Rob Lowe on Parks & Recreation, The West Wing, and His Memoir Stories I Only Tell My Friends
Lowe's Brat Pack film past symbolizes the '80s, but it's his golden touch on TV that marks his recent successes. He dishes about his memoir with Maria Elena Fernandez.
Plus, Marlow Stern reveals the juiciest bits of Lowe’s memoir.
It's perhaps surprising to find what an engaging and crafty writer Rob Lowe, the handsome Brat Packer, has turned out to be. Introspective, too—yes, even when he was drinking, partying and leading the sex tape charge.
His well-received memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, is a New York Times best-seller and must-read for anyone who either came of age in the '80s, fell in love with Lowe on The West Wing, or is just now getting to know him as he's replaced Heather Locklear as the TV actor with the Midas touch.
Rob Lowe: the new Heather Locklear? Consider his turns as the dashing U.S. Senator, Robert McAllister, on Brothers & Sisters; the demented Oscar-winning film star, Eddie Nero, on Californication; and the wildly enthusiastic Chris Traeger on Parks & Recreation (where you can find him currently). Brothers & Sisters lost Lowe last year because, he says, his storyline had become absurd. "I was the only U.S. Senator who did nothing but change diapers and I felt they could get anybody to play that." The series hasn't been the same since; its loss was Parks' gain.
"Really?" he says during a telephone interview, considering the Heather Locklear question. "Not the new Alec Baldwin? I like it."
Lowe, 47, is not new to comedy or to writing for that matter, though it certainly feels that way to many. His film career has included roles in the Austin Powers series, and Wayne's World, and he's hosted Saturday Night Live three times. But Lowe thinks his character Chris Traeger's uniqueness, probably the cheeriest spaz in all of television, is what's capturing attention.
"When it comes to something like The West Wing, I didn't understand a lot of what was happening, and my sense was that it was unfair, but I also didn't begrudge it because it's not my show,"
"I've always been the comic straight man," he said. "Chris Traeger is not a straight man. Other than hosting SNL, I've never done a comedic character that was not a straight man. So I kind of like that people think I'm new to comedy. I'd like to think it's because this character is so different and they've never seen me do that before."
Chris Traeger, the city manager of the fictional town of Pawnee on the Amy Poehler-led show, is doing something else that no other character has managed to do for Lowe—not even Billy Hicks ( St. Elmo's Fire) or Sam Seaborn ( The West Wing). Chris, who greets people by pointing at them and saying their full name, has given the actor a bona fide tagline. If "li'-tra-lly," doesn't sound like a catchy line, you must not be a Parks viewer.
Fans "li'-tra-lly say li'-tra-lly to me all the time and then they say my name, Rob Lowe, with pointing," he says laughing. "What's great about these writers is they use character quirks and things we bring, so I think it's pretty clear that now America knows I may have too much of an affection for the word, 'li'-tra-lly.' I li'-tra-lly cannot stop saying the word li'-tra-lly."
But it's not how often Chris invokes the term; it's how he contracts it that cracks up viewers. "The word was in the line and I just swung the bat at it, 'Ann Perkins, this is li'-tra-lly the greatest salad you will ever have,' and they were like, whoa, we gotta do more of that. I've been on TV a long time and I've never had a catch phrase. This may be my 'Whatchu talkin' 'bout Willis?'"
After decades of sharing his behind-the scenes tales with his friends, Lowe decided to put pen to paper (he li'-tra-lly wrote his book on legal pads), and let the world in on a few secrets. Filled with as many anecdotes and insider dish about famous people as it is with self-reflection, Lowe's prose is honest, self-deprecating and, at times, suspenseful. His favorite narrative device—dropping clues about his subjects before actually naming them—never gets old. How could it when it's Liza Minnelli, Lucille Ball, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane, or John F. Kennedy, Jr. behind the curtain?
"The book was not about changing a perception or righting a wrong or having the final say," Lowe says. "Really, all I wanted to do was give an entertaining read that moved like lightening of stories people would be interested in. And maybe, just maybe, without even knowing, it might bring up something to make you think."
In 306 pages, Lowe covers his childhood in Ohio, his parents' divorce, his teenage years in Malibu where he became best friends with the Sheens and the Penns, his mother's debilitation, his many romances (Melissa Gilbert, Princess Stephanie of Monaco, Demi Moore) before he married his wife, Sheryl in 1991, and became a father of two. In vivid detail, he chronicles his rise as a child actor, fall as a young man, and rise again in Hollywood. Having grown up with both the adoration and rejection that come from fame, Lowe writes about always being aware, even if he wasn't ready to act on it, that he needed a more grounded existence.
The leaked 1988 sex tape, involving a 16-year-old-girl, he says, turned out to be one of the "best things that ever happened to me" because the humiliation led him to begin assessing his life, check into a rehab, and become sober in 1990. No matter whether Lowe is writing about the negative impact of the sex scandal or his decision to leave The West Wing when producers refused to give him a raise, his reactions are surprisingly Zen.
"I'm optimistic by nature and I'm positive and enthusiastic by nature—by the way, it sounds like we're describing Chris Traeger a little bit—that being part of who I am helps with perspective and I'm always looking for the next thing as opposed to the last thing," he said. "So when it comes to something like The West Wing, I didn't understand a lot of what was happening, and my sense was that it was unfair, but I also didn't begrudge it because it's not my show. If they want to do the show without Sam Seaborn, it's their call and it's all good. I try to avoid negativity and bitterness at all costs."
Of course, with over three decades in Hollywood under his belt, Lowe has many more yarns. Stories I Only Tell My Friends wraps up soon after Lowe left The West Wing, and only briefly mentions his recent TV success and his purchase, with other investors, of Miramax Studios in 2010.
"There's a lot of stuff that's saved for a later date and some of the stories I have are even better than the stories that are in it," Lowe said. "But I really wanted the book to have an undercurrent of particular themes so if the story didn't serve those themes, I didn't include it."
So far, even though Gilbert is allegedly upset that Lowe gave their tumultuous relationship the short shrift (she once wrote she was pregnant with his child and had a miscarriage), Lowe says he's only heard from one superstar that had a quibble. Sarah Jessica Parker "got a message to me that I mistakenly said her eyes are brown and they're blue so I am correcting that in the reprint. But I knew by the way I was going to treat people, I didn't expect anyone to be upset. This is not a book of salaciousness."
Though he's no stranger to accolades, Lowe (who has been nominated for one Emmy and four Golden Globes) never saw himself as an acclaimed writer, even though he's been penning plays and screenplays his whole life. A few years ago, his stepfather framed a copy of a script Lowe wrote when he was seven under the headline "Birth of a Writer" and gave it to him for Christmas.
It all came full circle last week when The New York Times Book Review editors invited him to their office for an interview and asked him to sign the author's wall beneath E.L. Doctorow.
"Listen, it is impossible for me to put into words what that means to me."
Maria Elena Fernandez is a senior entertainment reporter for Newsweek/The Daily Beast. She previously covered television and nightlife for The Los Angeles Times and spent many years on the crime beat, writing for The Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She also worked at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, where she covered the AIDS epidemic. Her children's book, The Secret of Fern Island , was published in 1996 under a pseudonym so that she wouldn't be stalked by screaming children.