Eric Braeden has starred as Victor Newman since 1980

By Natalie Stone
February 19, 2020 10:00 AM
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When Eric Braeden was cast on The Young and the Restless 40 years ago, he didn’t think his role would turn into a lifelong career.

“To be honest with you, I was not particularly interested. I really wasn’t. I’m not saying that to play it down, I was very trepidatious about it. I didn’t even know what a soap was,” Braeden, 78, tells PEOPLE of being cast as Victor Newman on the CBS soap opera in 1980.

After his “old friend” and fellow actor Dabney Coleman suggested he ” ‘Do it. You’ll love it,’ in his typically cryptic fashion,” Braeden says he interviewed with creators William J. Bell and Lee Phillip Bell. “I didn’t even know there was television during the day. I really didn’t. It was the farthest thing from my mind,” says Braeden, “and here I am 40 years later.”

  • For more from Eric Braeden, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

At the time that he was cast, he only committed to playing Victor for three months. But after a pivotal conversation with Bill Bell, Braeden decided to continue in the daytime series.

“I said, ‘Bill, I’ve played bad guys for so long, I’m empty. It’s too dehumanizing, I can’t do it anymore.’ I’d done it for, you know, 120-hour guest roles on nighttime television for years in films. And lo and behold, he came up with a storyline, I forget how much later. After I played that, I said, ‘Now I’m staying,’ ” Braeden recalls.

“It was when Nikki [Newman] asked Victor about his past; she knew nothing about his past … and he talked about having grown up in an orphanage, where he had been left by his destitute mother since he was 7 years old,” Braeden explains about the scene. “Once I played that scene, I saw an enormous amount of emotional possibilities for the actor to play, you know? That’s why I stayed, really. That’s actually the only reason I stayed.”

Eric Braeden (as Victor Newman) and Melody Thomas Scott (as Nikki Reed Newman) in The Young and the Restless
CBS/Getty

Now, four decades later, Braeden has amassed a fan base spanning nearly half a century.

“We have an audience, in my case, of four generations. Imagine that,” says Braeden. “When I do public appearances anywhere, four generations show up from [ages] 100 to eight and nine and 10. It’s handed down within families. You’d be amazed. It’s stunning, it is really stunning.”

He adds of meeting his viewers, “When I do a public appearance or whatever, thousands come. They come with their grandmothers who have watched the show for 40 years and their daughters and their granddaughters. It’s very touching. It’s made a deep impression on them.”

Through playing the series’ lead, Braeden says, “I learned through this medium to really appreciate the symbiotic relationship between what we create on TV and the audience. It’s a deep, deep relationship. You’d be amazed. This medium has taught me to really appreciate the fact that I have been privileged to entertain people, all over the world, by the way. And I listen to the same reactions in Istanbul or Paris or Toronto as in New York or Dallas or Oklahoma, whatever. It’s a phenomenon that most of Hollywood has never really taken that seriously.”

In addition to starring as Victor, there’s another role that Braeden immensely enjoys — being a grandpa!

Among the things that make him most happy is “having done good work,” says Braeden. “And then seeing my grandchildren.”

“I adore them,” he says of his three granddaughters.

Eric Braeden
CBS

“They live with their father in Atlanta, Georgia,” he says of his son, Den of Thieves writer and director Christian Gudegast. “I don’t see them often enough, but we do Skype a lot. I adore them. Nothing makes me more basically happy than to see them.”

And as he reflects on his life and decades-long career, Braeden realizes how fortunate he is to be “one of the few actors working. I have since 1962. The longest I’ve been unemployed was three-and-a-half months.”

Though he’d “still do more Shakespeare” if he “had more time,” and would love to work with Meryl Streep — “If I would define anyone as genius in our business, she’s it. She defines it,” he says about the Oscar winner — Braeden has deep gratitude for his journey and the people who have been a part of it.

“I’m deeply grateful to having worked with such great colleagues over the years and having had such great support from my family, from my wife,” he says. “You know, I consider myself very fortunate.”

The Young and the Restless is set to air two special episodes to honor Braeden this week on Wednesday and Thursday. Wednesday’s episode will feature a look back at his start on the show, including vintage clips dating back to 1980.