When you have shared the acting screen with Bette Davis and Marlon Brando (“One of the few people I have ever met who didn’t give a damn what anyone thought”), you would certainly have some fond moments. But as the star of one of the country’s most popular soap operas, seen by hundreds of millions of worldwide viewers, Eric Braeden’s most cherished role might be a surprise.
It is a small drama he plays out often with his 2-year-old granddaughter, Tatiana Marie, who frequently asks “Opa” (German for grandfather) to take her for a car ride.
“She says ‘keys,’ and then I know she wants to sit in the car and play with all the buttons. She gets behind the steering wheel, and I have to go whurrooom, vaddoom-making noises like a car. Then she gets to the back seat, grabs a blanket, says ‘nighty night,’ and pretends to sleep, and I have to pretend to be snoring,” says Braeden.
Tatiana is an appreciative audience. She laughs and squeals.
Braeden, who plays the tycoon Victor Newman on the long-running popular soap series “The Young and the Restless,” is very articulate and quick to answer any questions about the joys of grandparenting.
“Being a grandfather just gives me a feeling of unrestricted, unlimited love. It’s unmitigated joy,” he says.
Oddly enough, this tall, dark, handsome actor with a deeply masculine voice, who is also a well-trained athlete, starts stammering when asked about his attraction as a sex symbol.
“I never…think…about that…stuff,” he says. He pauses. “I don’t know, really….You’ll have to ask someone else about that.”
Braeden and Dale, his college sweetheart wife of more than 40 years, have one child, Christian, a screenwriter.
The actor thinks his love of family can be traced in part to his own hardscrabble childhood in war-torn Germany. He was born Hans Gudegast in Kiel, a small town near Hamburg, and says some of his best memories occurred while his family endured hard times during and after World War II.
After graduation from high school, he decided to come to America, the only member of a family of four brothers to emigrate. He had $50 left over after buying a one-way ticket on an ocean liner.
He worked a series of odd jobs that included a stint as a working cowboy. When he decided brains outlasted brawn, he applied for and won a track scholarship to the University of Montana. There, he and another student filmed their boat ride up and down the Salmon River, known as “The river of no return.”
They were the first ones to ever conquer that river and live to tell about it. The documentary was shown in Los Angeles, and soon thereafter, Braeden embarked upon a career in theater, film and television. His first regular role was as Captain Hans Dietrich on television’s “The Rat Patrol,” where Braeden resisted producer pressure to play the stereotypical German officer.
His first starring movie role in Colossus: The Forbin Project led to his reluctant name change. Studio head Lew Wasserman demanded it.
“Eric is a family name, and Braeden is a village in Germany. Changing my name was one of the most painful decisions I’ve ever made, so I needed to choose a name that I could identify with,” he recalls.
Braeden went on to appear in dozens of pictures before reluctantly signing on for the soap opera in 1980. Since then, he has won numerous awards and accolades for his portrayal of a ruthless tycoon.
Braeden’s career shows he is far from a one-dimensional actor. Concerned about the image of Germany, he has been a tireless promoter of that country- so much so that he was awarded the
Federal Medal of Honor by the president of Germany.
In addition to being the only actor named to the prestigious German-American Advisory Board (other members include Henry Kissinger), Braeden has also been active in supporting the country of Israel.
Braeden has never played a grandfather in films. But some of his most memorable scenes involved family relationships. One of those included veteran character actor George Kennedy. He played Victor Newman’s father, whom Victor had not seen in decades.
Another similar soap opera plot featured Dorothy McGuire playing the mother who had abandoned Newman at the age of 7. He had not seen her for 30 years. But his character was skeptical: Was she his real mother or only after his money?
“I was at first suspicious of her,” he says of his TV character. “But then she told me something only my mother would have known, something like a hole in my sweater or something,” he says.
“There was such a mixture of anger and sadness. I’ll never forget that scene. I can imagine how he (Victor Newman) felt: this was the mother who left me in an orphanage,” he says.
Initially, Braeden thought starring in a soap opera would be too confining, but he has managed to take on other roles such as a small part as John Jacob Astor in the smash hit movie Titanic.
In his everyday life, and despite his fame, Braeden cherishes his privacy, enjoys a strict athletic regimen, extensive reading, close friends, and most of all spending time with his granddaughter, Tatiana. He is fond of Italian food, tequila and dark chocolate.
He views his fame as a mixed blessing, but one that is far more positive than negative.
“It’s mostly a blessing, because invariably people are nice to you. They always have a smile when they see you. I’d say 99 percent of the time I elicit a smile,” he says.
That’s only one percent less recognition than he gets from Tatiana, of course.
Originally published in GRAND Magazine Issue 10 – April/May 2006