Well before Rob Lowe made it to Hollywood, he'd gone out of his way to meet Liza Minnelli: As a kid in Dayton, Ohio, he'd knocked on her hotel room door, and stayed to share a chat and some chocolates. As he left, Minnelli told him, "See you in Hollywood, kid."
And a few years later, he did make it to Hollywood — as one of its breakout stars.
But for all his success, Lowe is also a child of divorce, a veteran of alcoholism, and an actor who has experienced many personal and public highs and lows. He's chronicled his rocky ascension to stardom in a new memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends.
An Insider With 'The Outsiders'
From the very start, Lowe's friends have been in high Hollywood places. The Lowe family moved to Los Angeles when Rob was in his teens — where they were neighbors with the Sheen family. It was a welcome change for Lowe. "For the first time, I met people my own age that wanted to act, that wanted to be filmmakers," he tells NPR's Scott Simon. "As opposed to being beaten up for it, I found friends who were like-minded ... It was great to fall in with a crowd that had similar likes."
This crowd of youngsters helped to launch Lowe's career — and their own — in the 1983 film version of The Outsiders, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The cast featured young actors who are now household names: Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise and Diane Lane. Lowe, too, was destined for fame, but he says that no one in the group had expected it.
"I don't think any of us thought that it would be the beginning, for a lot of us, of a very, very long, long career," he says. "It was an amazing launching pad for many of us."
Battling Addiction In Hollywood
But for Lowe, the beginning of his acting career was also the start of a long struggle with alcohol abuse. On the set of The Outsiders, the actors were always provided with beers, he says — even when some were as young as 15. "You drink a beer and think nothing of it," he explains. "It was a culture that was so different."
After starting at a young age, Lowe's drinking soon became a problem. "Without even knowing it, it became just a big part of my life to the point where ... I decided that I needed to go and get help," Lowe explains.
But Lowe doesn't blame Hollywood for his troubles. He argues that substance abuse in the movie industry is a side effect of other issues. "I think [the] people [who] are drawn to Hollywood ... are looking to fill something missing in them, and performing does that," he says. "But then when you reach the mountaintop, you realize you're still the same — it didn't fill you up."
Sidetracked By Scandal
Lowe's struggles with alcohol abuse were amplified in the late 1980s when a video surfaced showing him having sex with two women — one of whom was underage. Lowe had been in Atlanta, campaigning for Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. He met the two women in a bar after a night of partying, and maintains that he did not know that one of them was a minor. Nonetheless, the story became a national scandal.
"This is how I knew I was in some serious trouble: I turned on the television and I led the evening news with Tom Brokaw ... The second story literally was Tiananmen Square," he says.
Lowe's political involvement only made the effects of the scandal worse. "I did a lot of work for a lot of people, and I traveled a lot of miles on behalf of candidates and the party and things like that," says Lowe. So when the tape came out, his political acquaintances ran for the hills.
Although the scandal cost him some friends — as well as his burgeoning involvement as a political activist — Lowe says the experience provided him some needed perspective.
"Looking back, I get it — it's called politics for a reason," he says. "But it definitely influenced me and gave me a new view into what that relationship between celebrities and politicians and activism is really all about."
At the end of the day, Lowe believes that celebrities bring the glamour, and politicians bring the gravitas. "Celebrities and politicians bask in each other's reflective glory, each one being filled by the other a part that they're individually missing," he says.
Stories About, And For, Old Friends
The scandal prompted Lowe to enter rehab, which he successfully completed, and in 1999, he returned to the political world — or at least the television version. Playing Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn on The West Wing, Lowe acted alongside Martin Sheen, his onetime neighbor, who played President Josiah Bartlet.
"Whenever Sam and [Bartlet] would have scenes, they were so charged for me, because of my history with him, and I like to think that that was captured on the show," he says.
Out of the 88 episodes that Lowe filmed with The West Wing, he clearly remembers a scene in which Bartlet tells Sam that one day he, too, would be president.
"When Martin and I did that scene, it was profoundly moving, and people still remember it," he says. "I think a lot of it speaks to our relationship that we brought to the show."
Not only has he kept up his friendship with Martin Sheen, but Lowe is also still good friends with his now infamously troubled son, Charlie Sheen.
"It's tough, since I've known him since he was 13. And I love him, I love Martin and the whole family," he says. "I'm also 21 years sober, so I have a perspective that's probably unique to his experience," he adds.
Having learned from his own struggles with alcoholism, Lowe says that you must really be ready to change. "You need to literally be done," he explains. "When I was ready, when I went to rehab, if they told me to go stand in a corner with my clothes off, standing on my head, I would have done it. I wouldn't have asked questions.
"I wanted to change, I wanted a new life. Different people take different events to get them to that place. Some people have to go way, way down and other people don't."