November 18, 2013 12:00 PM

Rob Lowe is going to turn the big 5-0 in March, but that’s not the milestone on his mind right this minute. “My son John Owen is in the middle of applying to colleges,” the star says in near disbelief. “He’s looking at schools I can only play graduates of.” Soon the Santa Monica High grad and wife Sheryl, 52, will officially be empty nesters. “If it is anything like when [my son Matthew, 20] went away to Duke, I’m going to have to check myself into a padded cell,” he says. “It is still unbelievably painful to walk past that empty bedroom. Although I’ve learned, when they come back home they’ve grown so much. Your relationship goes to a whole other level.”

For a guy going through a lot of changes, Lowe has the uncanny ability to make it all look easy. This fall the ageless heartthrob announced he was leaving the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation. He has a new sitcom in the works and a marquee role playing JFK in the National Geographic Channel movie Killing Kennedy, which airs Nov. 10. Of course to Gen X’ers and beyond, Lowe is far more than his recent credits. He’s a Brat Pack icon who weathered scandal to grow into a seasoned performer who is not above poking fun at his pretty-boy image, a bestselling memoirist and a family man who spends his down days hanging with loved ones at a sprawling retreat in Montecito, Calif. “I’m really happy and grateful for this particular moment in my life,” Lowe says. “Last week I did a day on Parks and Recreation, then went and did [post-production work] as JFK, then did the same for Californication, then got on a plane to film the movie Sex Tape with Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel; it’s an actor’s dream to be able to play in all of these different sandboxes.”

And then there’s that whole Fountain of Youth thing. Friends say Lowe actually doesn’t care much about his looks. And he’s long insisted he likes getting older. “Rob has aged into a position of authority and seniority,” says Nelson McCormick, who directed him as JFK. “There is something that he has grown into that makes you like him even more. He is a wonderful guy, a great father and a great husband.”

After well-publicized struggles with substance abuse early in his career, Lowe has been proudly sober for 23 years. The recovery was his own, but his wife has been his rock. In 1991 the star wed Sheryl Berkoff, a makeup artist turned jewelry designer, who stuck by him at a tough point in his life and career. “Long marriages always go through phases, and right now I am in a phase where I’m rediscovering my relationship with Sheryl. We are like giddy teenagers,” Lowe says. “I think it is because we’re realizing we are going to have a lot of alone time coming up when both the boys are out of the house.”

But that doesn’t mean the couple will be playing bridge. “Left to my own devices, I’m always doing something,” says Lowe, who enjoys running on the beach near his home. “I have to do it for my head. You don’t want to live with me if I am not active.” And don’t expect the big birthday to change that. “I’d rather be 49 going on 50 than 24 going on 25, for sure,” Lowe says. “A few years ago, I got to a point where I realized that the only way you can tell someone’s age is how they live their life. The candles on the cake mean absolutely nothing.”

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