September 11, 2000 12:00 PM

The time: Summer 1988. The place: Atlanta, three Democratic conventions ago. Movie heartthrob and political activist Rob Lowe, preeminent member of what was then known as Hollywood’s Brat Pack, was enjoying as much political access as his 24-year-old celebrity could afford. He rubbed elbows with presidential nominee Michael Dukakis and hung out with then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore. Poor Al: He’d suffered the double humiliation of losing to the Massachusetts governor in the primaries and had just been passed over as a vice-presidential pick. After a long day of politicking and partying, Lowe found himself among a fatigued group in the senator’s hotel suite. “It was like 4 in the morning,” recalls Lowe. “There was a lull in the conversation, and I looked over, and Gore had tears in his eyes. He said so quietly to himself that I could barely hear it, ‘They wouldn’t even let me speak at this convention.’ ”

The moral? “It’s just a great lesson in life,” says Lowe, 36, “that this guy, 12 years later, is this close to being the President of the United States.”

Gore isn’t the only one who has come a long way from those Atlanta nights. A notorious amateur videotape Lowe shot that week—dumbly documenting a casual sexcapade with two young women—turned his life and career upside down. The intensity of the scandal may be hard to imagine now, in a post-Lewinsky world. But overnight Lowe’s public profile went from leading man to laughingstock.

Yet today Lowe, like Gore, has made a remarkable comeback. On The West Wing, NBC’s rookie hit drama about a frazzled White House staff, Lowe plays Sam Seaborn, the charming, bright, sometimes fumbling deputy communications director to Democratic President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen). And Lowe swears he isn’t indulging in spin control when he says now, 12 years later, that the whole shameful videotape fiasco was really “a gift. I don’t know if I would have bought that same gift if I was in the store again,” he adds, “but it got me here.”

“Here” is a five-bedroom house on six acres of real estate in Santa Barbara, 90 minutes from Los Angeles, complete with tree-covered paths and a burbling stream. It’s home to Lowe and Sheryl, 39, his wife of nine years; their sons Matthew, 6, and John Owen, 4; Chester, a terrier mix; Chopper, a miniature schnauzer; Elsa, a Norwegian elkhound; and John Owen’s frog Milk Dud. On a recent Wednesday afternoon Sheryl, a former makeup artist Lowe met through friends, stands just inside the open patio doors preparing a dinner of steak, potatoes and cucumber salad and chatting with Lowe’s mom, Barbara Hepler, who lives nearby. Lowe is pitching Wiffle balls to a bat-swinging John Owen. “Wowww,” Lowe cries. “John Owen, that’s a home run! My man is a hitting machine!” In a moment free from horseplay, he’ll sit back, light a Monte Cristo stogie (his sons call him Cigar-man) and drink coffee from a mug that says Dad.

Out with the Brat Pack, in with the Brady Bunch? Maybe so. “Rob’s greatest accomplishment is his kids,” says his brother, actor Chad Lowe, 32, husband of Oscar-winning Boys Don’t Cry actress Hilary Swank. “To me, that will forever be the standard by which I judge him.” Says friend Mike Myers: “He’s one proud papa.”

And one happy actor. Lowe, who makes just under $100,000 an episode, won’t be going home with an Emmy Sept. 10—he isn’t up for one of the critically praised show’s record 18 nominations. But you won’t hear him asking for a recount. The West Wing caps a slowly accelerating comeback that took on steam last summer when Lowe did a dead-on Robert Wagner impersonation in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. (He played a younger version of Dr. Evil’s henchman, Number Two—played, of course, by Wagner.) “I’m excited,” says Lowe’s buddy actor Bill Paxton of this newfound success. “I’ve been saying all along, ‘It’s just going to take one thing and you’re going to see the Boy Wonder back on top.'”

Martin Sheen, who knew Lowe back when he was a teenager in Malibu hanging out with Sheen’s sons Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, agrees: “We all knew West Wing was a superb opportunity for Rob. No one could even imagine anyone else in this part. Rob”—who sold cookies and lemonade to raise money for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern back in ’72—”is a political junkie.” Needless to say, then, Lowe has been thrilled by his three meetings with President Clinton, reportedly a fan of The West Wing. And on Aug. 13 dozens of White House staffers, plus First Daughter Chelsea, visited the set while in L.A. for the Democratic Convention. “Chelsea was blown away by the ‘Oval Office,’ ” says Lowe, referring to the set’s replica. “All the junior staffers wanted to go to the ‘Oval Office’ and drink. They wouldn’t leave.”

Lowe, on the other hand, learned years ago to leave parties earlier. Once a binge drinker, now sober for a decade, he lately has served as an emotional support to longtime buddy and bad-boy-on-the-mend Robert Downey Jr. Released from prison last month, the actor, 35, who had been serving time for violating probation on drug charges, put Lowe at the top of the guest list for his postprison celebratory dinner on Aug. 7. “He’s like a big brother to me right now,” says Downey, who has known Lowe since they attended Santa Monica High. “Rob for me is a blueprint for what is possible if you have the humility to do the footwork.”

For the first decade of his career, Lowe couldn’t put a foot wrong. With delicately chiseled cheeks and a faraway look in his blue eyes, he was a designated heartthrob from grade school on. That has been a “dilemma throughout his whole life,” says Chad, speaking in earnest. Stage fright, on the other hand, was never a problem. Growing up in Dayton, Lowe began appearing in school and local productions when he was only 8. “I was never hopping on the sofa, playing cowboys and Indians,” he says. “I was really into, ‘How do grown-ups [act]?’ It wasn’t a scenario of escape—it was exhilarating.”

His father, Charles Lowe, 60, an attorney, and mother, Barbara, 61, an English teacher turned homemaker, divorced by the time Rob was 5. After Barbara married and divorced a second time, she and the kids settled down with her third husband-to-be, a social worker, Steve Wilson, in Malibu in 1977. Now conveniently close to Hollywood, Lowe landed his first sitcom role, in the short-lived A New Kind of Family, while still a sophomore at Santa Monica High. “My first take on Rob in school was, ‘How come he has a Mazda?’ ” recalls Downey. “I was like, ‘C’mon, he’s 16!’ ”

And just getting started. Lowe made his feature film debut in 1983’s The Outsiders, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring an up-and-coming cast that included Patrick Swayze and newcomer Tom Cruise. In those days before superstardom, Cruise—who Lowe says was driven to tears by the intensity of Coppola’s casting process—didn’t mind a little rough-housing off-camera. “I can remember once fighting Tom,” says Lowe, “and I hit him so hard that his eyes rolled back in his head. The next thing I remember, people were pulling him off me.”

The success of The Outsiders made Lowe a Hollywood insider, but for brother Chad, four years younger, “it took away my best friend and my father figure. His stardom was new to all of us as a family.” Three movies later came 1985’s St. Elmo’s Fire, the Brat Pack Citizen Kane, with Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson.

The rest is history, and memorable haircuts. Lowe claims he never paid much attention to the Brat Pack label, but he couldn’t ignore his fame. One Halloween, he says, “I saw at least five people dressed as me.”

The difference was that none of those revelers lived Lowe’s high life. He palled around with the Sheen brothers. He had courtside Lakers tickets. He flew cross-country to see Bruce Springsteen. He dated high-profile actresses like Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Gilbert, 1984’s Hotel New Hampshire costar Nastassja Kinski and Princess Stephanie of Monaco. (In 1984 he met wife-to-be Sheryi Berkoff, who went on to be Emilio Estevez’s girlfriend, but neither felt lightning strike. “I just thought he’d be fun to be friends with,” Sheryl says.) And he could drink. “If we all went out for one beer,” he says, “I might end up being up for two days drinking. I was what you would call an extremely functional alcoholic.”

In the ’80s, Lowe recalls, “my personal life was like the Beach Boys song, ‘Fun, fun, fun ’til Daddy takes the T-Bird away.’ Well, the T-Bird got taken away, and it wasn’t so fun anymore.”

The repossession, of course, started during the July 1988 Democratic convention in Atlanta. Late on July 17, checking out a nightclub with Judd Nelson and Sheedy, Lowe met two women—Jan Parsons, then 16, a hair-salon assistant, and Tara Siebert, a 22-year-old receptionist—and invited them back to his hotel room, where he videotaped the proceedings. The night’s sexual shenanigans weren’t exposed until the following year, when Parsons’s mother (on her daughter’s behalf) sued and the video (which the young women had taken from the room) was leaked to the media. Soon its grainy but shocking footage had been gasped at and tittered over around the globe. “I don’t think I was the originator of that kind of behavior,” Lowe says now of the telltale tape, “or that I was the only celebrity in the world doing it. But the fact that I could find myself in that position was indicative of where my head was at.”

The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court. No criminal charges were filed, but Lowe agreed to perform 20 hours of community service back in Dayton. Even so, his life was in turmoil. With reporters watching his every move—he once had to climb over a back wall to go out to dinner—he mostly hunkered down inside with friends “to protect him and insulate him,” says Sheryl, who by now had become a close pal. The scandal “was a very tough chapter in the family’s history,” says Chad, noting that it was especially tough for their grandparents and other relatives. “But Rob is one of the most resilient people I know.” (It helped, says Lowe, that “at the height of my downfall, I was still making a million bucks a picture.”)

Lowe endured a second—and far, far more minor—embarrassment at the 1989 Academy Awards, overseen by flamboyant Hollywood producer Alan Carr (Grease). In what is generally considered one of Oscar’s great tacky moments, Lowe sang “Proud Mary” to Snow White. “I thought it would be sort of goofy, a camp thing,” Lowe says. Then he looked out over the audience and saw director Barry Levin-son: “Literally, his mouth was forming the words, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ ”

Through all the upheaval Lowe and Sheryl had grown ever closer. In 1990 they vacationed in Fiji. “We had our own hut,” says Sheryl. “I let my guard down and realized I was in love with this guy.” Lowe felt the same. “The first epiphany was that I should be with Sheryl,” he says. “The other was that I needed to get sober.”

Epiphany No. 2 came after Sheryl almost put the kibosh on epiphany No. 1 that spring. “I remember him drinking too much and thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I really care for this guy but I’m not going to be an enabler or a co-dependent,” says Sheryl. She broke off the relationship. Forty-eight hours later Lowe called to say he was en route to the Sierra Tucson rehab center in Arizona for a 30-day stay. “I was willing to do whatever it took,” he says. He stopped drinking on May 10. “I’m so proud of him,” says his mom.

Reunited, he and Sheryl were married July 22, 1991, at a friend’s house in L.A. “Sheryl is probably one of the better women I know in the world,” says their neighbor, rock star David Crosby, “and Rob choosing to marry her was a smart move.” Nine years on, says Lowe, the passion is still strong.

“The sex is every bit as good as the first month,” he says. “Oftentimes better.” Her husband, says Sheryl, “is inventive and romantic. He writes me poems for no reason. I’ll come home and there will be a card sitting on my night-stand.” And he does a wonderful impersonation of her father, who passed away some time ago. “He does his walk, his talk, all his mannerisms,” says Sheryl. “When I want to remember my father, I always say, ‘Rob, do my dad. Do my dad.’ And he does him to a T.”

That’s how the wider public knows the new Lowe—he’s funny. As his home life came together in the early ’90s, Lowe was changing gears professionally. The tape and Oscar debacles were setbacks, but Lowe figures he would have needed an overhaul anyway. “I was too young to play fathers and not believable as the president of the bank or too old to play the inexperienced young guy in the commando unit,” he says. “I was directionless.” So he went for laughs. In 1990 he had a hilarious turn as host of Saturday Night Live, where Dana Carvey, as the censorious Church Lady, gave him a paddling for his indiscretions. That night a lightbulb went off in the head of the future Austin Powers. “I thought Rob was the best-looking person in the world,” says then-SNL player Mike Myers, “and I was struck by how funny he was.” SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels (who has invited Lowe back for the fall season) cast him as a sleazy TV mogul in the 1992 hit Wayne’s World. Myers, the movie’s star, then cast the actor (and by now friend) in Austin Powers II. Lowe still calls Myers up, pretending to be R.J. Wagner. “We’ll have a 20-minute conversation,” says Myers, “before he finally says, ‘Mike, it’s me, Rob.’ ”

The irony, says Lowe, is that if he sang “Proud Mary” to Snow White again, “people would dig it, because now they know I’m funny.”

Clearly the Lowe who emerged from disaster “is not bitter and not vitriolic,” says Bill Paxton. Other friends concur. “Rob is not judgmental about people,” says actress Natasha Richardson, “because he’s been through so many changes in his life.” In the permanent Brat Pack that is so much of Hollywood, says Doug Fieger, guitarist-singer for the pop band the Knack and an old Lowe friend, “so many people don’t grow up that when you meet someone who does really well, it’s admirable.”

By the time Lowe auditioned for West Wing last year, series creator Aaron Sorkin didn’t care about his videotaped past. He just wasn’t sure a movie idol would fit in with a strong ensemble cast of character actors. “With very good-looking men, you’re suspect of their acting abilities,” says Sorkin, “particularly when Rob led a career in his 20s that had a lot to do with the way he looked. But moments after his audition began, that was the last thing I was thinking.” Of course, some things never change—much. “There ain’t a thing you can do to that face,” says West Wing’s John Spencer, who plays chief of staff Leo McGarry. “I see Rob after a 16-hour day and he’s still very nearly perfect-looking.”

Long days, as real White House staffers know, are one of the unfortunate privileges of working for a President. (Lowe, who keeps himself fueled with triple cappuccinos, also puts in some extra time as a breast-cancer-awareness spokesman in memory of his grandmother Peg Hepler, who died of the illness.) By the time he gets back home to Santa Barbara, Lowe manages to stay awake long enough to read Harry Potter to the kids, after which he’ll maybe study eight pages of the next day’s dialogue before dozing off. Then, he says, “all of a sudden you realize, ‘When’s the last time my wife and I went on a date?’ ”

But that’s life—and Lowe knows that, no question, it’s a good life. “There are good days and bad days,” he says. “It’s not a fairy tale. It’s better than that. It’s real.”

Tom Gliatto

Elizabeth Leonard in Santa Barbara

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