of that.
American Senior: When you first moved to the US, you mentioned your first job was cutting open cadavers, which, to be honest, is sort of fascinating and gross.
Eric Braeden: Both at the same time.
American Senior: So when you were doing that, were you wondering if you made the right decision to move to the United States.
Eric Braeden: I was 18. I had done all sorts of jobs working in farms in Germany. I thought I’d just go for it.
American Senior: And then you tried to join the Marines. If you had passed that test, you would have likely gone into Vietnam, and then your entire trajectory would have been very different.
Eric Braeden: Yes, that’s true, isn’t it? I grew up in a tough background, fistfights all the time. I grew up in sports, and I was good at it. I thought, “The Marines, that sounds like a hell of an idea,” and I would become a citizen very quickly. That interested me.
American Senior: So you were interested in becoming an American and came to the United States to immigrate here?
Eric Braeden: Yes. As many in my generation, the post-War generation, I was very impressed by American culture. You must remember that after the War, our heroes were Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. My personal hero was Parry O’Brien, who was the most successful shot putter in America at the time and he introduced the Parry O’Brien style of shot putting. I studied his film very carefully to develop a good technique, which obviously helped. And then I read a lot of stories about the American West. There was an enormously successful writer called Karl May who wrote stories of the American West with such attention to detail that he could not have known but he read books by Alexander von Humboldt, who explored the American West. And Karl May read those carefully and then adapted them and wrote wonderful stories about confrontations of cowboys and Indians. I was always fascinated by those [books]. So America had a deep attraction to me. And then I saw Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando where he played Marc Anthony, and I thought “Oh!” And my mother saw Gone With the Wind with Clark Gable at least 13 times. And Elvis Presley loomed large in teenage imaginations because of the very sexy rock n’ roll dancing and all that stuff. And I remember Louis Armstrong more than anyone. He would perform in the 1950s in Kiel and other German cities, and people loved him, loved him! All that had a subliminal effect on me.
American Senior: Then you went to Montana State (now called University of Montana)…
Eric Braeden: I had a girlfriend named Dorothy McBride and through her I met Bob McKinnon and he was a Hemingway type—very bright but also very tough. He had traversed rivers in America and he wanted to go up and down The River of No Return and he asked me to join him. I asked what the upshot would be. He said there was going to be a documentary film with sponsorship by Johnson Motors and Alcore Aluminum and with the documentary film we’d go to California. So I said, “I’m in!” Anything to get out of Montana because Montana was tough for me—after working as a cowboy, I then got a scholarship at the university in track and field but that only paid tuition, so to earn a living I worked in a lumber mill from 6:00 to 2:00 in the morning, and I slept on average about 4 to 5 hours. The first lecture was at 8:00 in the morning.
The River Of No Return is the Salmon River. It’s a river full of rapids. The speed of the water increases exponentially. So you fight against it, you drive at it. The trick is to get through the rapid and not get thrown. The times that I almost died—which was three times—was going against the rapid. The power is enormous.
American Senior: And there was no one around? Did the documentary film crew only meet you at certain points?
Eric Braeden: That camera guy came only on one mile of the river. The other areas were not accessible.
American Senior: Where is the documentary now?
Eric Braeden: At home. It’s called The Riverbusters. Maybe I should post it. It was done on the mile of the river that was the least dangerous part. So we took [the documentary] to Los Angeles, and they showed it on all kinds of television shows in LA. It was a thing to have conquered The River of No Return. LIFE magazine wanted to do a story but they couldn’t because we came back too late. We got $500 each and I stayed in LA. The rest is a long history.
American Senior: Then you met your wife, and you’ve been together for fifty years. That’s the antithesis of Victor Newman, isn’t it?
Eric Braeden: I met her in 1963. I’ve been married to an extraordinarily supportive woman who gave me a wonderful son who I am very proud of, very close to. His birth is arguably the most exciting time in my life. He’s directing a film as we speak that he wrote starring Gerald Butler and the rapper 50 Cent, which will come out in October of November. I’m going to work with him on his film, Den of Thieves, in a small cameo role because he asked me to. He’s a very good writer and he did all this without using any of my connections. His success is more important to me than my own success.
American Senior: Can we discuss your career as a professional soccer player?
Eric Braeden: I won the US championships with the [Los Angeles] Maccabees. They won the US national cup five times and I won it with them the first time in 1973. So I played Nazis during the week, and wore the Star of David on Sundays when I played with the Maccabees.
American Senior: So you played professional soccer while you were cultivating your acting career. What would you define as your big break?
Eric Braeden: My big break was going from Soldier 1 to Soldier 2 and guest starring in Combat! [in 1962]. That was my first big break. I remember other actors and some directors telling me to stay with it; that encouragement was there from early on. That led to other guest star roles including Mission Impossible, where I played a Shakespeare quoting Russian spy who kissed Barbara Bain for the first time and that was in turn seen by George Shaefer in New York, and he wanted me for a play with Geraldine Page, Clarence Williams III and the German actor Curt Jurgens at the Eugene O’Neill theater. So I did that play and I was asked to stay on Broadway but meanwhile I had done the pilot for The Rat Patrol so I had to go back to film The Rat Patrol in the south of Spain.
Then, I did more guest starring roles in almost any other actor in Hollywood in the 60s and 70s, everything from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to Gunsmoke to The F.B.I.
American Senior: You were that guy.
Eric Braeden: Precisely. The bad guy. Then I was doing a film with Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds and an offer came in to do a screen test for Universal Pictures. My wife and I shared a huge flat with Fernando Lamas and Esther Williams, and a call came in that Lou Wasserman, the head of Universal Studios, wanted me for the lead in this film but he wanted me to change my name. Lou Wasserman of German-Jewish background, and he insisted that I change my German name with the argument that no actor with a German name would star in an American film. So I had to chew on that for a while.
American Senior: So do you think that if you didn’t change your name, you would be as successful as you are?
Eric Braeden: Who knows. My wife encouraged me to do it. She had heard my frustration about the German image in American being dictated largely by stereotypical images perpetuated by Hollywood, understandably so but nevertheless. I was proud of my name, proud of where I’m from. Finally we hit upon a name that stems from the village that I grew up in, Bredenbeck.
American Senior: How is it when people confuse you with your character, Victor Newman?
Eric Braeden: People stop me on the street all the time. It goes from the streets of Paris where the arrogant French walk by and suddenly stop, “Hello, Victor! Mon dieu! Ca va?” It’s wonderful to see. Or, when I go to Harlem, “Hey Victor, man, you’re cold as ice!”
American Senior: Victor Newman is someone you’ve lived with for 37 years. Is he another person you know?
Eric Braeden: I never talk about Victor, it doesn’t even come into my head unless I’m working or people come up to me in the street.
American Senior: So you don’t have dreams that you are suddenly Victor?
Eric Braeden: None! None! The only dreams I had for a while was when I did Richard III and Hamlet and Macbeth. There you have so much to remember.
American Senior: You’re referring to the time when you performed fourteen Shakespearean monologues.
Eric Braeden: Yes. The most beautiful, profound language is by Shakespeare. It’s just incredible. What a genius. You really appreciate the genius when you do the plays. [He recites a monologue from Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent…” Then a Hamlet speech.] The language is just extraordinary. And the sad thing about Shakespeare is that only as an actor, or a director, or an academic, do you really, really understand it. The most pessimistic in all of Shakespeare is [he recites the famous soliloquy from Macbeth]:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
American Senior: Why did you decide to write your book now?
Eric Braeden: To be honest with you, I was very reluctant to do it. There are moments when I don’t want to talk about myself at all. I used to always have dreams about just being a carpenter of doing something with my hands, moments that don’t have anything to do with myself. But that’s only momentary. And I wouldn’t be good at it. So why write my book now? Well, a lot of people including my wife and my son, who are very important in my life, asked me to write my story.
American Senior: Victor Newman is known for saying “I’ll be damned,” which became your book’s title. So do you say, “I’ll be damned” all the time?
Eric Braeden: A lot. Yes, and it’s a good title [for the book], because it’s so true. I was just a young boy, just turned 18 when at 6:00 in the morning I saw the Statue of Liberty and the skyline of New York, coming from a village in Germany to the 34th Street docks. And I said, “Wow, to this.”