How Warren Beatty gave a young Rob Lowe a lesson in love
In an extract from his new autobiography, Rob Lowe recalls a night when he was on the brink of stardom
'She was a big deal and I wasn't, but I had a huge film about to come out and I knew my life was going to change''They were all I aspired to be, authentic artists, titans of their time, while timeless and having a wild streak, making them cool'
T he valley is rimmed on its Southern side by the storied Mulholland Drive. High atop the hills, it snakes its way through hairpin turns, romantic lookouts and breathtaking vistas of city lights.
But more importantly to me, it was the address of the biggest icons of my youth: Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando and Warren Beatty.
They were everything I aspired to be; authentic artists, titans of their time, while being timeless and known for a wild streak that made them cool and a little dangerous.
When Nicholson's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest came out, I saw it 12 times. I then went back once more, smuggling in a tape recorder, so I could listen to it whenever I wanted. When Magic Johnson came to the Lakers in 1979, I sat in the nosebleeds to see him and saw Jack sitting courtside. How cool, I thought. A few years later, when I had some success of my own, I bought Laker floor seats, directly across from Jack.
When Heaven Can Wait came out, I took the bus into Westwood to see its opening weekend at the Mann National Theater, the same theatre that would eventually premiere my first movie, The Outsiders. Warren Beatty's co-star was Dyan Cannon, whose daughter Jennifer I would very briefly date.
Even as a teenager, being an actor on the LA dating scene would eventually put you in a direct or indirect competition with the master Hollywood ladies' man.
Warren's reach and domination was so profound even Nicholson called him 'the Pro'. He had a notoriously cool pad on a turn of Mulholland that always reminded me of the secret entrance the Batmobile used on Batman.
And, like the caped crusader, Warren owned the night and pretty much anything else he wanted. By the time I was getting a foothold with my first starring roles, he was the embodiment of what a former matinée idol could achieve: from pretty to profound, with his brainy, socially significant Reds dominating the Oscars that year. I had been dating a young, successful actress whom Warren had befriended. To her credit, whenever she was invited "up to Warren's", she would ask me to join. To my stupidity, I always said no. Even a day with my hero couldn't get me into the sweatbox of the Valley when all my pals were hitting the beach in Malibu.
But one night I made an exception.
I hopped into my girlfriend's Pontiac Fiero and began to climb to the top of the Hollywood Hills.
Mulholland Drive, named after William Mulholland, the visionary engineer who figured out how to bring in the water that built modern LA, led me past Jack Nicholson's house and I instantly thought of his masterpiece Chinatown, about the intrigue of getting the water that built modern LA. Soon we arrived at a set of chic, modern gates. Inside, the driveway rose even higher to the top of the most scenic spot of the valley's Southern rim. We parked in a motor court of a contemporary, white one-story home. Understated glamour would be the best description of its style.
Warren met us at the door. I had never met him in person, but had spoken to him a few times when he would call my girlfriend. He was always charming and welcoming. At one point he gave me the low-down on my soon-to-be leading lady in the movie Class, Jacqueline Bisset. ("She's a champ," he said.)
"Oh, hey, come on in," he said, welcoming us into an almost totally empty living room.
"I uh, I'm so sorry it's so bare. I've had a couple of years away at work and haven't really furnished much."
I knew he was referring to the legendary and famously long shooting of Reds and I noted his unassuming understatement.
Scanning the room I did notice one item of furnishing: his Oscar for Best Director for Reds sitting on the otherwise empty mantel.
Oscars are everything you would imagine them to be. To see a real one in the flesh, for an actor, is to see the Crown Jewels. It's the most recognised and coveted totem in the world. (An Amazon Aboriginal would know an Academy Award on sight but not a Nobel Prize.) They are both easy to hold and extraordinarily heavy.
Warren's Oscar was glinting and new, unlike the first one I had seen a few years earlier on a debauched late night rendezvous with an actress who had won years earlier.
Sitting on her TV in a tiny apartment in the flats of Hollywood, hers was worn and corroded, with specs of green in its creases.
Watching Warren pad around his house, I was struck with the thought that he looked exactly like Warren Beatty. If you have ever met a star in the flesh you know it goes one of two ways: they look so good they're almost like impersonators of themselves or you think, 'Oy! What happened to them?'
"I have two Burt Reynolds movies for us in the screening room," said Warren, leading us down a flight of stairs to a set-up that had a theatre-size screen, rows of comfy couches and almost unbearably romantic mood lighting.
Padding around barefoot, in jeans and a crisp, white shirt, the whole scene would have made Mother Teresa want to bang him.
Warren's date for the night was an actress I recognised as a semi-regular on [the sitcom] WKRP in Cincinnati. She sat to his left, with me on his right. Warren picked up a phone built into the arm of the couch and asked the projectionist to start the movie.
"I think we'll watch Stick first."
I had always been fascinated with what movie stars felt about one another. Were they supportive? Jealous? Did they take notes and learn from each other?
As the movie began, I was curious what, if anything, Warren would say about it. After all at that moment, he was the undisputed King of Hollywood.
The movie started.
"Hmm," mumbles Warren.
"Oh, I see," he said, to no one in particular.
"Ahh," he smiled to himself.
Halfway through the movie, my curiosity got the best of me.
"What do you think?" I asked him.
"Very interesting. He's using a lot of long lenses," Warren replied sagely.
I tried to comprehend how he can look at the scene and know what kind of lens it is shot with. I wondered what he was seeing to know these technical details so easily. It made me realise that I had a tremendous amount to learn about movie making.
Meanwhile, the girl from WKRP was getting restless.
"Is there any ice cream?" she asked, clearly not as enthralled with Burt or dissecting what equipment he was using onscreen. "I'm starving."
Warren and the girls immediately disembarked for the kitchen. Like an idiot, I stayed in the screening room watching the movie.
After a while, it became clear they weren't coming back. I made my way up to the kitchen to find them. I came upon them each eating directly out of containers of Häagen-Dazs. They seemed to become immediately quiet as I entered, but Warren was as gracious as ever.
"We were just talking about you," he said, offering up his pralines and cream to me.
I looked at my girlfriend who was scrunched up next to WKRP, looking like the cat that ate the canary.
"You remind me so much of Warren," said WKRP. It's a great compliment and standing right next to him I felt my colour rise.
"It's true," he says. "I started young like you and was dating an actress more famous than I was, just like you."
"Natalie Wood?" asked my girlfriend, glowing with pride from the comparison.
"Exactly," answers Warren. "She was a big deal and I wasn't, but I had a huge movie about to come out in Splendor In The Grass and I knew my life was going to change. Like you Rob, when The Outsiders comes out."
"Well, I hope you're right," I said. I looked at the clock on the wall and thought, I'm 18 years old, it's midnight at Warren Beatty's house and I'm having dessert while he talks about my future.
"You remind me of Natalie Wood," he remarked casually to my girlfriend. I remember thinking, there it is. The lay down hand. The line that would turn any young actress into his concubine for life.
"It's funny," he continued. "Natalie was always getting asked by Frank Sinatra to come up to his house and lay by the pool. I never paid much attention to it, but years later, just a few years before Natalie died, I asked her, 'Hey, we're both adults now, what exactly were you doing all those days at Sinatra's?'
"And she looked me right in the eyes and said: 'Oh Warren, what do you think we were doing? We were f***ing!' Isn't that funny?" He smiled at me, shaking his head at the memory.
I looked over at my girlfriend who looked away, ashen-faced. And the penny dropped.
Thanks for the heads up, Warren Beatty. You're my hero to this day.
LOVE LIFE BY ROB LOWE IS OUT NOW, PUBLISHED BY SIMON & SCHUSTER