This story is part of our annual Fit At Any Age series—a guide to the innovations and breakthroughs in aging to help you live a stronger, longer life.
"I COULD THROW UP," the kid says. He’s sitting at a seafood shack in Malibu, a sunset breeze blowing in. Before him is a plastic tray piled high with the fruits of the sea, fried in batter and glistening under the fluorescents and the tinny sound of Lita Ford on the speakers.
His father sits next to him. Ten minutes ago, at the counter, his dad had been hopping around, hand on his son’s shoulder, muttering snippets of the menu aloud like a kid at Baskin-Robbins, as if the bounty of choices were not to be believed. “Scallops and the . . . we have to get—no, we have to get . . . okay, let’s see, clam strips—need those—oh no no, wait, here’s the—look at this, Johnny—the Sampler! We have to get the Sampler. ‘Two pieces of fish, six shrimp, one portion of calamari, one portion of clam strips, three scallops—’ ”
Here he turned to his boy and said, disbelieving: “And a crab cake?”
The dad was practically on tiptoes as he said to the guy behind the counter, “We’ll have the Sampler—and!” He smiled big, proud that he knew this next move: “I’ll have your clam chowder.”
The dad was acting like an excited kid while his son looked on, grinning and rolling his eyes like a dad. Now, at the table, the kid feels like he could throw up, but in a good way. “This is amazing,” he says, dipping a french fry in the hot sauce. The kid is not a kid at all but John Owen Lowe, 27, cocreator, co–executive producer, co-writer, and star of Unstable, a new show on Netflix on which he plays a son who rolls his eyes a lot at his father. The father is played by his actual father, Rob Lowe.
Rob doesn’t eat this way often—he has been a spokesman for Atkins for five years, and fried batter is not part of the Atkins diet. John Owen doesn’t, either—he’s five years sober and tends to treat his body and mind like someone who feels lucky to still have both. But you have to live life, right? Plus, Rob used to love this place growing up, back when he and his buddy Emilio Estevez would hang out on the beach across Route 1.
John Owen is describing Unstable, on which he is a lead writer. “Your parents, no matter who they are, always just bug you. Always. Even when you’re an adult,” he says. “Your relationship changes as you get older and your parents become more like your friends—but they still bug you. As they should. You’re 59 and your dad bugs you sometimes.”
“Fuck yeah,” Rob says. He dips a fistful of fries in hot sauce. “You gotta try this.” John Owen, who’s been dipping fries in the hot sauce this whole time, just smirks.
“Look, neither one of us could have made this show without the other,” Rob says. “I couldn’t have gone off and said, Hey, I wanna do a father-son show without John Owen.”
“That’s because he can’t write.”
“Well, there’s that, too.”
John Owen jabs a shrimp into the air. “Here’s what it is: It’s similar tonally to that Thursday-night NBC lineup of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock,” he says. “That lineup was a big comedic foundation for me.”
“Except he refused to watch Parks and Rec because I was in it,” Rob says.
How well does John Owen know his father’s career? I ask.
“Badly,” he says.
“Badly,” Rob says.
“Maybe as bad as you can know someone’s career,” John Owen says.
“Have you seen Bad Influence?” Rob asks.
“I don’t even know what that is.”
“Have you seen . . . how many episodes
of The West Wing have you seen?”
Come on now.
“I’m dead serious,” John Owen says. His voice is a cool mix of raspy and tough. Rob talks more like what they call a charmer—close your eyes and you can hear him bullshitting his way through life as Billy Hicks in St. Elmo’s Fire.
“I’ve seen Tommy Boy. Great movie—carried by Chris Farley and David Spade.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t say, ‘And you were the third lead in it.’ ”
“No, you weren’t even. The woman is. What’s her name?”
Rob stares at him. “Bo Derek!”
“Yeah, Bo Derek.”
“ ‘The woman.’ Jesus.”
“I know who Bo Derek is.”
This doesn’t just happen, this kind of father-son relationship. The banter, the ribbing, the sitting together at a fish shack on a Friday evening, the regular golf and tennis games, the making a whole television show together—there’s nothing about any of this that’s a given, in any family. And in this particular family, not only was it not a given that things would turn out this well, it seems a small miracle that they did.
ROB AND HIS WIFE Sheryl, who had a long career as a makeup artist, did not encourage their boys to go into the family business. In fact, they actively discouraged any show-business dreams.
“I tried to beat it out of him,” Rob says. John Owen was a creative kid, and like lots of kids, he went out for the school plays—Guys and Dolls, the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. He wrote poems and short stories.
“I loved writing,” he says. “I loved acting. I cared about it.”
Rob and Sheryl were front row at The Wizard of Oz, Rob hoisting his camcorder like the other parents. John Owen was happy up on the stage. At this point, he knew what his dad did but perhaps not who his dad was. His dad was Rob fucking Lowe, famous all over the world, having emerged in 1983 in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders with a bunch of other unknowns—Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio, Estevez. Then St. Elmo’s Fire helped introduce the Brat Pack, a ring of gifted young actors who appeared in various combinations in movies that helped define 1980s cinema. Then there was About Last Night and Bad Influence. Two Stephen King miniseries. There was, yes, a sex tape with two young women (one underage) when he was 24. There was a lot of booze and cocaine. Later, a comedic resurgence: Tommy Boy, Austin Powers. And of course The West Wing, playing a beloved character on one of the most lauded shows in TV history.
All of this by the time John Owen Lowe was in eighth grade, singing “If I Only Had a Heart.”
But middle school sucks in so many ways, and it began to suck more when John Owen started to learn who his dad was. “I was in eighth grade or freshman year of high school, and some kid said, ‘You know, your dad has a sex tape online,’ ” he says. “I was like, What?”
There was no sit-down about this at home, no kitchen-table conversation when Sheryl and Rob told John Owen and his older brother, Matthew, about the 1980s. There were plenty of sit-downs and conversations—they were hands-on parents. But not about this.
“You know what it’s kind of like? Santa Claus,” John Owen says. “I don’t think most parents ever have that moment where they sit the kids down and go, ‘Okay, we’ve got to tell you something.’ A kid just figures it out. There weren’t milestone markers, like, ‘Okay, he’s 16 now, time for them to learn about this part of our life!’ ”
(“Wikipedia and Google took care of that for us,” Rob says.)
John Owen started to notice other things. Kids began having a lot of questions about his dad. People he thought liked him would suddenly mention an “ask” for Rob. Sometimes when girls hung out with John Owen, he would get the feeling that they really just liked the thrill of being near a celebrity. He never really knew, was the problem.
No more school plays.
“The number of times I got compared to my dad, and the number of times he was brought up in conversation, made me so uncomfortable that I wanted to move as far away from that as possible,” John Owen says. There was a stem-cell research lab, which felt, for a bit, like his calling. He tried finance. The acting thing, though, and writing—“it just kept bubbling up,” he says.
John Owen got jobs on shows—fetching coffees and lunches at first, then eventually writing, his break coming on Rob’s show 9-1-1: Lone Star. Which means he still has to wonder sometimes: How much does he owe to his gift, and how much to being a Lowe? I mention Julian Lennon, the singer and son of a Beatle. “Maybe the original nepo baby,” John Owen says.
Rob goes off with his own angst about the nepotism thing—for one, he points out, he and Sheryl asked their sons not to even think about a career in entertainment until they finished college and pursued other interests. John Owen holds up his hands: “My take is, there is a healthy conversation in there somewhere. I’m always more than willing—and I think it’s important—to acknowledge that I did have opportunities that other people didn’t have. I did get that foot in the door that most people don’t, and for that I’m grateful. And what is also true is that after getting that foot in the door, you do have to prove yourself. There’s a difference between children of nepotism who have just been platformed and coasted on that and the ones who have worked hard and care about what they do.”
Rob nods, pauses, still thinking about the whole nepo-baby thing, then says:
“I’m just saying, are you telling me that the world would be better off if Kirk Douglas didn’t have Michael Douglas?”
ONCE, ON A FAMILY vacation in Hawaii, John Owen, then 16, was speeding around in a golf cart with a bunch of friends and threw himself off. His body skidded across a patch of lava rock, scraping a good deal of the skin off the left side of his body. He was so drunk, he felt nothing. He just laughed.
Later, Sheryl found him in bed, lying on blood-soaked sheets, passed out.
“I was so closed off and so out of touch with my emotions,” he says, sitting at an outdoor coffee shop near the beach, without Rob. “I came off to people as this confident, probably cocky, self-absorbed extrovert. I loved to be the life of the party. The truth was, I was deeply insecure. I’d felt the pressure put on me as a young kid at a time when he doesn’t understand why people are talking about him or looking at him in a certain way. I was a scared little kid trapped in a teenager’s body.”
Rob drank too much and did too many drugs in his early 20s, haunted by his parents’ divorce and confused by the randomness of fame. John Owen felt just as lost. Did some people only pretend to like him because of his dad? Did everyone pretend to like him? He had a drug and alcohol counselor before he had a driver’s license. Rob and Sheryl feared for John Owen’s life. Their boy drifted further and further away, sinking into addiction.
“Many times I could have died. I really liked to push the limits of my body and numb out as much as I could,” says John Owen. “It makes me sad to think about. There’s a certain level of self-doubt, or uncomfortability with one’s self. The more insecure I grew, the more aggressively I used—to medicate. I’ve been to many hospitals many times. I’ve been very lucky. One of my closest childhood friends, who was like an older brother to me—I got sober, he didn’t, and he’s dead now. Fentanyl overdose. Straight-A kid, the sweetest—”
He stops here.
Rob got sober at 26. He knew the work it took. You can’t make anyone get sober, but as parents, he and Sheryl were ready with every weapon: counselors, doctors, rehab, whatever it took.
To John Owen, it felt this way: “When I was at my lowest points, my parents were throwing their lifeline of recovery at me in a way that I was like, Ahhh, get away! It’s abrasive. It’s like I was drowning and they were slamming me on the head with the life raft. Because my feelings were that I didn’t matter, and a lot of that stemmed from having the dad that I had. Once I was treated as if my voice and opinion were valid, I was able to access a part of me that was scared and hiding. Finally the thing that worked was when they said, We love you and we’re scared.”
To which Rob adds, in a separate conversation, speaking gently: “I have a slightly different—not different, but additional view. Which is, he wasn’t ready for us to turn the keys over to him. His perspective is he woke up one morning and we did it. Why didn’t we do it earlier? Well, there was a fucking good reason we didn’t. He wasn’t ready.”
ON THE FIRST DAY of shooting the very first scene of Unstable, John Owen found himself getting ready to act opposite his dad for the first time. They were excited. It was an outdoor setup, with the son approaching the father on a neighborhood street. The son is earnest; the dad is kind of wacky and cringey.
John Owen was nervous. This was it. After months and months—the idea, the pitch, the writing, the worrying—they were finally filming. Everybody was in their places. The cameras started rolling, quiet on the set, three, two—
“Hold on a second.”
It was Rob. Everyone stopped.
Rob called over to John Owen: “Are you on your mark?”
John Owen looked down at his mark, then up. “Yeah I’m on my mark,” he said.
Rob said, “No, I don’t think you’re on your mark.”
John Owen looked at him, disbelieving. “Wait, are you doing a bit right now?”
“No, no,” Rob said, and turned to the crew. “Stop stop stop stop stop—why would John Owen be coming from that direction, guys? I don’t understand why I would be looking that way, because . . .”
John Owen shook his head, smiling an are-you-kidding-me smile. Yup, okay, he thought. This is exactly what the universe would want for this moment. Everything’s set, but the big star had to start in with the questions.
But then here was the thing: By the time they called “Action!” again, John Owen was so annoyed with Rob that his character’s annoyance with his onscreen father had reached the perfect degree.
“I don’t wanna give him the credit, but there’s a chance that he was Miyagi-ing me, goading me into the character,” John Owen says when Rob’s not around. “And if that is true, the man’s a genius. I think the truth is that he’s just annoying.”
THE NIGHT AFTER THE the fish shack, Rob sits at a club on the water in Santa Barbara. He’s wearing a black motorcycle jacket. Whatever he puts in his hair makes it look like he just took off his helmet after a long ride and ran his fingers through it and it’s perfect, jutting out here and there.
Unstable will premiere March 30, and it seems to be making him reflective about raising two young men, about playing a dad to his son, about the irritations of aging, and about how proud, and maybe relieved, he is to see his boys making their way in the world. (Also, I am asking him to reflect on these things.)
I ask about what they said, or didn’t say, when it came to the things in Rob’s past that turn up on Google.
“It falls under the umbrella phenomena of John Owen never seeing The West Wing. Like, My dad represents this to me but this to a lot of other people who I don’t know. At the end of the day, he’s going to have to navigate that on his own. Because to have it be otherwise would be . . . what? Us sitting him down and saying . . . what, exactly? Do you know what I mean? And that’s what is imbued in this show that makes it so interesting. The story of
Unstable is also the story of us! It’s not just, Oh, my dad and I are in a comedy, ha ha.”
He leans back, stretches his arms. The conversation takes repeated turns. He’s writing a script for a period piece. He’s got a whole idea for how to remake The Champ, the 1979 classic. He’s got a lot of ideas, which would be easier to execute if he weren’t starring on two shows, hosting two podcasts, and squeezing in movies.
He’s been training in a boxing gym, and he dreamed up a pay-per-view event in which he fights another actor. Matthew McConaughey, perhaps. Maybe Johnny Depp, “because I feel like I might be able to beat him.” It hits him: David Duchovny! He dictates a text to Duchovny: “I have an idea that is either really inspired or really stupid period and it may buy you another beach house in Malibu period take a minute to consider this fully before you answer period is there a world in which you and I would do a pay per view fight question mark.”
He smiles the troublemaking smile that always allowed his bad-boy characters to get away with stuff. “Oh, here he is—he always responds right away: ‘Not a world I want to live in. I would not enjoy that. Though I agree it would make money.’ Well, I guess we gotta move on to McConaughey. He might beat the shit out of me.” He pauses, then: “What if we go the other way with it? Somebody who’s not my contemporary. Where it’s me versus Harry Styles.”
“You could beat the crap out of him.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“But then everyone would hate you.”
“That’s the other problem. Do you really want to see that famous photo of Ali standing over Sonny Liston, except it’s me and I just knocked out fucking Timothée Chalamet?”
AT THE SEAFOOD SHACK, Rob is digging a fried scallop into the crevices of his waxed-cardboard chowder bowl, sopping up the last of the soup. He loves food, there’s no doubt about it, and he abhors that he has to be disciplined about it. “I hate that it’s 80 percent diet,” he says. “I’ve tried every way of getting around it. And I love working out, but it doesn’t get you where you need to get at my age. And that’s a fucking bummer.”
Still, today he scarfs down the scallops and the fries. “The thing that works for me,” he says, trying to explain with a full mouth, “there will be days when, no doubt, you’re getting the fucking pie. There are times when I will run over my grandmother to pick up a milkshake. But that’s not all the time. So wait till then, have the milkshake, and be cool.”
“Another good song, by the way,” John Owen interrupts.
“Which one is this?”
“ ‘And Iiiiii’—oh, ‘Comfortably Numb.’ ”
I ask about whether, even in the hardest times, they always had this breezy, very funny relationship.
“I can’t believe it seems like we have that,” John Owen says.
“We’ve had times that were super combative,” Rob says. “I would say around 15, 16—I remember dreading Friday into the weekends. I knew I had to put my fucking battle armor on every single weekend.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.”
“It was exhausting.”
“Oh my God.”
“Kids wear. You. Down. And John—I mean, his ability to wear somebody down is unbelievable. We’ve got to write some of that into Unstable, see Jackson”—John Owen’s character—“wearing people out.”
“Yeah, although I think Jackson is a softer soul than I am.”
“That’s interesting,” Rob says, nodding.
It goes on like this. I picture Rob sitting here 40 years ago with a plate of clam strips and a Coke, him and Emilio trying to make eyes with some girls two tables down. Before the drinking, before St. Elmo’s, before the Brat Pack, before the scandal, before the hits and the bombs and The West Wing, before Matthew and John Owen and almost 32 years of marriage to Sheryl. I listen to John Owen, talking about everything, every sentence tinged with an astuteness he shouldn’t have at 27. And I look at Rob looking at John Owen, and I realize that a relationship this intimate, this beautiful, doesn’t just happen.
It wasn’t a given that things would turn out this way.
This story appears in the April 2023 issue of Men's Health.