High & Lowe

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Tom Cruise likes to hang out with him. Mike Myers calls late at night for advice. George W. Bush sends him notes (”Stay the course”), and Gwyneth Paltrow recently rubbed her body against his. The man makes more money every week than most people take home all year, and his Montecito, Calif., home graces the pages of architectural magazines. His beautiful wife of 10 years adores him, his children have everything they could possibly need, and any lingering doubts you may have had about his value as an actor must be called into question now that he’s up for an Emmy. Then there is the matter of his physical appearance. Even as he zeroes in on 40, the man is so astonishingly good-looking, he can turn an ordinary location shoot on The West Wing, his popular inside-the-White House drama, now entering its third season on NBC, into a carnival of animal attraction. ”Say we’re shooting exteriors in Washington, D.C.,” says Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creator. ”Given any break in the action, only about a minute goes by before he is surrounded by all manner of beautiful women. It’s guaranteed.” The phenomenon has become so acute, the producers use a little expression around the set whenever it happens. They shake their heads and sigh, ”Oh, to be Rob Lowe.”

These days, nobody appreciates being Rob Lowe more than the chisel-cheeked actor himself. After years of shooing away sex scandals, addiction troubles, ties to Judd Nelson, and that cheese-ball performance at the Academy Awards in 1989, in which he sang ”Proud Mary” to Snow White in front of billions of people, the 37-year-old ex-Brat Packer is experiencing something he’s never really known: grown-up respect.

”I feel like I’m exactly where I want to be,” Lowe says, during an interview in his Toluca Lake, Calif., house, the one he uses as a base on the days West Wing shoots. ”My life’s almost scary good.” What’s even scarier is hearing his friends rave about him. ”An evening with Rob,” says Myers, ”is like a combination of the Biography Channel, the History Channel, E! News Daily, and Comedy Central. He’s a great observer of human behavior and a great storyteller. I’m starstruck around him.” Myers isn’t alone in his unworthiness. With 17 million West Wing fans, doting critics, a best actor nod from the Emmy folks, and notes of confidence from the real White House, it’s almost as if Lowe’s bimboy days never happened. ”I certainly don’t look back with any bitterness,” Lowe says, ”though obviously there are a couple of judgment calls and some ’80s hairdos I’d like to do over.”

Sam Seaborn, Lowe’s West Wing alter ego, wouldn’t be caught dead in a St. Elmo’s Fire-era mullet. He wouldn’t have time for all that follicle maintenance. As deputy communications director under President Josiah Bartlet (played by Lowe’s childhood neighbor, Martin Sheen), Seaborn is the quintessential Beltway policy wonk, the sort of overcaffeinated, undersexed, Uber-intelligent lefty crusader who rattles off names of congressmen in alphabetical order just for kicks. As Myers puts it, ”Sam’s your fantasy of a dedicated public servant.” But politics have always been part of Lowe’s reality. As a kid, he sold cookies and lemonade to raise money for Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, and even now he’s hip to the differences between the NSC, the WTO, and the CSE (last season’s fictional Cartographers for Social Equality). ”I couldn’t have paid a hundred writers to come up with a character that feels as close to the bone as Sam Seaborn does,” says Lowe. Adds costar John Spencer (Chief of Staff Leo McGarry), ”Rob has pulled off that rare hat trick of being the perfect actor for the perfect role at the perfect time.”

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