As ‘Y&R’ Prepares to Turn 50, Eric Braeden Says Soaps Are Still Good as Gold

The Young and the Restless star Eric Braeden
Exclusive
SONJA FLEMMING / CBS

The late Aretha Franklin was one of The Young and the Restless’ biggest fans, which is ironic since Eric Braeden, who has played Victor Newman on the CBS soap opera since 1980, feels that the daytime serial genre hasn’t always gotten the R-E-S-P-E-C-T it deserves!

Y&R debuted on March 26, 1973 so the show’s golden anniversary is still over five months away; however, the long-running soap opera is already starting to celebrate the big event. Braeden sat down with TV Insider for this exclusive interview in which he talks about what actor first convinced him to read for Y&R producers, his thoughts on other genres, and how he almost ended up not appearing as John Jacob Astor in the James Cameron blockbuster film Titanic.

Edward Scott, former Y&R producer, now supervising producer at The Bold and the Beautiful, said in The Young and Restless Life of William J. Bell that when you came in to read for the role of Victor, “it was almost like we, not him, were the ones being scrutinized.”

Eric Braeden: [Chuckles]

Had you ever heard that?

No, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Were you showing them that this is how you’d play Victor?

No. Not in the least. No. How should I put this? I have always in casting sessions from early on, from 1961, never treated anyone as if I were begging for a job. Never have. Never will. Even during a time when I couldn’t afford to think that way. I never wanted to be subservient. If they’re polite, then I’m polite.

I walked out on an interview with a casting director for Titanic [for the role of John Jacob Astor]. I was there at 11 a.m. [the appointment time]. At five past, I said, ‘One more minute and I’m out.’ It was a power game they were playing.

What happened?

I opened the door and the casting director said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘You know, I’m just asking myself the same question. You have a nice day.’ I walked out. I told my agency don’t ever send me there again. About a month later, they begged me to come back.

I read about John Jacob Astor [the business magnate, real estate developer, and investor who went down on the Titanic] and thought this is an interesting character. My wife and son said to me, ‘You’ve got to work with James Cameron.’ Finally, I did. I showed up early at Warner Bros. and walked into the office. There was a video camera in an otherwise empty room. I was asked, ‘Can you say these two lines?’ What, pray tell, can you learn from two lines?

And after you read them…?

She said, ‘Thank you.’ I said, ‘No. Let me tell you about John Jacob Astor, the man I read about.’ There are some casting directors who are wonderful, polite, who say ‘thank you for coming in.’ There are some who are [not]. Long story short, what Ed Scott said about me, yes, he was right. I only went in to read at Y&R because my friend Dabney Coleman [Tootsie] said to me, ‘Do it. You’ll love it.’ He and I played tennis together. I had no idea what a soap opera was because I didn’t watch them.

Dabney had done a soap over at NBC [called Bright Promise]. That’s how he knew. He knew what he was talking about. He’s a very good actor and a bright guy. I had to learn respect for the medium of soaps. I saw how disrespected actors in daytime were. I think I have had a little something to do with that culture changing. We should all be very proud of what we do. The feeling of second-class citizenship [daytime actors endure] compared to the rest of the industry…why? Daytime is very hard. It is the hardest medium. You sit around and ‘b.s.’ for hours while the lighting is changed. We have actors on our show whose work makes my mouth drop open — Jason Thompson [Billy], Christel Khalil [Lily], Mark Grossman [Adam]…I remember when [Mark] came to our show and he had so much work to do. He handled it absolutely well.

There are so many wonderful actors on our set — Amelia [Heinle, Victoria], my God! She works so hard especially lately. That applies to all of us [veterans] — Peter [Bergman, Jack], Melody [Thomas Scott, Nikki], Eileen Davidson [Ashley], Beth [Maitland, Traci]…it’s really a profession to be damn proud of. We used to do 70 or more pages a day; now, it’s many, many more. But I resent the hell out of the lack of respect shown actors in our world. There you go.

What was your experience like having actors from nighttime and film come to daytime and have to perform an entire episode in one day?

Dorothy McGuire [ex-Cora], Ray Wise [ex-Ian], George Kennedy [ex-Albert], and Eric Roberts [ex-Vance] — I loved working with all of them. Ray is wonderful. I have such deep respect for George, Dorothy…they were all wonderful.

I have the deepest respect for our actors — Bryton [James, Devon] and now, Sean Dominic [Nate] is coming into his own. I love Michelle [Stafford, Phyllis]. I love watching her work. She’s hilarious. She’s wonderful and spontaneous. The new kid…that Chance [Conner Floyd] guy…where did he come from? He does a good job. I have so much respect for these young actors coming in. We should all be very proud of what we do. In nighttime, you can play a character who is waiting around a corner in order to shoot someone. I’ve done the other side.

What convinced you to stay at Y&R — was it after Bill Bell came up with Victor’s backstory? How he was born Christian Miller and left at the orphanage?

Precisely. I wondered how do they write this stuff day in and day out. The longer I stayed on daytime, the more I began to have more respect for various aspects of what we do — the camera people, the lighting people; people are on their toes all day long. What I have fought for in the past is when they say, ‘Let’s move to the next scene.’ I say, ‘Let’s see if we can do it better.’ I resent the hell out of anyone who says, ‘We’re just doing a soap.’

Y&R turns 50 next March. The first 25 years of the show were written by Bill Bell; the last 25 years of the show have been written by myriad people.

Yes, but the second 25 years are still based on what Bill created. One tried to veer away from it. Do I need to mention who tried to change it?

Victor was on the outs with his family once; he left town, was carjacked, believed dead after the carjacker died in a fiery car crash, and he met Hope Adams [Signy Coleman], a blind farm woman.

I loved the Kansas story. I loved that whole story. Loved it. I remember running in the wheat fields up in Northern California. Signy Coleman is a wonderful actress. I really did like the whole concept. There were other storylines I loved. I loved the story with Victor’s background and his mother. Dorothy McGuire [Cora] coming onto the show was so damn real. I realized after being here for two or three years that there’s no medium where you can play this range of emotions. That’s what audiences love to see.

You’re very active on social media.

I enjoy interacting with followers. One sent me a scene where Victor told Nikki that he lost his mind and held a gun on her. It was very touching. Where else do you get to play that?

You don’t hold back from telling people how you feel.

No. Never have. That’s who I am. I enjoy social media. What do we do? Other than that we earn a good living but the essence of what we do is entertain people. It’s what actors do. That’s the pure essence of it. To know what one does resonates with people all over the world…how lucky are we?

There was an episode in which Victor collapsed while arguing with Jack…and he just walked out.

(Laughs) I remember that scene so well. I remember the whole storyline so well. The Victor/Jack stuff has been wonderful. Peter’s character has been a great adversary to Victor. I said to him, ‘Jack and Victor don’t like each other but we are very good for the show.’

A fan posted side-by-side photos of you and TV son Mark Grossman commenting on the physical similarities.

I saw that. Amazing!

What do you think of the show now?

I like what Josh [Griffith, head writer] is doing. Nicholas [Newman, played by Joshua Morrow] is asserting more authority. I told him the other day, ‘You’re playing authority very well.’ He is. Josh is a very natural actor and a very bright guy.

Do you have any other thoughts and shoutouts to the viewers who’ve been watching Y&R all these years?

Yes. I’m grateful the show has gone on for all these years. I always go back to Bill Bell. He laid the groundwork, the foundation. I’m very grateful. Without the fans, the audience, we wouldn’t be anywhere. If there’s a raison d’être for what we do, they are it!

The Young and the Restless, Weekdays, CBS