Rob Lowe was born in 1964 in Charlottesville, Virginia, where his father was in his senior year of law school at the University of Virginia. Six months later, the family moved back to their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. In his best-selling memoir, Lowe writes: “We moved into a nice three-bedroom house in a leafy suburb. My dad joined a law practice, and my mother gave up her job as a high school English teacher to stay home and raise me.”
During his infancy, a bout of mumps left Lowe permanently deaf in his right ear. The next challenge he faced was his parents’ separation when he was four. The situation wasn’t explained to Lowe at first, and he couldn’t understand the sudden disappearance of his father from their home. “It was an unhappy time for my mother, my father, and me,” he says. “I began to tune out reality and retreated to a private world. I began—at this very tender age—to block out pain. I was five when I learned my father was never coming home because my parents were getting a divorce. Understanding the effect of losing my father would come much later in life, but at the time, anything painful surrounding their breakup I sealed off and buried, leaving it unexplored.”
After Lowe’s mother remarried, he learned to navigate life with a step-father and seeing his father on weekends. They moved to a tougher part of town, which meant a different school and more adjustments for Lowe. When Lowe was eight, his mother and stepfather took him to see a traveling production of Oliver! He was immediately impressed with the presentation and, wanting to have the experience of being on stage, asked his mother to sign him up for the casting of The Wizard of Oz, which would be the next show in town.
Lowe was quickly consumed with thoughts of becoming an actor. He tried out for any child part at the community playhouse and local traveling repertory theater, looking at every play as a step on a ladder that would lead him to his future. “I think it made me feel like my life had direction,” he says. “Onstage I felt a confidence and sense of accomplishment I rarely felt anywhere else. Knowing what I wanted to do from such an early age, having this passion for something, is a true blessing.”
Pursuing his acting career fell solely on Lowe’s shoulders, however. He had no agent or manager. He remembers one audition he went to where there were 40 other children in the audition line, all holding 8x10 glossies of themselves. He did not have a photo of himself and felt embarrassed by his lack of preparation, but that didn’t stop him.
When Lowe was 12, his mother divorced her second husband and moved with her sons to California. His mother was an enigma to him. “She was wickedly smart,” says Lowe. “She read widely and wrote every day in her journals and also wrote screenplays, poems, and books, but she never did anything with them. She suffered from mysterious illnesses that kept her in bed for long periods of time.”
Before long, Lowe’s mother married for a third time but soon thereafter, her health issues worsened; she often stayed in her bedroom with the door closed. “I loved my mother,” says Lowe. “But I had no idea what she needed, and I simply didn’t have the tools to help her.”
Left mostly on his own, Lowe continued to pursue an acting career. He landed a part in a Coca-Cola commercial, which aired during the Super Bowl. For his part in the ad, he received a check for $2,500, which he framed. When he was 15, and attending Santa Monica High school with classmates Sean Penn, Emilio Estevez, and Robert Downey, Jr., he got a starring role in the television series A New Kind of Family, which aired until he graduated high school.
As a senior, Lowe auditioned for the role of Conrad in what would become the Academy Award Best Picture movie Ordinary People. It was a great disappointment when he did not get the part. “I was in a lull then,” says Lowe. “I thought about throwing in the towel and told my agents that I was going to college and would be unavailable for any further acting roles.” Lowe had always enjoyed learning and had done well in school. He was accepted to both the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. “After making that call to my agents, I felt a real loss,” he says. “I had thought that if I worked hard enough I would get the life I had wanted for so long.”
A few weeks later, Lowe received a call to read for a movie called The Outsiders, which would be directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The call changed his life, as Lowe decided to give his dreams another chance. While his non-acting peers were checking into dorm rooms, he was checking into a hotel he would live in on his own while on location for The Outsiders. The following year he starred in the movie Oxford Blues, and the year after that, in 1985, St. Elmo’s Fire.
By the time he was 15, Rob Lowe achieved fame. His exposure on television and in films had made him into a well-known personality—especially with teenaged girls. From the beginning, he was mostly on his own, guiding his career as best he could. Soon, fame became Lowe’s new normal. He embraced the freedom and independence, but he had no one around him telling him what he was doing right as well as what he was doing wrong. By the age of 26, he felt his personal life imploding. Alcohol had become a problem he knew he couldn’t control on his own. In 1990, he checked himself into four weeks of rehabilitation. “For me, rehab was such a relief,” he says. “I was so tired of the lying, my inability to keep my word, the hangovers, the cover-ups, and the helplessness to stop doing things I truly wanted to stop doing. I was excited to be entering the program, because I hoped that by the end of it I would find out who I really am. There is a school of thought that your emotional maturity is frozen at the exact age you become famous. I got famous as a teenager, so I had some growing up to do.”
After sorting out his issues with his mother, the feelings about her divorce from his father, and his relationship with fame, Lowe felt ready to move forward with his life. As he left the program, a counselor told him, “You can be one of those celebrities who go in and out of rehab, or you can just stay sober. It’s completely up to you.” Lowe has remained sober. He says, “Each day, we all have the opportunity to move forward or backward or stay put. I have learned how to move forward.”
Rob Lowe has been nominated for six Golden Globes, two Emmys, and four Screen Actors Guild awards, winning two. He has been named GQ’s “Man of the Year” and has had his legacy cemented with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Since 1999, he has continuously starred on network television.
Starting with the beloved television series The West Wing, along with Brothers and Sisters, Parks and Recreation, Code Black, and others, he has starred in numerous acclaimed series. His work in movies, in addition to those already mentioned, includes About Last Night, Wayne’s World, Tommy Boy, and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and many others, such as scene-stealing work in Behind the Candelabra and his portrayal of John F. Kennedy in Killing Kennedy.
Lowe is an accomplished memoirist, with two New York Times best-selling books, Stories I Only Tell My Friends and Love Life. He currently tours with a one-man show, Stories I Only Tell My Friends: LIVE! He is also a prolific producer, and is currently directing and starring in a remake of the four-time Academy Award-nominated The Bad Seed.
Lowe’s mother died of breast cancer at the age of 64. In her honor, he works regularly for cancer charities. Lowe has also established a close relationship with his father. Lowe and his wife, Sheryl, have two grown sons and raising them has been one of the most significant, rewarding parts of his life.
When facing a lifetime of sobriety, Lowe used his grandfather’s life as a road map while rebuilding his own. “My grandfather had a 50-year commitment to business and his wife,” says Lowe. “I don’t know if I will be able to live with his level of integrity and consistency, but I have been lucky to have been left with his example. I think getting to 50 years of anything is actually simpler than it sounds. You do it one day at a time.”
When offering advice to his sons, Lowe encourages them to say yes to life. “I tell them not to fear the rejection that can come from putting yourself out there. I have learned that all we have is today. Yesterday cannot be relived. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. For me, the key is to just do the next right thing. While it is an easy concept, it can be difficult to do—but I will never stop trying.”
For Lowe, a discussion about success has less to do with the outcome as it does the process of getting there. “It’s the intention that gives the action value, not the results,” he says. “No matter how much success we have in our lives, there’s always room for improvement and there’s always room to better understand ourselves. This—right here, right now—is our life. It is not our parents’, or our children’s, or our spouse’s. It is not made more or less valuable by our job or how much we have in the bank. Our life is ours. It is the only one we will ever have, so I say we should love it. Now I am in the middle of my life and transitioning to new areas of passion and challenge, but I am always driving forward, always pushing.”