Eric Braeden of Young and the Restless
Credit: Image: Jill Johnson/JPI

This past week I was offered a chance to interview a soap icon, and I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Y&R’s Eric Braeden about his new movie, “The Man Who Came Back”. Eric spent nine years participating in the process of making this film, including starring in it, and refers to it as ‘a labor of love’. The movie, set in the deep south post-civil war, tells the story of a man, Reese Paxton [Eric Braeden], who calls for justice for the black field hands he oversees, only to be framed for murder by the town’s white men, who take exception to his allegiance to the ‘freed’ black families. I asked Eric how he came to be involved in telling this powerful story. He said it all began when he and Chuck Walker (with whom he boxes) set out to tell a story of revenge in a historic context. Their first job was to find the perfect director:

I had seen a film starring Armand Assante called “Belizaire the Cajun,” and I said, “That director would be good for this film.” We met, and upon further discussion, I asked him to read a book called “Without Sanctuary”. It was a photographic depiction of the extreme racism in the South during the latter part of the 19th century [written by an antique dealer who discovered people had sent postcards inviting one another to lynchings and burnings of blacks]. While researching that, the writer/director called me one day and said he’d been talking to historians about an incident in 1878 in Thibodeaux, that was the second-bloodiest labor strike in American labor history. What the strike was about was, they [the railroad workers] had formed the first union in the South, and they wanted to enlarge their union, so they approached plantation workers who were nominally free (this was during reconstruction). In reality, they were not free. What the plantation owners in some southern states had done, was issue a law saying that as long as you owe money to the company store, you’re not free. So they would arbitrarily set the prices in the company store – so they, defacto, perpetuated that whole system of slavery by economic means. I said I wanted that in the film as well – just to give a historic texture from which we tell this horrendous story. That’s how it slowly evolved. I really love films with a historic context – I’m not interested in just pure entertainment, I do that everyday. It was an important story to tell. The film is almost brutal at times in it’s honesty – some scenes were actually intense enough that I almost had to look away – was there a conscious decision made to have the violent scenes depicted so realistically?

Eric: Yes, and I’ll tell you why. It think Hollywood has always been extraordinarily glib about violence – shoot ’em up, but never show the consequences thereof – I wanted the audience to get a feel of what physical violence is really all about! I did not want to have scenes where you just ‘bing, bing, boom, boom,’ and they’re all shot down. The only time [in the film] that really happens is when it recreates what probably happened in Thibodeaux when they approached with Gatlin machine guns to mow down the gathering of strikers. Which they did – they killed 300 of them. That was also the birth of the Ku Klux Klan at that time, so when you see them descend upon that camp, that’s when the violent shooting occurs. I wanted to, as nearly as I could, show what really happens. It’s horrendous! Its end, of course, is to justify the enormous bitterness and revenge. The rage one feels is absolutely overwhelming.
I was impressed with the way the film went out of its way to illustrate how the mistreatment and terrorization of people in those times was not necessarily just racially-motivated, but also by class distinction; whites bullied other whites based on socio-economic standing, or in Reese Paxton’s case, for their allegiances, and blacks in a higher class, or in a position of power, looked down on the black field hands just as the whites did. So what can we learn from that?

Eric: What we can learn from that is that it took awhile for America to divorce itself from Europe, where they mostly came from. In other words, the class system was deeply imbued in most early immigrants. Anyone coming from Europe was deeply imbued with a very finely tuned sense of class distinctions – it’s horrendous. Americans wanted to do away with that, and both the United States and Canada, I think, have done away with a lot of that. Most immigrants eventually have shed those socio-economic ‘shackles’, as it were, and I think America has largely succeeded in that, except in those years. It took a long time to happen. It took until 1965 for blacks to get the vote – they were the last on the totem pole – to now get to the point that a black man has been elected President.
After I saw the movie, I felt like we had come a long way, especially thinking about Barack Obama, but it’s important to remember that those [racist and class] attitudes still exist.

Oh yes, but less and less so, and no longer institutionalized. No longer is it politically acceptable. It is politically incorrect to think that way and to act like that, and I think that’s a good thing. I was moved to tears when Obama was elected, to be honest with you, because I have a number of black friends and if you know anything about the history of that relationship, you just realize what an extraordinary accomplishment and milestone this is. Extraordinary. I came to this country in 1959, so I’ve seen a lot of changes. Think of the anti-Semitism that existed in Europe and here in America – institutionalized anti-Semitism. That’s no longer the case. Certainly that is totally politically incorrect now, so I think we have come really a long way. There is hope for all of us – that is my opinion – I’m not a cynic in that sense at all.
Your character in “The Man Who Came Back”, Reese Paxton, was very strong like Victor Newman, but had a different essence. As the person portraying these two roles, how did you approach this new character, and did you find yourself drawing comparisons to Victor, or to other roles you have played?

Eric: That’s a very interesting question, and you’re right, I tapped into the same kind of emotional reservoir. I have a very strong sense of ‘going it alone’, and I have a very strong sense of fighting those who are in power. If I see any kind of injustices or unfairness exercised by those in power over those who have less power, I go after them – and I don’t care where it is – I always have. The arbitrary abuse of power bothers me enormously. So, Victor Newman, of course, is a very powerful man, so you have this strange confluence of feelings – one of power, the other one, he never forgets where he’s from. He grew up in an orphanage. In the case of Reese Paxton, it reminded me of growing up during the war, the Second World War, and seeing so much destruction, so much tragedy, that Reese Paxton was easy to draw from that emotional reservoir – for example when he talks about having seen so much killing [in the courtroom scene], and he has nothing but disdain for the guy who stayed home and didn’t fight, and is now abusing his power [Billy, James Patrick Stuart].