Every now and then people say to me, “Hey Sam Tweedle! If you could interview any celebrity in the whole world, who would it be?” Now there are lots of people I would give one of my kidneys to pick the brain of, but people are always astonished when one of the first names I say is Eric Braeden. They respond, “Victor Newman? But…you don’t even watch soap operas!” I guess that people always expect me to go with one of my pop culture obsessions, like a Brady or a Beatle or Bettie Page or Buffy. But it’s true! If I could interview one man it’d be Eric Braeden. Yet, I probably wouldn’t spend that much time asking about his role on The Young and the Restless. People are right. I don’t watch soaps. However Eric Braeden is far more then just a soap actor. In fact, Eric Braden’s career is so dipped in pop culture history that he is a television icon all his own. His list of screen credits on the imdb is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, and the people he has worked with is incredible.
Quite frankly, Eric Braeden is a man with stories to tell. You see, long before he even stepped on a soap opera sound stage, Eric Braeden appeared on over 80 television and film productions playing the villain of the week. With his dark hair, intense stare, and cold and authoritive German accent, Eric Braeden menaced some of pop cultures biggest and most beloved icons of the 1960s and 1970s He was half ladies man, half demon and a whole lotta evil. Every generation needs it’s Edward G. Robinsons, Christopher Lees and Gary Oldmans and in the decade where adventure shows were king, Eric Braeden made an entire career out of playing spies, Nazis, crooks and villains. So come along as we look at the days before Victor Newman and see the darkness Eric Braeden brought to the television screen as:
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
TONIGHT ERIC BRAEDEN SHALL EAT YOUR SOUL:
A LOOK AT THE PRE-SOAP CAREER OF TV’S BLACK KNIGHT
Now despite my general disinterest and ignorance of North America’s soap opera industry, like most people, I did discover Eric Braeden on daytime TV playing multi-millionaire industrialist Victor Newman on the long running CBS soap opera Young and the Restless. Like most stay at home Moms, my mother tuned in every day to watch the daily drama unfold for the residents of Genoa City so The Young and the Restless was a common sight and sound around the house as I was growing up. As my mother watched her show, at age five, I was too young to know, or even care, about what was going on. It was a time to play with my toys or color quietly. However, one fateful afternoon the drama on Y&R actually caught my attention, and chilled my blood in a way that never left me. Victor Newman had some guy imprisoned in his basement! Feeding his captive like a dog from a tray, Victor taunted his prisoner, who was trapped in an isolated cell! Later, as Victor slept, his wife tried to steal a key attached to a chain around his neck, in order to free the prisoner, but was unsuccessful in her attempt! At the time I didn’t know why Victor had locked this guy in the basement, but just the idea that someone was wicked and powerful enough to cage another human being horrified me Weeks passed, and Victor Newman’s prisoner was still locked in that basement! Ah! The slow moving world of the daytime soap! Was he ever going to get out? Was there no stopping Victor Newman? It was through this over the top soap opera plot that I probably first learnt the concept of evil. You see, I was a pretty sheltered and happy little kid, and didn’t get what evil was. I was to young to understand Darth Vader, the Joker was still just a cartoon character to me and the only world I knew was the one in my own back yard, thus I didn’t understand hatred, war, prejudice, tyranny and murder. The fear that Eric Braeden brought to my fragile young mind burned his face in my brain, making his one of the very first celebrities that I recognized this side of KISS and the Muppets. Even at the age of five, I knew the most important thing about understanding Eric Braeden. Eric Braeden was best was when he was being bad.
But long before there was Eric Braeden, there was Hans Gudegast. He would not take the name Eric Braeden until the 1970s, long after his acting career had already began. Born in Kiel, Germany in the middle of the Second World War, Hans came to America at the age of nineteen and worked at a number of unlikely jobs, including a translator, a cowboy and a mill worker before he enrolled in the University of Montana on a track and field scholarship. It was at the University that Hans met another student named Bob McKinnon who wanted to film a documentary about boating both up and down Idaho’s Salmon River, a trek that had never been accomplished by anybody before. He asked Hans to be his partner on the expedition, and the two became the first men in history to make the journey. Calling the documentary The Riverbusters, Hans and McKinnon traveled to Los Angeles to find a distributor for the film where Hans became so enchanted with the bright lights of LA that he never left. Enrolling into the College of Santa Barbara, Hans studied economics and politics, while also playing on a professional soccer team. However, when word got out that German actors were being sought for the film Operation Eichman, a quickie drama about the capture of the famed Nazi that was made to coincide with Eichman’s trial, Hans got himself an agent and was cast in a minor role as a Nazi. Thus began his brand new career of playing villains and evil doers. More German military roles quickly followed on programs such as The Gallant Men, Combat!, The Chrysler Theatre and The Wackiest Ship in the War. But when Hans wasn’t playing Nazis, he was playing a more modern villain. Being the midst of the cold war, Hans Gudegast also fit perfectly into the shoes of another popular stock 1960s villain role – the communist spy, which he played on The Man From UNCLE and Mission Impossible. These high profile programs gained Hans the attention of the casting directors of a brand new WWII adventure series called The Rat Patrol, and in 1966 Hans Gudegast was awarded his first permanent role on a weekly series as the Rat Patrol’s chief adversary, Captain Hans Dietrich.
Focusing on Sgt. Sam Troy and his three man squad in North Africa, viewers watched each week as Troy and his men used guerilla warfare to cause chaos and hardships for Germany’s Afrika Crops, lead by Captain Hans Dietrich. However, while most WWII action/adventure programs portrayed the villains as cold hearted Nazis, Hans Gudegast encouraged the producers to allow him to do something a little bit different, and a little more realistic, with the character of Hans Dietrich. Being a German nationalist, Habs was, and still is, a vocal critic of the collective war guilt put upon Germany during the Second World War, believing that the German people were not all Nazis, and not all of the men in the German army believed Adolph Hitler’s message of hate Thus, instead of the stock Nazis Hans had played before, and arguing that the program was far away from the European battle field and had nothing to do with the holocaust, Hans was able to create a moral and sympathetic villain. Hans Dietrich was driven and temperamental, but had a certain amount of respect for the cleverness of the men who challenged him . He was a man who only fought his foes because they were at war and not out of an insane, unstoppable, cartoonish hatred. As a result of Hans’ three dimensional take on the character, Hans Dietrich became as popular as the members of the Rat Patrol themselves, and became an instant favorite amongst viewers. Unfortunately, as a result of political legislation blaming violence on TV for the violence in America in the 1960s, and not say…oh…that whole Viet Nam War thing, The Rat Patrol was cancelled after three seasons along with many other favorite action/adventure programs of the decade. However, his time on The Rat Patrol was an important part of establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s best villains. Slipping back into the villain of the week on Garrison’s Gorillas and Dayton’s Devils, Rat Patrol creator Tom Gries, who also worked with Hans on Mission: Impossible, cast Braeden in the 1969 western 100 Rifles with Raquel Welch, Burt Reynolds and Jim Brown, once again playing a villainous German military officer. However, 100 Rifles would be the final screen appearance that Klaus Gudegast would ever make.
In 1970 Universal pictures cast Klaus in his first starring role in the sci-fi thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project. There was one catch though. If Hans was to play the potentially high profile role of Dr. Charles Forbin, a scientist who creates a super computer that holds the world hostage with the threat of unleashing a nuclear holocaust, they wanted him to do one thing – change his name. I guess the folks at Universal figured that Hans Gudegast wasn’t a sellable or memorable moniker, and that it wouldn’t look good on the marquee. With much reluctance Hans agreed. Taking the name Eric from a popular family name and Braeden from the name of the Germanic village in which he was raised, Eric Braeden was born! Colossus: The Forbin Project was a minor success, but was not nearly as legendary as Braeden’s next sci-fi project in 1971 when he played the villainous Dr. Otto Hasselien in the cult classic Escape From the Planet of the Apes, the third entry in the Planet of the Apes series. When our ape friends Cornelius and Zira (played by Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter), who aided Charleston Heston in the first film, and possibly two of the most iconic characters in the series, are blasted through time to the past, they must learn to function in a world where the humans are civilized and the apes are the beasts. However, when Otto Hasselien finds out that in the future the apes enslave the humans, and learning that Zira is pregnant, he befriends the heroes, only to go all “Dr. Zaius” on them and plots the doom of Zira, Cornelius and their child. Escape From the Planet of the Apes not only secured Eric Braeden’s place in pop culture history, not to mention geek culture for the shocking events at the films’ finale, but reestablished his role as a screen villain into the 1970’s.
The 1970’s would prove to be the golden age of Eric Braeden’s career. Although he wouldn’t see another regular series until the end of the decade, nor would he star in any other major motion pictures, Braeden become one of television most prolific villains and menaced pretty much every small screen hero you can name! Becoming a regular on the TV movie industry, Braeden found himself menacing such diverse actors such as Bettie Davis, Janet Leigh, Britt Eckland, Raymond Burr and David Soul. He played an enemy agent on Hawaii 5-0, a diamond thief of the FBI and Banachek, and even a werewolf on Kolchak the Night Stalker. He shot down Steve Trevor over Paradise Island in the pilot of Wonder Woman, threw his weight around as a temperamental and out of control television critic on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and menaced Dean Jones as an obnoxious race car driver in the family film Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. He even had time to menace Kojak, Barnaby Jones, Charlie’s Angels, Marcus Welby, Mannix, Cannon, Christie Love, Barretta and Ponch and Jon on CHiP’s amongst other less memorable TV dramas. I mean, you couldn’t turn your television on in the 1970s without seeing Eric Braeden being a complete and total ba stard. However, by just looking at that list of programs, Eric Braeden had the opportunity to work amongst some of Hollywood’s most famous icons. It’s these sort of character actors that I find the most interesting, and who have the most stories to tell. Victor Newman was only on the horizon for Eric Braeden, but he had already achieved an interesting Hollywood existence that most actors only dream of. Right there is hours of interview material to talk about! His dark and intense good looks, not to mention one of the only men in Hollywood who didn’t make having a moustache look stupid, made him a commodity, which insured him work. Hollywood needs bad guys, and Eric Braeden was the best that Hollywood had to offer.
Thus, when William Bell was looking for an actor to play sadistic millionaire Victor Newman on The Young and the Restless, Eric Braeden fit the role perfectly. Yet, although Braeden had not yet found iconic stardom in his career, he did not want to surrender himself to the life of a daytime soap actor. He took it under the conditions that the role was temporary, and it was agreed that the part would only last six months, and then Victor Newman would be killed off. It would, however, prove to be a very long six months.
Victor Newman first appeared on Young and the Restless in 1979 when he came to Genoa city to help Catherine Chancellor run Chancellor Industries. Moving into a reclusive ranch far away on the citiy’s outskirts, he brought with him his beautiful wife Julia who he kept hidden away at the ranch. But, when Julia goes into the city looking for work, trouble starts! Starting a career as a fashion model, Julia meets and falls in love with photographer Michael Scott. Discovering this, Victor immediately becomes possessive and jealous, and when Julia ends up pregnant Victor suspects that the father is the shutterbug and that’s when he kidnapped the guy and locked him in the basement (which, in actuality was a bomb shelter or something). Of course, this is when I first noticed Victor Newman, and where our tale comes full circle. Anyways, for those of you who want to know how the story ends (god knows I do), Julia finally managed to free Michael but Victor caught them, and in an enraged fury Victor beats the crap out of Michael! That teaches him to mess with Eric Braeden! Tragically, in the commotion, Julia falls and has a miscarriage, and later testing proved that the unborn baby was Victor Newman’s all along! No longer able to stand the sight of the mustached brute, Julia and Scott leave Genoa City, and Eric Braeden’s six month contract came to an end.
However, there was a glitch that Braeden and William Bell didn’t account on. The Young and the Restless viewers absolutely loved Victor Newman. Sure, he was a total bad ass, but as it so often happens in the realm of pop culture, the villains are often more interesting and popular then the heroes. William Bell offered Eric Braeden a permanent role on Young and the Restless but, still hesitant to enter the trap of daytime soaps, Eric Braeden declined the offer. Yet, after more consideration, and further negotiations, Braeden took Bell’s offer, leading Eric Braeden to finally finding the stardom that was eluding him throughout the 1970s. Twenty nine years later, Eric Braeden is still bringing Victor Newman to TV everyday, and has become one of the most recognizable and iconic soap opera stars worldwide. Sure, over the years the character of Victor Newman has mellowed out a bit, but he is still a sadistic and evil bastard, and if you know anything about the show you don’t mess with Victor Newman. You never know when you might end up imprisoned in a bomb shelter.
However, while he may have found fame as Victor Newman, Eric Braeden has not been entirely condemned to soap opera limbo. Sure, the hectic schedule to create a daily program hinders his ability to regularly appear in other TV programs and movies, but Eric Braden has made other memorable appearances on other projects. Villain of the week roles continued on Murder She Wrote, Airwolf and a Perry Mason TV movie, but by the 1990’s, after playing a mysterious billionaire for so long, Eric Braeden found himself no longer cast as villains but as tycoons and millionaires, most memorably in the screwball comedy Meet The Deedles and the Oscar winning blockbuster Titantic where he played real life American tycoon John Jacob Astor. Currently Braeden is branching out as producer for the upcoming western The Man Who Came Back, who he’ll be appearing alongside Titantic co-hort Billy Zane.
Yet, while he may forever be remembered as playing villains, being a screen bad guy has been pretty good to Eric Braeden, earning him an Emmy Award and a Peoples Choice Award as well as his own star on Hollywood’s esteemed walk of fame! However, in 1991 Eric Braeden received an even greater honor when he was awarded Germany’s Federal Medal of Honor by German president Richard von Weizsäcker for promoting a postive and realistic image of Germans in America. Obviously von Weizsäcker was a Rat Patrol fan.
So why do I want to interview Eric Braeden? Obviously he’s had a long and colourful career, however it’s more then that. Not long ago I watched Eric Braeden doing an unfortunate interview with an interviewer who bored the actor to an angry frustration by forcing him to listen to the superficial ramblings about his own vacation to Germany. As Braden’s frustration grew as he was repeatedly had his train of thoughts interrupted by the interviewer, I was pained as a man who has conducted interviews, and watching the potential loss of an interesting discussion. I mean, this guy didn’t even ask about The Young and the Restless! When Braeden had a chance to speak he made interesting comments on German nationalism and about North America’s medias discomfort with sex and nudity, only to be interrupted by a twit who wanted to hear himself talk. He proved to be well spoken, educated and incredibly interesting. Add to that potential stories of working on some of TVs most beloved programs, in which he worked alongside many of pop cultures most iconic actors, I felt that this interviewer had lost an opportunity to have possibly one of the most interesting interviews of his career. That’s why I want to interview TV’s black knight and the man who taught me about evil. I want the chance to do the interview that was left behind. That’s why I want to interview Eric Braeden, one of TV’s best bad guys! So Eric Braeden, if your out there, get your people to contact my people. Let’s do lunch. Seriously. Call me.