TORONTO – Eric Braeden knows how good it feels to be bad.
Since 1980, Braeden has inhabited the role of the cutthroat, cunning and charming Victor Newman on the daytime drama “The Young and The Restless.” His Emmy-winning portrayal of the much-married, villainous business tycoon has cemented his status as a legendary TV bad guy who viewers both cheer for and curse.
“Some deep characteristics within me come through as the character,” said the 75-year-old actor in a phone interview from New York.
“I had a relatively hard life and don’t take any (crap),” Braeden added candidly, using an unprintable expletive. “But I’m very friendly, I’m very open, I love meeting people.”
In his new memoir “I’ll Be Damned” (Dey Street Books), Braeden offers a window into an early life marred by the horrors of war and personal tragedy.
Born Hans Gudegast on April 3, 1941, in the basement of a bomb-stricken hospital in Kiel, Germany, the actor’s father died of a heart attack when he was 12, leaving his widowed mother with four boys to raise on her own.
Braeden earned a partial track and field scholarship to a university in Montana, and later landed a series of stage and screen roles, rubbing shoulders with Hollywood heavyweights along the way.
After finding fame on the “Y&R,” Braeden developed a soft spot for another role linking him to Canada. Several years ago, a tuxedo-clad Braeden starred in commercials for the now-defunct discount retailer Zellers, which served as a playful send-up of his character.
Braeden spoke with The Canadian Press about the ads, working on “Titanic” with Canadian filmmaker James Cameron, and what he loves most about becoming Victor Newman.
CP: You were born in the middle of the Second World War and those events and the legacy of Hitler and the Nazis clearly had a strong impact on you and your family. What was it like for you to revisit that part of your life?
Braeden: I’ve done that very often, obviously, and then you lay it to rest until I wrote the memoir again. It was an event with enormous consequences on many, many levels. It was the most cataclysmic thing that ever happened in our history.
It left many scars on a lot of people, but I think some of it has resulted in better government, a more conscious public — certainly in Germany — and lessons learned from that. Now, we need to make sure that we don’t fall into the same simplistic, fascistic trap that Hitler plunged Germany into.
CP: In your early roles, you were so often typecast as the bad German or the Nazi. How did you not grow frustrated and bitter by that whole experience?
Braeden: Not only Germans — I played heavies of all stripes and all nationalities after a while. It was very emptying. Hence, I became eventually — not at first — but eventually very happy to do “Y&R.” Because it allowed you to play something akin to a human being, you know?
CP: I wanted to ask you about those Zellers commercials that you did many years ago …
Braeden: I loved them! I loved doing those commercials. Whatever happened to that?
CP: Well, Zellers is no longer. They brought in Target to replace Zellers, and Target also disappeared.
Braeden: No kidding? I loved doing them. I thought they were funny.
CP: How did that even come about?
Braeden: I don’t know. I heard one of the guys at the ad agency said: “Oh, that would be perfect for Victor Newman, Eric Braeden, or whatever.” And the (other) guy said: “Who?”
People in the ad business are apparently not aware of what goes on in daytime television. They have no clue. And it’s amazing, it is stunning. If they only knew that I was one of the most recognizable faces in many parts of the world.
There is still a certain stigma attached to daytime, and totally without justification. It’s difficult for me to walk the streets of Toronto, of Saskatoon, Vancouver, or New York or Paris, Istanbul — wherever.
CP: You worked with James Cameron in “Titanic” and it was fascinating to read that you almost didn’t take that part (as German-American business magnate John Jacob Astor).
Braeden: No, exactly. He happened to be a very nice man and a genius — he’s simply a genius. I say that about very few people. As I pointed out in the book, he is one of the most impressive people.
After I finished shooting, I took my wife, my son and his girlfriend down to Rosarito Beach (in Mexico) where they were filming. (Cameron) stopped shooting and he said: “Come here.” And we went to his dressing room and he showed us the first minute or two of the film.
Celine Dion — who I adore — I heard her voice and I got goosebumps sitting there. And I said: “You’re going to make a fortune with this film.” And he said “Really?” And I said: “You’re going to make a fortune.”
CP: Having been in the role of Victor Newman for such a long time, do you still discover new things in your character?
Braeden: I’m grateful to be going to work, which in our business is a rare thing. I’m grateful to be working with the people I’m working with. Something that has always appealed to me is to make something real written by someone else. That has always intrigued me as an actor.
Whether you do Shakespeare, or you do what we do, it’s really the same process: how do you make it real? I’ve never tired of that. And I make good money.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
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