Rob Lowe: Stories I Only Tell My Friends

I’ve been in love with Rob Lowe pretty much my entire life. Well, certainly from the age of 13, watching him (illegally) in ‘St Elmo’s Fire’ (who knew saxophones could be so mesmerising?) and trying to work out the quickest route from Bromley to California.

And the thing is, leaving aside those unfortunate sex tapes, which nearly finished Lowe’s career (just as well there was no #MeToo movement back then), Lowe is an excellent actor – and one with a sense of humour, as he’s demonstrated many times, notably in ‘Wayne’s World’.

I couldn’t believe it when I heard Rob Lowe would be performing his one-man-show, ‘Stories I Only Tell My Friends’ at the Royal Festival Hall. Before I knew it, I’d booked tickets and was engaging in a pointless internal debate along the following lines: “Will I like him? Does he get the British sense of humour? Will he look like someone who’s paid one visit too many to the plastic surgeon? Will my 13 year-old self be mortified?”

Turns out I needn’t have worried. Lowe understands the British audience, having spent a year in the West End in ‘A Few Good Men’, and he kept us royally entertained during a two-hour stint on stage that encompassed his childhood, break with acting, teenage friendship with Charlie Sheen and his latter day career. He does, it has to be said, look ridiculously good for his age but a good portion of that, I suspect, is down to genetics: that bone structure didn’t come out of a bottle.

Kicking off the evening with a medley of film and TV clips, Lowe made us all laugh by describing what was to come as a “TED talk – but less pretentious, and definitely less smart”. Having gained our attention, he continued “For a little kid from Ohio, this is a huge deal – so thank you for sharing this moment with me”. Sealing the deal, he concluded “Tonight, I’m going to celebrate 40 years in Hollywood. There may be some laughs…and then we’ll put the house lights up and you can ask me your questions”.

Incredibly, Lowe’s big break came back in 1979, when he scored his first U.S. TV series: ‘A New Kind of Family’. “Yup: an exciting name”, observed Lowe, dryly. Yet this was an era when (again, incredibly) there were only three networks on TV, compared with 1,100 now. The role was Lowe’s biggest-ever part to date – and the first time he received a fan letter…sent by a prison inmate and requesting a shot of a then 15 year-old Lowe in his underwear.

“Starting out”, Lowe mused, “I knew nothing. There were no rules – and I wouldn’t have known them, anyway. The thing is, I wanted to be a New York method actor, like de Niro or Pacino – but my agent had other ideas”.

The curse of being pretty. Lowe’s next big role was in one of those legendary American “after school specials” that were centred around adolescents and intense subject matter. “The title was ‘School Boy Father’”, reminisced Lowe, “and what I learned from that experience is that when it comes to girls, being on TV is really helpful”.

Elaborating, Lowe explained that once he knew which day the programme would be shown on, he “told the most beautiful girl in the school – and she invited me over to her house to watch it, saying her father was an actor”. Said actor turned out to be Cary Grant, who told Lowe he reminded him of a “young Warren Beatty” and presented him with some Fabergé boxer shorts and soap-on-a-rope.

Years later, Lowe would bump into Cary Grant at a black tie function, sitting with Gregory Peck, Robert Wagner and Prince Rainier of Monaco. As he walked away from their table, he overheard Wagner remark “That young man’s banged every one of our daughters”.

It’s fair to say that Lowe saw the funny side of that comment. In fact, I was surprised by just how witty and self-deprecating he is. Discussing his much-derided duet with Snow White at the opening of the 1989 Academy Awards Lowe admitted, ruefully “I’m a people pleaser, so when I was asked to sing a duet with Snow White to open the Oscars of course I said yes”. Lowe was told that all of the Hollywood greats would be there, including Lily Tomlinson dressed as a two-foot piranha (the mind boggles).

There was just one problem: it was the actress playing Snow White’s first-ever job. Despite the duo rehearsing (unpaid) for three weeks, the moment the lights went up and she saw all the famous people in the audience, she froze like a rabbit in headlights. Lowe, on the other hand, “…went into denial”. Focusing on Barry Levinson, at that time one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, Lowe told himself “I’m killing it!” He wasn’t – but, wandering into the Green Room afterwards he encountered Lucille Ball, who told him “Darling: you were marvellous!” They watched the rest of the ceremony together – and two weeks later, Ball passed away, putting everything into perspective. “I don’t mind being the Oscars punching bag, even 30 years later. Lucy loved it – and I loved Lucy”.

“Generally, the bigger the star the nicer they are”, Lowe told us, “and most actors are pretty cool”. There’s always an exception, though. After shooting wrapped on ‘The Outsiders’ (“We were like brothers during filming; it was the first time away from home for all of us”), Tom Cruise flew to Chicago to film ‘Risky Business’, followed by Lowe, who’d accepted a part in ‘Class’. Excitedly, he got in touch with Cruise, to let him know they were in the same city – only to be told there was no chance of them hanging out together: “I know you – but my character doesn’t”.

I think that tells you all you need to know about Tom Cruise, doesn’t it?

Another odd encounter occurred during the first season of ‘The West Wing’, when the cast was invited to the White House. “Meeting a president is really weird: I mean, they’re beyond famous. And shouldn’t they be running the country?” All Bill Clinton wanted to talk about was the episodes of ‘The West Wing’ that he wanted them to make, leaving Lowe et al somewhat underwhelmed.

Considering his reputation, it might surprise you to hear that Lowe is a real family man. He and Cheryl have been married for 27 years (“When people ask what the secret is to our success, I give them Hitchcock’s response: it’s all about the casting”). Cheryl, apparently, hates it when Lowe plays the fool: “but in comedy, that’s the job”. She didn’t want him to be roasted by Comedy Central, either – “until she found out how much I was getting paid”.

The couple have two sons and “share the same views on parenting. We also never try to change each other” – although this can be problematic, Lowe aiming for ten hours sleep per night, while Cheryl stays up half the night watching Vernon McKay in ‘Family Fortunes’. “I’m in a sleepless three-way”, Lowe quipped.

Another surprise is that Lowe has been teetotal for 28 years. “I have a soft spot for maniacs like Charlie Sheen”, Lowe chuckled: this isn’t surprising considering the two were next door neighbours growing up. But: “Alcoholism and drug addiction are motherfuckers – especially untreated alcoholism”. Lowe ended up in rehab to tackle his addictions, where “I had my first room mate ever: a 70 year-old cross-dressing minister from Ohio with a pill addiction”.

What next for the man who, post ‘The West Wing’, turned down a part in ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ to appear in ‘Dr. Vegas’ – and whose wife has never let him forget it? Lowe is currently in the UK shooting ‘Wild Bill’ – an ITV series about an American who ends up running a police force in Lincolnshire.

My mind is boggling all over again – but there’s no doubt whatsoever that I’ll be tuning in to watch. Rob Lowe is one of those rare things: a highly-talented individual with a keen sense of humour. I’m tempted to say that they don’t make ‘em like that anymore: do you agree?


    • I have a sneaking suspicion that the same can be said about most professions. The really successful people are charming and helpful albeit, as you say, with the odd exception (do share!). It’s the ones trying to drag themselves up the greasy pole that you have to watch out for!


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