Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated post thumbnail image

August 7, 1995
Interview by Franz Lidz

All Victor’s Children

Victor Newman of “The Young and the Restless” has a hold on jocks young and old.
Part of the glamour of big-time athletics is the glittering lifestyle that we
imagine the athlete leads. Fancy cars. Mansions with endless corridors. All
the champagne and caviar one can gulp down. The idea that a top athlete might
run down to the 7-Eleven to pick up a can of tuna or recline on a Barcalounger
to watch a soap opera doesn’t quite fit our image.

And yet . . . around lunchtime you would be surprised how many athletes munch
tuna sandwiches and watch soaps. Though the brands of tuna vary, many jocks
watch one particular soap. And many watch one particular character, the same
character who enthralls homebodies, students, the terminally unemployed and
those who keep up with their favorite soap via VCR. His name is Victor Newman,
and he is a mainstay on The Young and the Restless. This spectacularly affluent
tycoon runs his business with the ruthlessness of a Chinese warlord and sheds
his redundant wives as easily as he does his tuxedo.

Newman’s boardroom power plays and bedroom reconciliations are followed
slavishly by boxers and ballplayers, golfers and gymnasts. “Jocks relate to
Victor,” says former Philadelphia Phillie pitcher Larry Andersen. “He relies on
intimidation, manipulation . . . He’s got most of the ‘-ations’ down pat.”
Jocks relate as much to Newman’s Machiavellian intelligence as to his swaggering
reserve a sense of throttled rage that gives him an almost sinister allure.
“Victor never lets his emotions show through,” marvels former NBA star Mychal
Thompson. “He can explode, but it takes a lot for him to lose it.” The
unflappable Newman hangs tough no matter how many barbarians try to crash his
gates. “Victor’s a guy’s guy,” says New York Yankee slugger Danny Tartabull.
“Always poised, always in control. And he always gets his revenge. We all
strive to be that way.”

Professional athletes have so much time and so little to do with it that many
get swept off in the sudsy flood of soaps. “Teammates used to tease me about
watching them,” says Thompson, who in his days with the Portland Trail Blazers
taped as many as five a day on road trips. “But they all knew the characters’
names even the exotic ones like Cord and Blade and Suede. Obviously, the
players were secretly kicking back on their beds, watching too.”
In these more tolerant times, few soapstruck athletes feel compelled to hide
their habits behind chained hotel doors. “I don’t watch sports,” says Chicago
Bull guard Ron Harper. “I do sports for a living. Soaps relax my mind and keep
me out of trouble.”

No soap has athletes in more of a lather that Y and R, a sprawling epic that is
as hard to summarize briefly as Finnegans Wake. The show is set in real-life
Genoa City, Wis., where, at least on Y and R, marriages fail with depressing
regularity and everyone is desperately involved with everyone else. The crises
faced by these New World Genovese run from straying affections and frayed
reputations to comas and bouts of amnesia.

In the middle of this melodramatic maelstrom is Victor Newman, a Fortune 500
buccaneer whose very name couples winning and rebirth. As played by Eric
Braeden, Newman is among the most mercurial of TV characters. One minute he’ll
warble some soap-opera aria such as, “Defer to your elders, or I’ll crush you.”
The next, he’ll peer soulfully through candlelight and whisper, “I love you with
every fiber of my being.” Newman is higher in fiber than oat bran.
Newman was soap scum when he surfaced in Genoa City in 1980. He sealed his
first wife’s lover in a basement dungeon and fed him baked rats. He met his
second wife at a strip joint, where she performed erotic aerobics. After a
failed third marriage he got hitched to the glamorous chemist who had been his
lover during his second marriage. Newman stumbled onto his fifth wife a blind
farmer named Hope after his Rolls-Royce was car-jacked at a diner. For months
he was presumed dead because he never bothered to phone home.

Immediately after meeting Braeden on an L.A. street a few years ago, Harper
called his mother. “Mom flipped out,” he recalls. “She said, ‘You didn’t
really meet Victor Newman!’ I said, ‘Yeah!’ It was hard to tell who was more
excited.”

Newmaniacs often talk of their hero as if he were about to step through the
front door. “As cool as Victor is, he’s not my role model,” Thompson insists.
“I’m not going to jump into different beds or pull off some dirty business deal.
But if I had to, he’d be the one to show me how.”

“Victor Newman can make your life so miserable, you’re going to sit on your
grave and wish you were buried,” says Houston Oiler wide receiver Haywood
Jeffires. “He has power, and with power you can be as ugly as you want because
you know you’ll look beautiful in the end.”

The three-time Pro Bowler has followed Victor since his freshman year at North
Carolina State. “Victor’s got all the money,” he explains. “He’ll say, ‘It
costs $10 million? Call my accountant.’ He’ll say, ‘Let’s go to Europe for
dinner.’ The jet will be waiting and the Dom PĂ©rignon will be on ice. Is that
power or what?” Jeffires doesn’t call his favorite soap The Young and the
Restless anymore. “To me,” he says, “it’s just Victor.”

Jeffires is such an avid Victorite that he rushes home from practice to catch
the last 45 minutes during lunch break. Clutching three remote controls, a
glass of milk and a stack of Oreos, he’ll move from room to room, TV to TV.
Jeffires gets so lost in Victor that his wife, Robin, makes him wear a receiver
in his ear. “Haywood!” She’ll shout into a mike. “Didn’t you come home to be
with me and the kids?”

“No, honey,” he’ll shout back. “I came home to look at Victor! I want to see
who he’s messing up today.”

If Newman goes a few days without messing somebody up, Haywood goes haywire.
“I’ve thrown my glass at the screen 15 times,” he says. “Repairs have run me
$6,000.” Robin jokes that she used to worry that he would hurl his infant son,
Haywood III, at the screen. “I need Victor to be controversial,” Jeffires says.
“The Lone Ranger and Tonto ain’t no more. It’s the ’90s. Time for the bad
boys.”

They don’t come much badder than Victor. “When he loses, he just finds another
way to win,” Jeffires says. “In my next life, I want to be Victor Newman.”
Victor Newman has all that knowledge and yet he doesn’t know about women,” 59-
year-old Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson says. “He loves everybody and
divorces everybody. But he never gets rid of his ex-wives. He still wants to
control them.”

It’s 11 a.m. and a telephone rings in Bellevue, Neb. And rings and rings . . .
“Call me at 11, chances are I’m not pickin’ it up,” says Gibson, now a St. Louis
Cardinal coach. “That’s my time for The Young and the Restless.”
The man with the glare, the man with one of the meanest dispositions in baseball
history, spends the off-season watching soaps. “The only way to get me mad now
is to interrupt my watching,” Gibson says.

His memory of his first soap-opera is as indelible as soap-opera lipstick: “One
day when I was about 30, my first wife told me, ‘Tom died.’ I said, ‘Who?’ She
said, ‘Tom.’ I said, ‘How long have you known him?’ She said, ‘He’s on my
soap.’ I said, ‘Oh’ and pulled up a chair. The next day I was back in front of
the set. I wanted to know what happened next.”

Gibson tries to keep up with Y and R when the Cards are out of town, but when
that’s not possible he enlists his second wife, Wendy, to watch for him. “I
call home to ask if Victor has left Hope yet,” Gibson reports. “I couldn’t see
him staying with her to begin with. With Hope being blind, Victor thought he
could control her. He’s finding out it’s not that way and starting to reach
back to his ex-wife Nikki. As self-assured as Victor is, he’s insecure about
Hope.” Last Christmas, Wendy bought her husband a portable television for his
car. “Reception’s a problem,” he says. “Makes me nuts.”

That and Victor’s teenage son, Nicholas. “How could Nick send his girlfriend a
$500 coat and not tell her it was from him?” Gibson sputters. “If Victor cares
about you, you’ll hear about it and very soon! What the hell could Nick have
been thinking? Teenagers! Puppy love! Drives me up a wall.”

Gibson shakes his head like a pitcher who’s just walked the bases loaded. “I
don’t know,” he says. “Some of that stuff just isn’t real.”

Victor Newman is the height of swa-vay!” says cruiserweight boxer Thomas
Hearns. “He got it going, and what’s going he gets done. I like how smoothly
he talks, and how he squashes people in a sneaky way. I once saw him driving
around Los Angeles. I was in a Rolls with darkened windows, and I had the
driver pull my car over next to his. Pulled up besides Victor Newman! Rolled
down the window and said, ‘Victor! My man! Anytime you have trouble with those
beautiful women, you give me a call.’

“I only get to see him on TV. I watch him two, three times a week, except when
I’m in training. Can’t watch him then. He’s got way too much going on. I
can’t concentrate on what’s going on with me. Victor won’t let me concentrate.
Women can rob you of your concentration too. They can make you do things you
had no intention of doing. Victor’s the same kind of treacherous. Which is
why, when it comes to training, I don’t have no Victor.

“Tommy Hearns has got it goin’ on in boxing. But in soaps, Victor’s got it
goin’ on. Get in his way and it’s all over. We approach women, business, life
the same sort of way like cobras. Before I became the Hit Man, I was the
Cobra. I pass that torch on to Victor. I just wish he could pass the smooth
and the swa-vay on to me.”

“Victor Newman,” says Sam Cassell. “Vic-tor Newman. Vic-tor Newman. Victor
New-man.”
“On the final day of the Houston Rockets’ regular season, the point guard
repeats this pregame mantra to his locker room cubby. “Sam!” says teammate
Vernon Maxwell. “You know about Victor?”
“Who don’t know about Victor?” says Cassell. “He’s the man. The Victor
Newman. Victor is cold.”

“Cold and debonair,” says forward Robert Horry. “Very sure of himself.”
“Man with that much power coulda married anyone,” Cassell says. “But he fell in
love with a blind woman. Not for what she is, but who she’s about.”
On the road Horry, Maxwell and Cassell watch Victor in the privacy of their
hotel rooms. “You need to be lying on your bed,” says Horry.
“Stretched out,” interjects Maxwell.

“Buck naked,” says Cassell.

The three were initiated into the Newman cult as teenagers. Cassell would skip
class at Florida State to watch the show. Happily, his political science
professor taught the same course at night. “I didn’t tell him why I needed to
take a later class,” Cassell says. “I couldn’t. What would I say? ‘I got to
see my Victor?”

Cassell claims to have sighted his hero a few years ago in the Memphis airport.
“He was talking on the phone,” Cassell recalls. “I screamed, ‘That’s my man
right there! That is Victor!” He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.
He’s Victor Newman.”

“Victor Newman is the kind of guy I wouldn’t put up with,” says 31-year-old
golfer Cathy Johnston-Forbes. “He’s too controlling. I’d tell him to go jump
in a lake. It probably wouldn’t come out like that, though.”
The 10-year LPGA veteran has been hooked on The Young and the Restless since
1973. But Newman still perplexes her. “Sometimes I like him,” she says,
“sometimes I hate him. He has everything he ever wanted, except satisfaction.”
She doesn’t see why women find Victor so irresistible. “He’s not that
handsome,” she protests. “Maybe they like being treated like queens. As
domineering as Victor Newman is, he can be sensitive, a gentleman. He treats
women like a crystal he never wants to hurt them. But in the end, he hurts
them anyway.”

She likes Victor best in those heady months after one of his innumerable
marriages. “No other women are in the picture,” she says. “Everything’s going
good.” Inevitably, other women enter the picture and everything goes bad. “I
thought Victor and his fourth wife were perfect for each other,” she exclaims.
“And then he falls back in love with wife number two. For the next six months I
hated him.”

It didn’t take long for number two to give way to number five. This left
Johnston-Forbes puzzled. “It’s not like I can’t understand men,” she says. “I
understand my husband, Foster. He’s nothing like Victor. The only similarity
is that Foster is real thoughtful to me.”
Foster caddies for Cathy. At lunch they watch Y and R. During the show Foster
has been known to pick up an imaginary phone and say, ‘Hello, this is Victor
Newman.’ When Monday Night Football is on, Foster sometimes says, “I’m going to
have a Victor drink.” Then he’ll straighten up, puff out his chest and pour
himself a Wild Turkey and water.
“Victor Newman reminds me of Tony La Russa, the Oakland A’s manager,” says
umpire Rocky Roe. “Tony’s a good-looking, swashbuckling kind of guy who’s
always in charge. Unless he’s arguing with me.”
Ever wonder what umps talk about between innings? If you’re Roe, you’re asking
your crewmates: “Has Dimitri found out the truth about Erica’s daughter?” Roe
is a dyed-in-the-gut All My Children fan. “I like Erica,” he says. “She still
looks good after 47 marriages.”

On this dull spring day in Orlando, Roe is folded into his family room La-Z-Boy,
a pouch of chaw in one hand, an empty Juicy Lucy’s cup in the other. Until
recently he didn’t know Victor Newman from Alfred E. Neuman. “I’ll watch,” he
says, “because I like the actor who plays him. If I’m not mistaken, he was
Captain Dietrich on The Rat Patrol.” Roe is not mistaken.

At first Roe finds Restless as mysterious as Kabuki. But within 10 minutes he’s
tracking story lines as if they were forkballs on the inside corner. “After 17
years of soap watching,” he explains, “I know the drill.” Roe anticipates, if
not relishes, every telling pause, every heartfelt stammer, every Mysterious
Fatal Disease.

The camera pans the cabin of a Learjet and settles on a man in black whose face
is bathed in white. “You know Victor’s wealthy,” Roe says. “He’s making phone
calls from the air.” Newman speaks in a deep, rich German accent that hangs
thickly on his sentences, like wet snow. “Great resonance!” says Roe,
dribbling tobacco juice into his cup. “Extremely expressive face. You can see
he’s anguished. He doesn’t even have to say a word.”

Newman has flown to Kansas to persuade his blind wife to return with him to
Genoa City (it would take too long to explain). “I can see why Victor wants her
back in Wisconsin,” cracks Roe. “The cheese is better, and the beer’s colder.”
He reaches across his ample belly to grab an iced tea.
As surely as the world turns, Roe says he can predict how the episode will end:
“Victor will be standing outside the door of a hospital room, looking in
anxiously at his bedridden wife and her old boyfriend.”
But it’s still early, and Newman is leering in his Lear. His nostrils twitch as
if at an offensive smell.

“Oh, my!” says Roe.
Newman curls his lower lip into the most malignant of sneers. His face suggests
a clenched fist.
“Jeez, Victor’s foaming like a Maytag!”
Newman swells with righteous indignation and begins talking LIKE THIS. Roe’s
lips tremble like strawberry Jell-O. “Oooooooooh! Evil!”
The episode ends with Newman standing outside the door of a hospital room,
looking in anxiously at his bedridden wife, who has just given birth, and her
ex-fiancĂ©. “I think I’ll give Victor another look tomorrow,” Roe says. “If he
doesn’t grab me, I’ll put my finger on the remote and switch to another
channel.” In other words, he’ll give Victor the thumb.
“Victor Newman is not only omnipotent, but omniscient,” says Braeden. “He’s
forceful, yet reacts in an emotional way. That is what athletes dream about.”
The man who is Victor Newman is exercising his acting muscles on an L.A.
soundstage. He has just taped a wrenching scene with Signy Coleman, who plays
Hope. Coleman continues weeping. Braeden has long since detached himself. He
and the crew are playing catch with a balled-up page from the script. “Sports
keep you honest,” he says between tosses. “The joy is real, the pain is real.
Acting is innately fake. The challenge is to be real.”

It is somewhat ludicrous, Braeden says, to be alive in the time of your own
legend. This was never more apparent to him than the day he met George Foreman
in a dressing room at CBS Television City, where The Young and the Restless is
taped. “Oh, man, I am blessed,” said the heavy weight champ. “Oh, man, I am
blessed. I met Victor Newman.”

To keep himself Victorious, the 54-year-old Braeden spars and pumps iron in the
home gym he calls his “temple.” He plays tennis with Alex Olmedo, the 1959
Wimbledon champ. He coaches the Los Angeles Soccer Club on which his 25-yearold
son, Christian, is a sweeper. The team successfully defended its Golden
West League title this year.

Soaps, Braeden doesn’t watch. Even his own. “I watch sports,” he says. He
sees in premier athletes an arrogance that borders on the Newmanesque. “My
admiration for Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard is boundless,” he says. “Joe
Montana’s self-possession was almost unshakable.”

Compromise has never come easy to Braeden. Born Hans Gudegast in Kiel, Germany,
he grew up under difficult circumstances. “My father died when I was 12,” he
says, “and I saw a lot during World War II. One assumes a kind of armor to
cover the pain.” At 18 he came alone to the United States, where he attended
Montana State on a partial track scholarship. He left Montana without
graduating and wound up in L.A. While taking some courses at Santa Monica
College he heard that Hollywood was looking for Germans. He turned actor.
Braeden got typed as a Nazi. “The experience was dehumanizing,” he says. “I
wanted a chance to play a complex human being.” That chance arrived 15 years
ago when he became Victor Newman. It is now difficult to say where Eric Braeden
ends and Victor Newman begins. “We’re both capable of enormous tenderness,”
says Braeden. “And ‘Don’t screw with me’ attitudes.”

That attitude sometimes gets Braeden in jams that even Newman couldn’t bail him
out of. In 1991 he got in a dressing room brawl with the actor who plays
Victor’s nemesis. Braeden and his publicist refuse to comment on the incident.
Braeden does say that “I have a lot of anger, defiance, rage. You need not to
squelch that. Anger is the fuel that fires many people.”

Sports, says Braeden, help channel his rage. “They’re a way of expressing
deeply felt emotions,” says Braeden, who has been married to the same woman,
Dale, for 29-years. “Isn’t love just a jockeying for position? You worship and
are worshiped. You leave her, she leaves you. Jealously is a form of defeat.
You fear you’ve lost the struggle to be Number 1 on the playing field of
another’s life.”

For all Braeden’s love of competition, last year’s ice escapades of Nancy
Kerrigan and Tonya Harding left him cold. “I saw the difficulty,” he says,
smoothing the corners of his mustache. “I saw the artistry. I saw the
athleticism. But ultimately, it bored me. And you know why? “It was soap
opera.”

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