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Getting in with the right high school crowd isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to an acting career, but if that crowd includes pals like Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey, Jr., and Sean Penn, it doesn’t hurt. Nor does an almost farcically handsome exterior. Rob Lowe saw Oliver! when he was eight, and for no clear reason he can recall, knew then he wanted to be an actor. So when auditions for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders became virtually a Santa Monica High extra curricular activity, and Lowe was cast as Sodapop Curtis, his career (along with quite a few others’) got an enviable start.
It continued just as enviably (and quickly) with roles in Oxford Blues, St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night. Here’s where we probably need to acknowledge the impossibly handsome elephant in the room. In its review of Saint Elmo’s Fire, The New York Times noted, “In the case of Rob Lowe, whose irresponsible pretty boy becomes the film’s central figure, a matinee-idol future is assured, and perhaps something more…”
But when your living depends on your ability to disappear into other people, the looks that perhaps opened some doors can also make them really hard to squeeze through. Consider his audition (yes, he had to audition) for the role of Sam Seaborn in the Aaron Sorkin-penned The West Wing. It was a part Lowe, a true political junkie, wanted more than anything. Sorkin was determined not to cast him. With Martin Sheen already part of what was supposed to be an ensemble show, he thought adding another handsome “movie star” would throw it off balance. “Then [Rob] read the first of three scenes he’d prepared,” Sorkin told The Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t remember the second or the third because he’d already gotten the part one page into the first, and I was already thinking of stories for a character who has no idea he looks like Rob Lowe.” Lowe’s 37-year CV (and six Golden Globe nominations) would argue that keen artistic instincts might be at play here, too.
So is fearlessness. He’s taken on some risky biopics (JFK in Killing Kennedy, alleged murderer Drew Peterson in Untouchable) and maybe his bravest role yet: Rob Lowe, in one of Comedy Central’s most popular celebrity roasts to date. The real core of his success seems to be a hard-earned personal grace, and a sense of humor we suspect has been there all along. Winking at his looks and the role they’ve played in his career is where he shines, and where we most love to watch him. He can play narcissists, jerks and even naïve optimists whose utter lack of self-awareness only makes us like them more. His turn as Chris Traeger on Parks and Recreation is one example, but the one we wish we’d seen more of is The Grinder, his recently cancelled Fox show.
It was frustrating for Lowe, because he produced it and played its lead Dean Sanderson, an actor who once starred as a lawyer on a TV show and begins fake-lawyering with his actual-lawyer brother. It’s frustrating for fans, not just because it’s Lowe at his best, but because for network TV, it was clever, original stuff. Thirty years after speculating Lowe might perhaps have “something more” to offer, The New York Times said of The Grinder: “You can’t overstate how essential Mr. Lowe is, and how well the character is pitched to his abilities. Mr. Lowe gives Dean a well-meaning sweetness…But any other person, man or woman, is bound to be a supporting player in Dean’s Life of Dean. In this comedy, he’s both the star and the joke, funny because it’s true: For man-children like them, of whatever age, there will always be a second act.”
True of the show, and true of Lowe. Quick, sharp and a surprisingly good writer, he’s penned two books – Stories I Only Tell My Friends and Love Life – that make obvious his talent for setting a scene and finding moments that touch us all (just read his Love Life musings on his eldest son’s leaving for college). He’s returned to series TV in Code Black and is returning (in a way) to the Capitol as the producer of reality series Potomac Fever, which chronicles the lives of young adults in Washington, D.C.
With as much as he’s done to date, we think Lowe’s holding out on us. This guy has a more to offer as an artist and a producer. Lowe himself told Vulture, “If I’m engaged and inspired and learning something and contributing above and beyond just standing on a mark and wearing makeup, I can do that forever.” We hope he does.