How Rob Lowe Embraced Sobriety to Become the Person He Always Wanted to Be
Growing up in Ohio, Rob Lowe realized at age 10 he wanted to be an actor, after seeing a community theater production of “Oliver!”
Armed with his intellect, drive and leading-man good looks, Lowe was destined for stardom. But as sure as his younger self felt the thunderbolt of inspiration, he knows he would never have scaled the heights of his profession, or found happiness as a husband and father, if he had not addressed his alcohol problem and gotten sober more than 30 years ago. It’s a job that is never finished.
“The only way to stay in recovery is to be honest with yourself on a minute-by-minute basis. No secrets, no double life. And you have to get real,” says the 56-year-old actor, who is busier than ever. “That’s what acting is all about — being real and being honest.
“The longer you are in recovery the more facile you are in getting honest. It really helps get you where you need to be [as an actor] a lot quicker.”
Lowe, whose résumé stretches from “The Outsiders” and “St. Elmo’s Fire” to “The West Wing” and “Parks and Recreation” to his latest network TV series, Fox’s “9-1-1: Lone Star,” reflected on the impact of sobriety on his life and work during a socially distanced sit-down interview on a hotel patio by the shores of his beloved Montecito, Calif. The conversation was candid, punctuated by the roar of the Pacific Ocean and the rhythm of trains whizzing past the posh Rosewood Miramar Beach complex.
“Nothing can make you get sober except you wanting to do it,” he says. “The threat of losing a marriage, losing a job, incarceration — you name the threat, it will not be enough to do it. It’s got to be in you. The reason that people don’t get sober 100% of the time when they go into programs is that people aren’t ready when they go to use the tools.”
Lowe shared his story with Variety for the second edition of the magazine’s Recovery series, designed to highlight insiders from all sectors of the entertainment industry who are managing the disease of addiction and thriving professionally with the help of a wide range of treatment and recovery programs available, even in COVID times.
“One of the great gifts of recovery is that you start living your authentic life. You start living your actual values and living as who you truly are,” Lowe says.
Like a true thespian, he adds with his trademark grin, “So it turns out this is who I am. It’s a good character.”
And a lucrative one. Lowe is thriving amid the global content boom. He’s become a new star player in Ryan Murphy’s “9-1-1: Lone Star” procedural franchise, which opened its second season last month to an impressive seven-day audience of nearly 10 million viewers. Since 2019, he’s hosted a buzzy podcast “Literally! With Rob Lowe,” produced by Conan O’Brien’s podcast group, that features dishy interviews primarily with his long list of industry friends and collaborators. Lowe has also penned two best-selling memoirs, 2011’s “Stories I Only Tell My Friends” and 2014’s “Love Life.” He adapted those tales into a solo show that was touring the country until it was sidelined by COVID. He’s cashed big checks as a pitchman for Atkins diet products, KFC and DirecTV. He’s even built a steady side hustle as a voice-over artist for animated series.
“If you asked me one word to describe Rob, it would be ‘star,’” says Dana Walden, chairman of entertainment for Walt Disney Television, which produces “Lone Star.” “He’s an incredibly versatile and gifted actor.”
Aaron Sorkin, “The West Wing” creator, who also worked with Lowe on the 2005-06 London stage production of “A Few Good Men,” echoed Walden’s praise.
“Underneath the celebrity and the handsomeness is a world-class actor,” Sorkin says.
Lowe acknowledges that the public discussion of the ethos and practices of recovery can be touchy given the respect for the tradition of anonymity. He has always been careful not to endorse a specific rehabilitation facility or recovery program. His message for those struggling with the disease of substance use disorder is that help is almost always close by, if you look for it.
“L.A. is the capital of great recovery,” Lowe says. “There’s a lot of people who do struggle in our business. There’s something about the type of person that’s drawn to [Hollywood].”
Moreover, Lowe points to surveys that show only a small percentage of those who need help seek treatment, in part because of the historical stigma around drug and alcohol abuse.
“If the founders of recovery programs were alive today and saw how prevalent and devastating this disease is in our society, they would want that message out there,” he says.
Substance abuse costs the nation about $740 billion a year in health care bills, crime and lost productivity, according to the National Institutes of Health.
About 20.3 million Americans over the age of 12, or about 6.2% of the total U.S. population, are believed to suffer from substance use disorder, according to the 2018 national survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of that total, about 14.8 million are struggling with alcohol addiction.
The number of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. has steadily climbed during the past decade, fueled by the alarming rise in the abuse of prescription opioids and fentanyl. The total number of deaths reached 67,367 in 2018, according to SAMHSA, with 31,335 coming from fentanyl and 14,975 from prescription opioids. Deaths due to methamphetamine, which fell sharply in the early 2000s, have been on the rise, totaling 12,676 in 2018.
Substance use disorder is now recognized by medical experts as a neurological disease that affects different brains in different ways. But the stigma of drug and alcohol abuse being akin to a moral failing or a lack of personal control persists. And that remains a big roadblock for many in seeking help.
“We treat the disease of addiction very, very differently in this country than we treat other diseases,” says Elizabeth Vargas, the ABC News alumnus who wrote a best-selling 2016 book, “Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction,” about her journey into rehab and recovery. She also hosts a podcast, “Heart of the Matter,” focused on addiction and recovery stories.
“When somebody’s cancer comes back we don’t say, ‘Oh wait, we’re not going to pay your salary while you’re getting a second round of chemo,’” Vargas says. “Those who speak out publicly are doing a service to others out there who are still suffering.”
Lowe became an indelible part of pop culture as a charter member of the Brat Pack, the snarky sobriquet given to a loose group of young actors who hit it big in the 1980s. The Dayton native proved to be a heartthrob from his first movie, 1983’s “The Outsiders.” He turned 18 while shooting the adaptation of the famed S.E. Hinton novel on location in Tulsa, Okla.
The shoot was challenging, and director Francis Ford Coppola put Lowe and his then-largely unknown co-stars — Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Ralph Macchio and C. Thomas Howell — through their paces. It was a learning experience, in more ways than one.
“Every day when we would wrap we’d get in a van. The Teamsters would give us a carton of beer. This was a Warner Bros. movie — as mainstream as it gets,” Lowe says, noting that Howell at the time was 15.
Lowe started to drink as a young teenager. When he was 13, the family moved from Dayton to a blue-collar section of Malibu. The neighborhood kids who befriended Rob and his younger brother, actor Chad Lowe, included brothers Chris and Sean Penn and Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez.
As Lowe pursued his acting ambitions, he inevitably began to move with a faster crowd. The industry’s general attitudes toward illicit drug use — cocaine specifically — were markedly different from what they are today.
“This was just how the business was back then. Cocaine was the thing that successful people did,” he says. “There was always that wonderful moment when as an active drug abuser you’d go on the set and figure out which department was selling the coke on the set. It was no different than craft services. Where are the Red Vines, and where is the great Peruvian blow?” he recalls. “Those days are long, long, loooong gone.”
Even amid the debauchery, Lowe recalls, there was a kind of “innocence” that has been lost in an industry that today is much larger and more driven by large corporate entities than when he started out.
“I feel so blessed and fortunate that I was able to live through that period, and I mean that in all of its definitions,” Lowe says. “The late ’70s and ’80s in Southern California in the entertainment business — there was nothing like it. And there never will be again.”
Lowe’s movie career blossomed through the 1980s with starring roles in such films as “Class,” “The Hotel New Hampshire,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “About Last Night.”
The freewheeling attitude toward drugs and alcohol changed as the major studios were swept up into publicly held media conglomerates that were more susceptible to pressure from shareholders and consumer groups.
“It might be the only good thing that came out of having the suits and bean counters take over Hollywood,” Lowe says. “Robert Evans running Paramount was a little bit different than AT&T running Warner Bros.”
For Lowe, the drug- and alcohol-fueled party came to an end on May 10, 1990. That’s the day he took his first step into treatment and recovery.
Lowe had already faced controversy and legal problems in 1989 when he was caught up in a sex scandal involving two women, one of whom was 16 at the time. While attending the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Lowe met the women at a nightclub. He and a male friend wound up videotaping their sexual encounters with the women in Lowe’s hotel room.
The scandal broke and the sex tape leaked the following year after the teenager’s family filed a lawsuit against the star. Lowe asserted at the time that he was unaware that one of the women was underage. To avoid criminal charges, he agreed to perform 20 hours of community service in his hometown of Dayton.
Lowe declined to discuss the incident other than to say that he was “ahead of the curve” in creating a celebrity sex tape. The bad press was a setback for his movie career, although he rebounded in part by hosting “Saturday Night Live” for the first time in 1990.
“I always worked,” Lowe recalls. “I was never in a situation where I felt like I wasn’t going to work, or my career was over. Other than the normal actor insecurity.”
The fallout from the Atlanta incident was a wake-up call. But the decisive moment that prompted Lowe to make his first outreach for help was a call from his mother that he missed.
“I wasn’t ready until I was ready,” Lowe recalls. “I was ready when one day back in the days of answering machines my mother called me and I could hear her voice on the answering machine. I didn’t want to pick up because I was really, really hungover and I didn’t want her to know. She was telling me that my grandfather, who I loved, was in critical condition in the hospital and she needed my help. And I didn’t pick up. My thought process in that moment was ‘I need to drink a half a bottle of tequila right now so I can go to sleep so I can wake up so I can pick up this phone.’”
Even in his distressed state, Lowe realized that such thinking was “nuts” and that he needed professional help.
“It was like a badly written moment in a soap opera — complete with the walk into the bathroom and looking at myself in the mirror,” he says.
At the time, Lowe had been holding on to the business card of a drug and alcohol counselor that a friend had handed him. “I couldn’t keep a pair of sunglasses for more than two weeks, but I kept this card for a year in my wallet,” he says. “I called it the next day.”
Lowe was primed for the journey of self-discovery that began with his treatment. Learning about the science of addiction and how substance abuse can rewire the brain was crucial for him. So was therapy to understand who he was and how he had been shaped by his formative experiences.
“All of my understanding about life has come from getting sober and being in recovery,” he says. “The work that you do once you stop whatever it is you’ve been abusing — that’s when the real work begins. And that continues to this day. In many ways, it doesn’t get any easier but it does get more fulfilling.”
Lowe’s life took another major turn when he got serious about settling down with makeup artist Sheryl Berkoff. The two have been married for almost 30 years and have two sons: Matthew, 27, and Johnowen, 25.
“I remember thinking if I couldn’t make it work with Sheryl, then I wasn’t going to be able to make it work with anybody,” he says. “That was at least half the impetus for getting sober, because I knew I couldn’t be in a long-term relationship unless I was.”
Recovery and therapy helped Lowe discover at the age of 26 that there was a big part of him that wanted the life of a Midwestern dad. Lowe’s family moved out of the L.A. rat race up to Montecito, and he became the guy who could be counted on to coach Little League and chaperone school field trips.
“People always thought I was going to end up like Warren Beatty in ‘Shampoo,’” Lowe says. “Instead, when I got sober, who I really was came out. It turned out I was one of the first of my peers to get married and have kids. That guy was in me all the time, but the life I was leading wouldn’t let him out.”
Demi Moore, who co-starred with Lowe in “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “About Last Night,” says her longtime friend has always benefited from uncommon drive.
“Rob has an ability to visualize himself doing the things he wants to do — and then he just does it,” Moore says.
Making his family priority No. 1 became Lowe’s guiding principle. It was one of the factors in his taking the role of White House aide Sam Seaborn on “The West Wing.” He commuted to Burbank from Montecito to make sure that he and his sons slept in the same house most nights. “The thing in my life that I’m most proud of, for sure, is those two men,” Lowe says.
Lowe credits the guidance of his late manager Bernie Brillstein for helping steer him into career options in TV that suited his lifestyle. “Bernie was very understanding about what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do,” he says.
One thing Lowe has never struggled with is his work ethic. He loves his craft and loves to be busy. He’s had starring or co-starring roles in no less than 10 TV series in the U.S. and U.K. since starting on “The West Wing” in 1999. As an action-driven procedural, “9-1-1: Lone Star” is no cakewalk to shoot. But Lowe is all in.
“He’s a wonderful partner to the network and studio. And he has a deep appreciation for his fans and they love him,” Disney’s Walden says. “I think one of the reasons Rob chose to do broadcast TV was so that he could reach the maximum number of his considerable fan base.”
Managing his sobriety has become “baked in” to Lowe’s DNA. Early on, he traveled with a sober friend and took steps to always call ahead to make sure that the wet bar in his hotel room was alcohol-free. Today, his home has a well-stocked wine cellar and he enjoys pouring for friends, just not for himself.
“Your goals for your sobriety are like your goals for your 401K. When you’re young you have different goals, and when you’re older, you manage it differently,” he says. “Just yesterday I was on set talking to another actor who has a lot of years of sobriety. We were almost having a mini meeting, just talking naturally about being sober and working to be a better person. If you’re open to it, those people come into your life.”
Styling by Annie Psaltiras /The Wall Group; Grooming: Georgie Eisdell/The Wall Group; Lead image: Jacket: Levi’s; Jewelry: Mr. LOWE by Sheryl Lowe; Cover: Sweater and Pant: Mothfood Vintage; Sunglasses: Garrett Leight; Jewelry: Mr. LOWE by Sheryl Lowe; On bike: T-shirt: James Perse; Jeans: Levi’s; Jewelry: Mr. LOWE by Sheryl Lowe