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Living the Life

| By Marshall Fine | From Rob Lowe, July/August 2014
Living the Life

But first, let’s pause a moment and consider just what 50 looks like on Rob Lowe. And the answer is: It looks really, really good. Lowe was always among that rarefied strata in the Hollywood firmament who could be classified as “very handsome men.” He has evolved into a well-chiseled version of the good-looking teen who first made an impression on the public in the early 1980s. While Lowe is a little more finely etched around the eyes, he still could pass for 35—without makeup.

“I’d like to think that, if I had work done—which I haven’t—I wouldn’t be coy about it,” he says. “I’m just a product of good genetics and taking care of myself.”

Lowe, who lives in nearby Montecito, is running late when he walks into the comfortable backroom of Santa Barbara Cigar & Tobacco near sundown on an early April afternoon and greets owner Matthew Lanford warmly. He’s been cheering on younger son Johnowen, a senior who was playing for his high school’s tennis team that afternoon. (Older son Matthew is a student at Duke University.)

It’s a busy time for Lowe, with the imminent release of his second book, Love Life, and work on a variety of TV projects. Having filmed his final episodes for both “Parks and Recreation” and “Californication,” Lowe already has a new show set for NBC, “The Pro,” a sitcom in which he’ll play a former tennis star reduced to working as a country club’s resident pro. 

He’ll be seen this summer in Sex Tape, a comedy from the director of Bad Teacher. There are also a handful of other TV and film projects—shows he’d like to write and produce but not necessarily star in—on his docket, everything from an outrageous animated comedy to a serious drama set in Malibu in the 1970s.

But Lowe escapes from all that for a few minutes, settling into the cigar shop’s backroom. He shucks a jacket, sits back in an overstuffed leather chair, and savors a cigar that will last the next 90 minutes or so.

He came to cigars “when I got sober. That was 1990,” he says. “One of the things you have to do when you stop is you have to find other ways to have fun. You’re looking for new ways to bond, to be social, to be out amongst people. For me, in the early days, that meant playing golf and smoking cigars.”

Lowe attributes an early cigar affinity to time spent with his grand-father, who let the young Rob sit on his lap while he smoked cigars in his native Ohio: “I loved the smell of them, although I recognize now that they were probably terrible cigars. The smell of cigars always reminds me of my grandfather.”

As a novice to fine tobacco, Lowe was schooled by a friend, Doug Fieger, the late leader of the late 1970s pop group The Knack: “He was one of my early friends in sobriety,” Lowe says, “this funny, hilarious guy. He taught me the difference between Romeo y Julietas and Montecristos, the different sizes and gauges. He was my cigar tutor.”

When Lowe started smoking cigars, it was about the thrill of the chase and the pursuit of the illicit—cigars from Cuba.
“Of course, Cubans, always,” Lowe says with a smile. “Because they were illegal. At least that was the reason at the start.
“Cubans are inconsistent. Pound for pound, there are cigars from other places that are every bit as good. But I will say: There is nothing like a Cuban that’s been well-kept. Really, I think if the embargo ended, so would the hype. That’s part of the mystique—it’s something that’s hard to get. That’s part of the appeal.”

He has, by his count, five humidors that are “legitimately dedicated” to fine cigars—“not counting little ones and ones for travel.” People who consider Lowe hard to buy for inevitably go for cigars and humidors.  “Between my birthday and Christmas, I get enough gifted to me to get me through the year,” he says. “I fantasize about having a mini walk-in humidor, about the size of a phone booth.

“This is like my version of wine culture. I find it deadly dull when people talk about wines, because I can’t participate. But this is fascinating to me. It’s funny—I used to laugh at some of the reviews in Cigar Aficionado, the way they described the different flavor notes. I thought it was silly. But the more I smoke, the more I realize how right they are. You need experience to understand when a cigar has a big finish or a mild finish, things like that. Now I know what that means. My palate is getting better.”

Lowe likes his cigars slightly larger. “I like a robusto-size gauge—maybe a double corona or even a double robusto. I like the look of the smaller ones that President Kennedy smoked, when I was researching to play him in ‘Killing Kennedy.’ But those smaller gauges burn a little hot for me.

“I remember going to see Dr. Strangelove a while back and there was Sterling Hayden, playing General Ripper, smoking cigar after cigar. I like cigars, but wow.”

Lowe’s career has had its ups and downs; his current upswing is based on the variety of work he’s done in the past decade. His new show, “The Pro,” will offer Lowe a starring role in a network comedy, after a decade of being everyone’s favorite second-banana. “I’ve been a gun for hire for the last 10 years,” he says.

And a popular hired gun, at that. For a while, Lowe had the distinction of portraying recurring characters on three different TV series at the same time. He played a strait-laced California senator married to Calista Flockhart on ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters” for four seasons. Even as he was wrapping up that show, he was already launched as a new character on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” an arc that lasted longer than originally intended.

“I was supposed to be on for four weeks—and I stayed for four years,” he says of his character, Chris Traeger, a state auditor who was sent to the small town of Pawnee, Indiana, to administer its financial crisis and wound up staying on as its resolutely optimistic city manager.

Lowe somehow found time to also film several episodes of the Showtime comedy, “Californication.” His character, Eddie Nero, was a gonzo movie star interested in starring in a movie of a book by the show’s central character, writer Hank Moody (David Duchovny). The Nero character, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Brad Pitt, wanted to take each of his movie roles to an extreme, which gave Lowe some of the raunchiest dialogue of his career.

“That was the most fun I’ve ever had acting, without a doubt,” he says. “You can’t get three more different shows than those. When I travel the world, even though I know the shows appeal to very different groups of people, I’m still amazed. The people who talk to me about ‘Brothers & Sisters’ have probably never seen me as Eddie Nero.”

Lowe has spent more than two-thirds of his life as a famous face—at various points a movie and TV star, Broadway and West End actor and, yes, celebrity punchline for personal escapades that happened before he was 25. But Lowe keeps finding ways to reinvent himself.

Launched as a teen, he came of age as part of the so-called “Brat Pack” of young actors of the mid-to-late 1980s (a group that included Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and several others). He arrived as a leading man, capable of playing drama or comedy, and rode a series of popular films (St. Elmo’s Fire, The Hotel New Hampshire, About Last Night) to headliner status.

But a 1988 scandal involving a sex tape (one of the first such self-produced celebrity videos) sent his stock tumbling, as did a much-maligned musical number he performed with an actress portraying Snow White during the 1989 Oscar show.

Lowe went into rehab for his drinking in 1990—and then put himself back to work doing serious roles on television: a deaf and mute character in the miniseries of Stephen King’s The Stand, a challenging (and well-reviewed) role in a PBS version of Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer.”

Yet his biggest revival in the 1990s came when he turned to comedy. He hosted “Saturday Night Live” and surprised people by earning laughs opposite the late Chris Farley in Tommy Boy before working with Mike Myers on Wayne’s World.

“When he showed up in Wayne’s World, it was, like ‘Wow—Rob Lowe is funny’,” recalls Cameron Diaz, a friend of Lowe’s. “It’s because he plays it straight. Even when he’s doing something broad, he’s putting something out there that forces you to pay attention. There’s a craft to it; he’s sneaky and subtle about it.”

Still, “The Pro” is the first chance Lowe has had in a while to be the star of a comedy—on television. Movies are another story. While he pops up as the unexpected comedy twist in a number of films, it’s been a while since a movie comedy was built around him.

“Maybe the day will come when I’ll anchor a big comedy,” he says. “But there’s something great about being called out of the bullpen in the ninth inning. You get your strikes and you go home. Plus I’m so busy with television that people have this sense that I’m unavailable. But I think that’s changing.”

Lowe’s friendship with Mike Myers led to his being cast in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, where Myers had Lowe do his impression of actor Robert Wagner. Lowe played Wagner’s character (No. 2, henchman to villain Dr. Evil) in a time-travel plot in which Powers went back in time to battle a younger Dr. Evil, with Lowe as the younger No. 2. Myers also led Lowe to seriously consider writing a memoir, after listening to Lowe talk about his early exploits in Hollywood.

“He was telling me for years that I should write a book,” Lowe says. “He said, ‘This could be your version of The Moon’s a Balloon (David Niven’s witty, well-regarded memoir of his early years in film).’ That was flattering, but I didn’t take it seriously.

“Then I wrote the foreword for a friend’s book. It was a coffee-table book of black-and-white photos of Malibu. And it was pouring out of me. I realized that I had so much to say and that I was going to write that book.”

The book, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, received strong reviews when it was published in 2011. Lowe was particularly impressive writing about his teen years as a child of divorce in Malibu, where his mother eventually moved Lowe and his siblings from Ohio after Lowe’s parents divorced. Lowe wound up living on the same street with a group of kids of the same age: brothers Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, brothers Chris and Sean Penn—children of show business with acting and filmmaking ambitions of their own.

Lowe spent his teen years making backyard movies with his pals on a home-movie camera, even as he was riding buses from Malibu to Hollywood, auditioning for any role he could. As he notes in that book, the most attention he received at Santa Monica High School came from bullies, impugning his manhood for wanting to be an actor: “I wasn’t cool until I was famous,” he notes.

As for the pals he hung out with—and started his career with—Lowe has fond memories and warm feelings when they get together. That doesn’t happen very often, given the vagaries of show-business schedules.

“Hey, those guys are my brothers,” Lowe says. “We stormed the beaches together. But between not living in Los Angeles, being sober, raising my kids and working as much as I do—which seems like it’s been nonstop since 1999 or so—we rarely cross paths. I ran into Ralph Macchio and Matt Dillon recently and it was like old times; Demi came to my 50th birthday party. And every once in a while I’ll talk to Charlie.”

“He was always in the dead center of the action, the scene,” says longtime friend Robert Downey Jr. “Now he commutes from a safe distance and does it in doses. I mean, we see each other a bunch but, suffice to say, we’re not the last ones to leave a party anymore.”

Lowe has been sober for a quarter-century. But he still has affectionate words for Sheen and his notorious partying persona.
“I love him, even though he hates sobriety,” Lowe says with a smile. “We spar over all kinds of things. There’s no funnier, smarter, more enjoyable raconteur than Charlie. I love him when he rants about why people in AA are idiots. I admire him living the life of his choosing. That’s really what my second book is about: living the life that you choose.”

As he was writing his first book, Lowe was aware that people would be eagerly scanning the pages for dish on his various romances, particularly details about the sex-tape scandal (which grew out of some late-night partying at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta). But Lowe also knew what he didn’t want to say about those things.

“I just finished reading the book by Donald Fagen (one of the leaders of rock legend Steely Dan) and what he doesn’t say is as important as what he does,” Lowe observes. “I take the audience seriously. People have busy, important lives. So to ask people to spend money to read a book, you better fucking deliver. The question was: How do you give them what they want and still be true to what you want to say and do it authentically?

“As I wrote, I gained confidence in my storytelling. I was so conscious of not wanting to bore people that it could stand in the way of flights of fancy I wanted to go on. I needed to grant myself more leniency in that direction.”

While Lowe talks about some of the women with whom he was involved—Demi Moore and Nastassja Kinski, among others—he offers few details, spending far more time talking about how his wife Sheryl changed his life. As for the events in Atlanta, he offers a bare-bones account, expressing chagrin without getting into details.

“There were no pull quotes in that book—and that was by design,” he says. “I remember when Andre Agassi wrote his book. By the time it came out, the only thing anybody knew about it was that he’d admitted in the book that he once smoked crack. The one pull-quote. So I was not going to give anybody the ammunition.”

Still, Lowe has enough of a sense of humor about his storied past to star in the raunchy comedy Sex Tape. The film is about a married couple (Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz) whose self-recorded sexual athletics accidentally go viral. Lowe plays Diaz’s squeaky clean boss, who reveals an unexpected side.

“Yeah, I’m the comedy secret weapon,” Lowe jokes. Diaz says there’s more than a little truth to Lowe’s self-assessment. “He’s honestly hilarious,” Diaz says. “He has this ability to play something where you think you know what it’s going to be—and then he takes a left turn that makes it so much more enjoyable. He gives this character this shading that’s so weird and creepy—but it’s subtle so you don’t see it coming.”

More than a quarter-century after those events lit up the headlines, Lowe recognizes how much bigger the same story would be if it happened today, because of the pervasive influence and reach of the Internet.

“If it happened now, a lot more people would have seen that tape,” he says. “But there was no Internet then. Now, every teenager in America is taking pictures of his genitals and sending them to his girlfriend. The technology exists. The world is the world.”

Having told the story of his career—including his late 1990s resurgence on “The West Wing” that led to two short-lived series, “The Lyons Den” and “Dr. Vegas”—in the first book, Lowe wondered what he had left to say in a second volume. For Love Life (the title should be read as a command, rather than a noun), Lowe decided to use events in his life and career as jumping-off points for essays on less plot-driven topics: his feelings as he got his older son ready for college; his thoughts about the way his 20-plus-year marriage has shaped him and his career; and memories about what it felt like to spend what seemed like a fantasy evening at the Playboy mansion in his single days.

“For the first [book], it was clear what it had to be—the framework was there,” he says. “With this one, the question was: Is it literally just essays? Or can we weave a theme through it? If you read it from beginning to end, it’s a whole experience. But that’s hard to do with an essay book. I know what people want. I’m in this business because I’m a fan. I’m an Ohio kid who loved movies. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Notes Downey, “Rob was always resourceful—and he understood the fickleness of fame. He was always unafraid to get out in front of a cause, when a bunch of Gen Xers were flailing in their own consumption.”

Diaz thinks of Lowe as one of the most grounded actors she’s ever worked with. That’s one of the secrets to longevity in a business obsessed with what’s new and what’s next, she says.

“What Rob has is a lot of gratitude, which is a key to longevity,” she says. “He knows how hard you have to work in this business. He’s not sitting back to enjoy the ride. For 30 years, he’s worked for it. No matter how attractive he is and how desirable, he works. He’s a professional and he has something to contribute.”

Lowe attributes a portion of that work ethic and gratitude to his Midwestern roots. He lived in Ohio until his mother moved the family to Malibu, and the influence remains.

“People do not understand my obsession with the Waffle House,” he says with a laugh, speaking fondly of the chain of restaurants known for simple fare. “People like it for its kitsch. I like the food. My people weren’t Spago people; my people are Waffle House people.”

While the stereotype about physical beauty is that a pretty surface usually masks a lack of depth, Diaz says Lowe consistently proves just the opposite, citing his range as an actor: from the idealistic and articulate speechwriter Sam Seaborn on “The West Wing” to the outrageous Eddie Nero to the pathologically cheerful Chris Traeger to the tight-faced plastic surgeon-to-the-stars he played in last year’s Behind the Candelabra.

“The way he looks has never stopped him—because those judgments and shortcomings are society’s, not his,” Diaz says. “In a way, it’s allowed Rob to sneak in under the radar. It’s served him well because he’s sustained it for a long time.

“I went to his 50th birthday party—I can’t believe he’s 50—and he’s such a great example to people that, if you take care of yourself and do what you love and do it from the right place, you can thrive. That’s what I see him doing: what he loves.”
For Lowe, 50 was a milestone, and not the hurdle that turning 40 seemed to be.

“The lead-up to 40 was harder,” he says. “I can remember my parents turning 40 and thinking: ‘Wow, that’s old.’ And yet I remember my father turning 50, and it seems like yesterday.

“I’m at such a busy, fun and interesting point in my life that it takes the sting out of it. I’m at a strong place in my life and that makes a major birthday feel substantial, not scary. But it’s a gauntlet. You’re 50—what are you going to do about it? My 50 doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s. The fun of defining what 50 means is sort of the theme of the new book: how to design your own life.”

Lowe tries to stay plugged in, whether to popular culture and current technology. His sons help him in that regard: “They’re instrumental in making life a living, organic experience for me. It’s not about being hip. But either you participate in society or you are standing outside the culture. Actors, artists, writers—we don’t have the luxury of standing outside. But being current in an age-appropriate way is tough; it’s a beautiful thing when you see people pull it off. Look at someone like Quincy Jones or Lorne Michaels; it’s a cool thing and they do it well.

“Maybe I should write about being 50. Because, as you get older, things literally begin to shut down and your world starts to close down, just when you want it to open up. It should be the exact inverse. The key in the middle of life is to become more and more curious about life, instead of less. Because it’s a slippery slope: If you don’t engage, the next thing you know, you’re the guy saying, ‘Get off my lawn!’ ”

So Lowe is marching happily into the future. He has plenty of acting work lined up, and possesses an urge to spend an increasing amount of time behind the camera, as a producer and a writer.

“I love writing,” he says. “I’ve written a number of screenplays that were well-received but never got made. No one’s going to let me direct a movie unless it’s something I wrote. Of course, then you go through the demoralizing Bataan Death March to get it financed—and you end up showing it at some fancy-pants film festival? That’s not interesting to me.”

His plate is full, but there’s always room for something else, Lowe admits, if the quality is there. He wants to challenge himself but also recognizes that there’s an audience to consider in the equation.

“I knew when I started that I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder,” he says. “Anybody can get lucky once. Lasting is something else. I’m at the point where people say to me, ‘I grew up with you.’ And it’s important to me when I meet them to thank them for that.”

Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at his website, Follow him on Twitter @hollywoodnfine.


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