Panic, doom, and dismay overcame me as I approached the end of the audiobook of Rob Lowe’s 2011 autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. I’d spent nine transfixed hours listening to Lowe’s cheerful gossip about everyone from Tom Cruise to Bill Clinton, intermingled with hard-won insights about the lurking dangers of the dissipated life, and the prospect of not having Lowe’s voice in my ears made me blanch. At the moment, I’m feeling so bereft, I might actually try to watch some episodes of The West Wing.
Okay, just kidding — I’m not into self-harm — but this is the greatest Hollywood memoir ever written. True, I haven’t read every Hollywood memoir, but I know someone who has: John Podhoretz. If the guy who played the second Darren on Bewitched wrote a book, John would gobble it up. He could tell you why you should read Allen Funt’s book but not Merv Griffin’s. (Or vice versa.)
So I ran my hyperbole past John, and he said: “I agree.” Well, with the caveat that the 1930s Broadway playwright Moss Hart’s Act One is better written. I’ve read Act One too, and while it’s moving and wonderful, it’s also got a lot of fusty growing-up-in-a-Bronx tenement stuff that’s a bit beside the point these days. As for Cruise running into Lowe in Chicago in 1982, when they were shooting Risky Business and Class respectively, and Cruise telling Lowe sadly they couldn’t hang out because Joel wouldn’t like it — Joel being the character Cruise was playing at the time — that beats misery porn in my book. Also, I was born in the Sixties, so pardon me if I find St. Elmo’s Fire more interesting than Once in a Lifetime. (John was also born in the Sixties but harbors the tastes of a man who was born in 1913.)
Lowe comes across as a thoughtful, friendly sort who isn’t interested in burning any bridges. Without being mean about anyone (except the New York magazine scribe who, after dining and drinking with Lowe and his pals at the Hard Rock Cafe in 1985, wrote a rude but impeccably titled cover story entitled “Hollywood’s New Brat Pack”), he nevertheless delivers one spectacular anecdote after another, starting with a tenderly written reminiscence of his casual friendship with John F. Kennedy Jr. Lowe and Kennedy led parallel lives as American dreamboats, and when Kennedy was ambivalent about settling down, he sought Lowe’s advice. Lowe told him to plunge in and get married: “Come on in, the water’s warm.” One of Kennedy’s last acts was to oversee a cover story about Lowe and The West Wing for his celebrity-politics magazine George, on the occasion of the TV debut of the logorrheic liberal fairy tale.
Lowe reads the book beautifully, he’s a strong and unsentimental writer, and he has gotten to know scads of famous people. This (as he doesn’t quite acknowledge) — and not the lucre or the ladies — is the chief benefit of being a leading man. He was waiting in line to use the bathroom at some event or another when Sting, who was waiting in the same line, started to joke with him about Lowe’s habit of calling up MTV to get the phone number of this or that girl he’d seen in a music video, including one of Sting’s backup dancers. Sting invited Lowe to his English country estate for the weekend where Lowe got to meet fellow guest Luciano Pavarotti and to be present while Sting was recording “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You.” Priceless. A friendship with Michael J. Fox began when Lowe was attending a prize fight and Fox, having never met our narrator before, said, “Hey, Lowe, where’s my invitation?” Invitation to what? “The Brat Pack.” Fox wanted to join the crew. Never mind, added Fox: “I got my own thing — the Snack Pack.” The two spent a hilarious night partying, which ended when a hairy animal Lowe assumed to be a small dog jumped into bed beside him as he was sleeping. It wasn’t a dog: It was a Fox. The two argued such points as whose No. 1 hit movie anthem was a better song — “The Power of Love” from Fox’s Back to the Future, or “Man in Motion” from Lowe’s St. Elmo’s Fire, in theaters at the same time.
People have been telling me to listen to this book for years, but I confess my interest in Lowe was low. He was funny in Class and did fine in St. Elmo’s Fire, two movies I loved as a teen, but that’s going back more than 35 years, and those are the only two projects he did in the Eighties that registered with me. (I didn’t see The Outsiders or About Last Night until this century, and they’re both terrible anyway.) I have a medical excuse for having seen very little of The West Wing (moderate-to-severe Aaron Sorkin allergy), and I’d forgotten Lowe played side parts in Wayne’s World and Tommy Boy.
Lowe never made it as far as Cruise, but he was right there beside dozens of figures who helped define our culture. Through his stepfather he was invited onto the set, in 1976, to watch an effects sequence from a movie he was told was going to be some sort of “Western in space” — Star Wars. He rode a plane — Flight 77 from Dulles to LAX — with the 9/11 terrorists who used that trip as a dry run two weeks before they hijacked the same flight. Less momentous, he once saw Chris Farley eat two giant porterhouse steaks for dinner, placing an entire pat of butter on each bite. One of the first friends Lowe made when, as an adolescent, his mom moved them from Ohio to Malibu (then peopled by middle-class hippies and surfers) was Emilio Estevez, whose dad was off in the Philippines shooting a Vietnam movie. Lowe first met Emilio’s dad, Martin Sheen, on a Halloween night when the old man jumped out of the bushes, Captain Willard–like, in full camouflage gear, brandishing a baseball bat and issuing crazy threats. It was pure coincidence that Sheen would later be hired to play the president beside Lowe on The West Wing.
That show had a cultural impact, just as Lowe’s early efforts did. He points out that The Outsiders (1983) not only kicked off a new genre of all-teen movies after a decade in which young people were largely relegated to background parts but provided a raft of new male pinups to star in them: Matt Dillon (who was already somewhat established) plus then-unknowns C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, Estevez, Cruise, and Lowe. Proud of his efforts in that film (even though his climactic scene at the very end was simply cut out), Lowe nevertheless has a knack for undercutting showbiz hype with dry wit. And he’s well aware of how fortunate he has been. Auditioning for Class, Lowe had to win the part over another hopeful:
My competition is an actor who is one of those guys who gets white-hot overnight and is in the mix on a number of big films. He has everyone in Hollywood talking, and I just hope he doesn’t get this one. His name is Raphael Sbarge.
But I haven’t gotten to the most important aspect of the book: how Lowe learned to be a man, a husband, a father — a person as opposed to a celebrity. He was presented with more temptations than most of us can imagine, allowed himself to be led down a path of self-destruction that proved irresistible to many of his contemporaries, then found a way back. Once a pretty boy/party boy, he became a grounded family man of deep commitment and contentment, a process that required a personality overhaul. That story is worth a column in itself, so I’ll get to it in a follow-up piece.