It was a moment that seemed strangely out of place. The Titanic was in its death throes when the maestro behind the mayhem turned to Eric Braeden and uttered a single word: “Never.” Eric felt the questioning look cross his own face as he turned to the voice. The confusion evident, the speaker, director James Cameron, explained: “The last line in Colossus.”
Eric smiled, struck by the fact that the director wasn’t referencing his, at that point, 17 (now 40+) year run as Victor Newman on the TV soap The Young and the Restless, but, instead, his portrayal of Dr. Charles Forbin in a little sci-fi thriller from 1970 about a computer that takes over the world. At the same time, he was forced to reflect on his own bittersweet feelings regarding that film — Colossus: The Forbin Project — his first starring role in a Hollywood production.
“I was in Spain at the time with my wife, and we were with Esther Williams and Fernando Lamas while we were doing A Hundred Rifles,” says Eric. “I flew from Spain back to LA to do the screen test for Colossus. Two or three days later, the agent called and said, ‘They loved it. Lew Wasserman [then head of Universal] loved it.’ Of course I was ecstatic — that’s about as happy as you can get in this business, to star in a picture. For me to star in an American picture was an absolutely extraordinary feeling.”
Several seconds later he was deafened by the sound of the other shoe dropping. “In the next breath,” Eric explains, “he said, ‘But they want you to change your name.’ I tell you, I’ve never experienced such an emotional swing as in that ten seconds, from complete elation to total dejection.”
It began with his journey to America
Born Hans Gudegast in Kiel, Germany, a port city near the Baltic Sea, Eric was the third of four sons, and demonstrated a talent for athletics that eventually helped his high school team win the National German Youth championship. Upon graduation in 1959, he left for America. “I saw the United States as a land of opportunity,” he reflects, “but also as the land of adventure, the land of cowboys and Indians.” He arrived in New York by boat and spent a few days there before heading to Galverston, Texas where he worked as a translator. A couple of months later, it was off to Montana where he was hired as a cowboy and worked on a ranch, though it wasn’t long before the allure of the cowboy life dimmed. From there, he attended Montana State University under a partial track scholarship, worked at a lumber mill, participated in ROTC practice, and eventually joined a fellow student on a boat trip up the Salmon River in Idaho, which they documented as a film called The Riverbusters. He traveled to LA to find a distributor and decided to remain there, having learned that German actors were in demand for TV and film.
Eric was able to get an agent and started getting hired, first in the 1961 film Operation Eichmann and eventually, still known as Hans Gudegast, he appeared on Broadway with Curt Jurgens and Geraldine Page in The Great Indoors. “While I was doing that play,” he reflects, “Curt Jurgens said to me, ‘Listen, you will play nothing but Nazis in Hollywood. That is the fate of all German actors.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll be the first one to do something different.’”
Indeed, Colossus would be that something different, but en route to that film the actor co-starred in television’s The Rat Patrol as….a Nazi. He portrayed Captain Dietrich, who went up against the Allied commando team given the task of harassing Rommel’s Afrika Korps during the second World War. Eric tried, as much as possible, to humanize the character. “The making of Rat Patrol was largely fun,” he explains of the series he spent two seasons on from 1966-68, “although it was a cartoon, of course. I knew that from the beginning. There have been very few projects where I’ve felt good about every aspect of it. Rat Patrol was wonderful to work on, but the material was a joke. The very opposite of what they showed was true. Rommel had a small army in North Africa and beat the s— out of the British Army for a long time. That’s the truth, but on the show they reversed it completely.”
From that series, he segued to such films as The Ultimate Chase, Morituri, Honeymoon With a Stranger and A Hundred Rifles, which is when he received the infamous call from his agent concerning Colossus and the changing of his name, resulting in mixed feelings when he reflects on the film.
“I was so emotionally distraught by everything that happened prior to actually doing the picture, and there were a number of issues involved which pissed me off,” Eric says. “Most of all of all, getting rid of a name is like getting rid of one’s identity. Number two, in it, of course, was an enormous amount of prejudice toward Germans that is typical of an Anglophile country. At the same time, I also knew the reality.” Despite his resentment, he conceded to Univeral’s wishes, choosing Eric from a family name and Braeden from the German village he is from.
The making of the film itself, he is quick to emphasize, was an “unmitigated joy” thanks to director Joseph Sargent, producer Stanley Chase, James Bridges’ screenplay and the efforts of the cast and crew. This despite the fact that he is not really a science fiction fan. “I remember at the time it was the height of the Bergman and Fellini films and those were the kind of things one wanted to do,” he admits. “However, I always was intellectually enormously interested in this subject matter. Not emotionally, because it’s hard to grasp, obviously, because of the ‘unlikelihood’ at the time that two machines would talk to each other. That was very hard to grasp. That piece of unreality was difficult to handle. However, I have enormous respect for the people who worked on it. Not a single bad memory.”
He adds that the aspect of the film that struck a chord with him was the specter of a third World War that the computers eventually in control were originally designed to prevent. “I say that,” he details, “because I remember the bombs of the second World War; I grew up with them. Colossus captured the fear of a very possible mistake in the computerized arsenal that both sides had and have. That frightened me, because in reality it could happen at any time. Things have changed, of course. Then it was nuclear arms, now it’s not. Now it’s about using technology to obviously destroy as much as they can in Western democracy, and they are succeeding brilliantly so far. I don’t think they will win in the end; I think America is strong enough and tied strongly enough to its constitution for that to never happen. Good and freedom and democracy are things that cannot be put asunder — not for long — although people try.”
Life lessons, courtesy of Hollywood
Unfortunately, Universal essentially dumped Colossus on the marketplace, apparently unsure how to market it properly. Although it’s developed an extremely strong cult following over the years, its lack of box office life taught Eric an important life lesson that he still holds on to dearly.
“I had an eerie feeling when I did Colossus,” he says. “Here I was starring in a Universal picture. I don’t know if you know what that means, but suddenly you’re picked up by a limo. You must juxtapose that with the struggling existence that most actors go through, doing menial jobs and constantly being turned down for work. Suddenly you’re starring in a film and the transformation is so extraordinary, you haven’t a clue what’s going on. It manifests itself in so many small ways. First of all, it’s in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, so everyone in the loop knows about it. They look at you differently, they approach you differently, because this means potential power. If that film makes it, you have power. What does that mean? I’d better kiss his a– now. People who didn’t even know you existed before are blowing smoke up your a–. In restaurants you get tables suddenly — I mean suddenly. You sit in the commissary in one of the big studios and people who never even acknowledged your existence are saying, ‘Hi, Eric, how are you? How’s everything going?’ It’s just amazing.”
It results, he elaborates, in insecurity, because you’re not prepared for it. Additionally, and this he feels is the most painful part of it all, your closest friends start changing toward you: “People that you felt comfortable with, that you felt secure with, that are a secure anchor, all of a sudden change toward you, because you’re a ‘star’ now. It is such an interesting and strange psychological interchange that happens between those who knew you before and they all say, ‘I knew him when.’ You want to say, ‘Don’t say that s—, we’re friends. Why are you saying that?’ It gives you an eerie feeling. I remember vividly while I was doing Colossus having that happen and almost feeling depressed about it. You feel the ground underneath you start giving away. You have all of a sudden been catapulted into the stratosphere. I have always said that the Screen Actor’s Guild or the studios should take all actors who are beginning to star in films and give them the number of a good therapist. I never went to one, but I wish I had then, to be quite frank with you. It is a truly frightening experience and if you’re insecure and don’t know what to do with it. You can become a monster.”
And then there’s the flip side, which he experienced after Colossus failed to perform at the box office. “In a short period of time,” he smiles wryly, “it goes from ‘Eric, my God how are you?’ to ‘Oh, yeah, how you doing?’ You have no idea how blatant some people are. It’s stunning. Remember, that aspect in the life of someone who becomes a star in any field is one that is so unexamined, yet explains so many things when you try to wonder why an actor or someone in the limelight suddenly behaves in a bizarre manner. They will never, ever talk about it, and it pisses me off. Either the star isn’t honest about it, they don’t talk about it, or people don’t ask about it, because it’s too personal.”
One positive that came out of being cast as the lead in Colossus was the offer of two additional starring roles in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, the recession had taken its toll on everyone, including Hollywood, and the number of productions had been whittled down to practically nothing, resulting in Eric’s projects coming to a standstill and, ultimately, in his learning yet another Hollywood life lesson.
“I was with a top agency in town, they approached me after Colossus and they were the Rolls Royce of the agency business,” he says cryptically. “They handled all the big stars and they said to me, ‘You’re going to be a big star one day, but you’ve got to be patient because they won’t be making films for a while.’ Well, I had a child by that time and needed to make money.”
He had signed an exclusive film contract at Universal that did not include television, which he felt was a coup at the time, but turned out to be a creative stranglehold when it became apparent that there wouldn’t be as many films produced as in years past. And in his own mind, Eric had written himself out of the small screen.
“The progression,” he details, “was to guest star in TV, to perhaps star in a television series, and then go on to film. But once you star in a film, you do not go back to television. So my hands were tied. All of a sudden money runs out, I’m sitting there with a child. So what do you do? You start guest starring again, but that was a no-no in the business.”
He reportedly guest starred in more than 120 series, among them Gunsmoke, Wonder Woman, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Sci-fi fans will also remember him from the feature film Escape From the Planet of the Apes, in which he played Dr. Otto Hasslein, scientific adviser to the president of the United States who ends up slaughtering the intelligent apes from the future.
“To be honest,” he offers, “by that time I was so tired of playing bad guys. They’re just so one-dimensional. But I enjoyed working on the Apes film. Producer Arthur Jacobs was a gentleman and so was director Don Taylor. The cast was wonderful, so in that sense it was wonderful. Plus, I didn’t have to put on one of those damn masks. The problem is that those three years after Colossus were rather bitterly disappointing. I saved myself by playing sports.”
Soccer, movies and The Young and the Restless
Indeed, Eric has actually played professional soccer, being a part of the Maccabees, with whom he won the 1972-73 National Soccer Championship. “I was playing competitive soccer during all that time secretly,” he smiles. “So I quickly forgot about all this Hollywood crap, because I was so involved in soccer.”
He’s still dealt with Hollywood in subsequent years, appearing in some films that were pretty forgettable, like Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo or as an uncredited swimming double, in Piranha. There was, of course, an instant classic like Titanic, in which he portrayed real estate mogul John Jacob Astor. “It’s a small part,” he admits, “but I had a feeling that this was a historic film. I thought this is one of those films where it doesn’t make a difference what you play. It’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever experienced in this business. No, the most impressive time I’ve ever spent. James Cameron is a genius. That word is bandied about loosely in Hollywood, but I think it applies to him. I have never in my career been in the presence of someone so extraordinarily bright, with an energy that is boundless.”
Then there’s the fact that his son, Christian Gudegast, recently scored a hit by writing and directing the feature film Den of Thieves, in which Eric had a small part. “It makes me very happy,” he offers. “He is obviously successful in the business as a writer and now as a director, and he did a damned good job. I’m very proud of him.”
Aside from all of that, of course, the move he made that genuinely surprised people was his 1980 decision to join the cast of the CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless, on which he has played Victor Newman for the past 38 years. “I remember the first time I told people I was doing a soap,” he laughs, “and they reacted as though I’d contracted a disease.”
Eric considers himself a survivor in Hollywood. “In other words,” he explains, “when you run into actors that you’ve seen for many years, you sort of hug each other and there’s a certain kind of unspoken warm recognition of the fact that you both have survived. Meaning it has been tough at times. I’m not talking about megastars. They’re a different story. They’ve made so much money very often that who gives a f— if they ever work again? Those of us who weren’t megastars, and aren’t megastars, who are working actors, we know how tough it is to survive in this business.”
He was actually pushed toward doing the soap by the recommendation of friend Dabney Coleman, who had also spent some time in the suds. Eric despised his first year on the show due to the time constraints and the fact that the working parameters were so limiting. But then — and he credits his wife for this — he began looking at the possibility of turning it into a positive experience. He began viewing the pitfalls — a high of 62 pages of dialogue in a single day, no time to rehearse — as obstacles to be overcome. From the moment he changed his mental approach, he hasn’t looked back.
“I still get turned on by trying to make something real,” enthuses Eric. “You stare so much dialogue in the face sometimes that you need to make it your own. I have never tired of that. It is something that has basically enthused me almost all of my acting life, so it makes almost no difference what vehicle it is. And I earn very good money, let’s not ignore that. If I made what I’m making here doing Shakespeare, I’d be doing Shakespeare, but it ain’t the case.”
Also separating daytime television from primetime, in his opinion, is the connection that you make with the audience. He reflects on the fact that he has gone to supermarket openings and been greeted by upwards of 15,000 people who merely want to shake his hand. “To be honest with you,” he says, “it recharged my batteries, because I realized that I did make a difference. A lot of people in Hollywood don’t realize that what they do does make a difference in people’s lives. They’re entertained by it, and I cannot begin to tell you the testimonials after all these years. People call you from hospitals; people are dying and the last thing they want is a word from you. As a result, you are reminded of the basic religious ethics you grew up with. I was never serious about it, but one thing that did appeal to be about the whole Christian mythology was the idea of giving of yourself; of loving, if you want, a fellow human being and, primarily, someone who is in need. If you can overcome the cynicism, if you’re intelligent and really think about this profession, you realize you’re a part of something extremely important.
“For a long time,” he elaborates, “the only films that interested me were the ones that had a social and political reality to it as a base. But you have to get over that. You reach a point where you say, ‘We are here to entertain and there is a value to just entertaining people.’ An enormous value. Once I reconciled to that, and once I realized that I could make people cry and laugh and be upset and happy, it was a great feeling. One should be humbled by it. Most actors, like any artists, are basically insecure because you’re dealing with something very fluid. We’re constantly grasping to mold it into something, so there’s a certain insecurity and questioning in most of us. A lot of us are angry about certain circumstances we grew up in, which is why we became artists in the first place. So there’s a tendency to then become cynical, but you’ve got to realize that you are almost a vehicle in a sense. You’re a conduit and that’s a good image to have, because you don’t take yourself so damn seriously.”