Rob Lowe arrives for an interview with a pressing question of his own.
“Can I ask you to move to the other side of the table?” he asks. “I’m deaf in my right ear and want to be able to hear you.”
Lowe drops this unexpected biographical detail with the matter-of-factness of someone who, due to a bout of mumps at six months old, has lived with hearing loss as long as he can remember. Long enough, in other words, to make jokes about it. "I'm only growing deafer," he says, sliding into his preferred side of the booth in the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge, "the older I get."
It's an afternoon in mid-March, mere days before the former Brat Pack heartthrob will celebrate his birthday. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a snug navy V-neck sweater, he looks and acts much younger than 52. ("Or am I turning 53?” he muses. "I can't remember anymore!")
As the actor talks about marking another milestone — finishing the season's filming on his Fox comedy The Grinder the previous evening — he exudes an enthusiasm more typical of a Tinseltown newcomer than a veteran who's been racking up IMDB credits for nearly 40 years.
The unofficial impromptu wrap party included cigars in Lowe's tricked-out trailer and a midnight burger run to McDonald's. "One of the many aggravating things about Rob's attractiveness," cracks costar Fred Savage later, "is that he loves hamburgers and can eat them all the time."
An enviable metabolism isn't all Lowe brought to The Grinder, a whip-smart show-biz satire and family-comedy mash-up, which did not earn a second season when the network made its pickup announcements in May.
He played Dean Sanderson, Jr. — the former star of a long-running TV drama also called The Grinder — who returns home to Idaho convinced he can work as a lawyer at his family's firm... because he played one on TV. This notion endlessly exasperates his uber-practical brother, Stewart (Savage), a real attorney.
Lowe's hilariously astute performance was informed by his decades in the Hollywood trenches. "The meta show business of it all is an unending deep well for someone who's been doing this as long as I have," says the actor, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for the role earlier this year. "I know the themes — narcissism, insecurity, people-pleasing, fame, ambition, delusion — really well."
Lowe had previously explored those topics in a biting arc as an unbalanced Oscar winner on Showtime's Californication, but — thanks to The Grinder's "souffle of sweetness" — he couldn't resist revisiting them
"We rarely see show business dealt with on network television, but when we do, there's always an element of douchiness to it," he says, ordering a double espresso. "Dean never had that in the writing, and I don't go there in the performance. He's a people-pleaser who just wants everybody to love him, like a lot of actors. He truly means well, and that's the key — because otherwise he would be boring and unlikable."
Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel — co-creators, writers and executive producers of The Grinder — had decided early on that, to make their show work, they'd need a "Rob Lowe type." That is, a beloved high-wattage star with easy charisma and a willingness to poke fun at the melodramatic tendencies of those in the profession.
But the real Rob Lowe (also an exec producer, along with Nicholas Stoller, Melvin Mar and Jake Kasdan) turned out to be even more game than they'd hoped.
Mogel explains: "We were writing this scene where Rob [as Dean, in a bit from the show within a show] is buried alive and has to climb out of the grave in the rain. We said, 'Is Rob gonna wanna do this?' He has to be in a box underground in the dirt, climb out and get soaking wet. A terrible situation! Not only was he okay doing it, he was excited about it. He was like, 'What if, after I climb out, I rip my shirt off?'"
One of the funniest moments in the pilot — after being asked to take a photo with a fan, Dean turns him around to ensure better lighting — was also Lowe's suggestion. "I do that all the time," the actor admits. "When people want selfies, I go, 'Listen, if this is worth doing, it's worth doing right!'"
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, back before selfie was a part of the cultural lexicon, Lowe never imagined he’d carve out such an enduring career.
After seeing a community theater production of Oliver! at eight years old, the son of a schoolteacher mother and lawyer father only knew that he wanted to be one of the performers onstage, pronto. “I was hit by a thunderbolt,” he says. “It was like a bad cliched moment in a movie, and I asked my parents to sign me up for the kids’ workshop.”
Not that he was immediately recognized as a born star. "I had a nemesis who got every part that I wanted," he remembers with a laugh. "I still have this fantasy of going back and seeing him like,'How you like me now? Oh, I'm sorry, these are my two Screen Actors Guild trophies. Clink, clink, clink!'"
When Lowe was 12, his divorced mother moved him and younger brother Chad to Malibu. Major culture shock ensued.
"I rolled into the Point Dume Market parking lot in my Levi jeans in August, and I don't think anybody had worn long pants in Malibu since the cowboys founded the place," he says. "Everybody was in shorts and on skateboards, and I didn't know what hit me. I wanted to play pickup football and baseball, but they all played beach volleyball, surfed or smoked pot. Those were the three things you did in Malibu."
Another thing they did in Malibu: join the entertainment business. Living just down the road from Martin Sheen, his future costar on The West Wing, Lowe struck up friendships with Sheen's sons, Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, and attended high school with fellow future luminaries Robert Downey, Jr., and Sean Penn,
Before long, he began booking TV projects, including a series-regular role on the short-lived ABC comedy A New Kind of Family, featuring a pre-music career Janet Jackson, and the telefilm Thursday's Child, which led to his first Golden Globe nomination. But his big break came when he was cast in his inaugural feature film, The Outsiders, Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of the classic young-adult novel by S.E. Hinton.
On the cusp of 18, Lowe left behind any tentative plans he'd made to attend college and headed for Tulsa, Oklahoma, to begin production.
"It was like a college freshman's first time away from mommy and daddy: first time living alone, first time doing their own wash," he says now of the months he spent sharing a floor in the Excelsior Hotel with other then-rising stars Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon and Ralph Macchio.
"I look back on it and realize the Greasers [one of the two gangs] of The Outsiders were my fraternity brothers — and it's still that way whenever we see each other. It's still got that intensity around it that your college years have for everybody."
The movie's 1983 release, though, brought Lowe his first hard Hollywood lesson: what you shoot doesn't always make it on screen. Watching the film for the first time, the young actor was devastated to realize his role as dreamy Sodapop Curtis had been cut significantly. "I thought it was me," he says, "that my work was bad."
It wasn't until Coppola restored more than 20 minutes of deleted footage for a DVD re-release in 2005 that Lowe realized that hadn't been the case. ("There I was, 40 years old, seeing those scenes that were cut for the first time," he says, "and it was so emotional for me. Those scenes, I love them.")
At the time, though, Lowe used the disappointment burning inside him as fuel — a trait that's become a hallmark of his career. "When I get knocked down, my instinct is not 'How dare they?'" he says. "I don't have a victim bone in my body. My instinct is 'What can I do better?'"
That drive ultimately helped the actor become one of the biggest movie stars of the '80s (see St. Elmo's Fire and About Last Night...) and a charter member of the hard-partying Brat Pack. Today, Lowe is grateful to have come of age in an era without smartphones, social media and a 24-7 entertainment news cycle.
"When we were coming up, you knew you'd get your picture taken at Spago and that's about it," he says. "So you could go about your business in terms of living the life. I'm not sure it's as free today." Still, Lowe's youthful exploits did grab their share of tabloid headlines. After starring in ostensibly the first celebrity sex tape to go public, he checked himself into rehab.
"When I got in recovery, that's when I started doing the real work on me," he says. "Up until then, every single thing had been about me, me, me [in terms of] my career. So I ended up being a 26-year-old with the mind and spirit of a 15-year-old, because that's when I got famous, and you stop growing when you're famous.
"It's true — unless you work at it. So at 26, I started working at it, working on me, and it's been a lifelong process. Believe me, it's not over yet."
The heady party days, however, are long gone. In 1991, Lowe married makeup artist Sheryl Berkhoff and, within four years, the couple had welcomed two sons, Matthew and John, whom they chose to raise in Santa Barbara, away from the white-hot Hollywood glare.
At the same time that the actor's personal life was entering a new phase, so was his professional one. Having successfully hosted Saturday Night Live, where he mocked the sex-tape scandal, Lowe focused on flexing his comedy chops in hit flicks like Wayne's World, Tommy Boy and the Austin Powers series.
In the process, he resurrected his career. "Everybody goes through feast and famine periods," he says now. "The key is surviving the famine periods. Because it's over if you don't."
As it turned out, Lowe was just getting started. In 1999, he landed the gig that would bring him an Emmy nomination: White House deputy communications director Sam Seaborn on NBC's The West Wing. The Aaron Sorkin-created drama was a hit with viewers and critics alike and ultimately won four consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series.
Still, after four seasons, Lowe opted to depart the show following a high-profile contract dispute. As he sips his espresso now, it's clear that chapter of his career still stirs up mixed feelings.
"The show was f—king genius," he begins. "I'm very proud of it. But it's like if somebody had filmed your relationship with your first love. Would you really want to go back and look at it? Because it's complicated and it's beautiful — it's all that stuff."
In his post-West Wing era, Lowe has focused on showcasing his impressive range.
He's been a tirelessly upbeat auditor (Parks and Recreation) and a relentlessly haunted writer (the Stephen King mini Salem's Lot); a convicted wife killer (Drew Peterson: Untouchable) and an assassinated president (Killing Kennedy); Calista Flockhart's idealistic senator husband (Brothers and Sisters) and Liberace's coked-out plastic surgeon (Behind the Candelabra); a foul- mouthed man of God facing a doomsday reality (You, Me and the Apocalypse) and now, an earnest Peter Pan living within a carefully constructed fantasy.
Some of The Grinder's best moments mined the relationship between Dean and his down-to-earth brother, Stewart. While the Sanderson siblings often had trouble connecting, the actors who played them with a pitch-perfect Odd Couple chemistry don't share that problem.
"One of the great joys of the show has been discovering this partnership with Rob," says Savage, the former star of The Wonder Years who's since carved out a second career as an accomplished TV director.
"I was totally unprepared for the bond we would form so quickly. Our work ethics are the same. Our approach to acting and comedy is very similar. And even more important than that, I feel like our lives are similar. He's an incredibly committed father and husband, and family is the most important thing to me as well."
Savage reports that the actors' wrap-night hangout wasn't an anomaly; the two could often be found kicking back together during downtime in Lowe's "kick-ass Hollywood Airstream."
"I've never smoked more cigars than I do working with Rob!" Savage says, laughing. "I used to have maybe one or two a year. But during the second week of filming, I walked by his trailer and heard, 'Hey, Fred! Come on in and have a cigar.' And when Rob Lowe invites you to have a cigar, you don't turn that down!"
At press time, Lowe was hopeful that Fox would renew The Grinder, which received massive critical love but struggled in the ratings. At some point, though, the performer — who's also written two best-selling memoirs and created his own men's lifestyle brand called Profile for Men — claims he can picture pulling a Dean Sanderson.
"I could imagine not acting," he says, "because there are other areas of life that I'm as interested in. I'm not actively looking to not do it, but I can see a world where I don't wear makeup anymore for a living."
Just don't make like Stewart Sanderson and expect him to settle into a routine existence anytime soon. "I'm not sure," says Lowe, flashing the megawatt smile that's graced screens for nearly four decades, "I even know what normal life is anymore."