Hard Knocks Hollywood: Eric Braeden

After a year on a hit soap, he wanted out. One key scene changed everything.

Last Updated: February 26, 2009 @ 7:54 PM

For nearly 30 years, Eric Braeden has played Victor Newman, the ruthless billionaire of daytime television’s highest rated drama, “The Young and the Restless,” earning a Daytime Emmy and seven other nominations along the way. He also stars in the DVD movie "The Man Who Came Back," a feature he produced while on hiatus. But before “Y&R,” he starred in a slew of other projects, mostly under his original German name. Braeden talks with Eric Estrin about making the transition from Nazi-esque bad guy to cartoonish soap character to enduring icon of the industry’s most grueling niche.

In my case, the most glaring thing to overcome was the fact that I was from Germany. In other words, I was rather quickly successful playing bad guys, and I was determined to get out of that; I was determined to not continue playing these dehumanizing characters.

And so I was the first German actor to be offered a major role, a starring role in a film at Universal Studios called “Colossus: The Forbin Project.”

Lew Wasserman saw me and said, “I want him, but no one with a German name, Hans Gudegast, will star in an American film. He needs to change his name.” I had that name when I did Broadway, when I did “Rat Patrol” and “Mission Impossible,” and I did a film with Marlon Brando and on and on. So it was a very difficult decision, an extremely difficult decision.

My wife, who was Californian and American, reminded me of the discussions I had with Curt Jurgens and the fates of Max Schell and Hardy Kruger and all those guys who played nothing but Nazis, and I was determined to get out of that.

Then I was offered to do “Y&R.” I hated it the first three months. I wasn’t comfortable playing an almost cartoonish bad character. And they had a producer who insisted on every line being said verbatim, and I said even Shakespeare didn’t do that, you must be kidding me.

Afer a year, I said I wanted out. And then they fortunately changed producers. Bill Bell, who was the head writer on our show, imbued my character with a background that made sense, that explained why my character was as rough and as hard nosed and as ruthless as he was.

It was a very emotional scene that explained to the audience why I was who I was. It was a story about my having been left at an orphanage at the age of seven, and you either go under when that happens or you become strong and tough and you don’t trust anyone but you at least show enormous vulnerability at certain times.

The moment I did that scene I said now I know I’m going to stay, and now I can play things I’ve never been able to play before. I knew that I would start a whole new career.