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These days, Rob Lowe is an established actor and bestselling author working on his second memoir. But back in the 1980s, he was a hunky newcomer, a teen idol riding the crest of a decade that brought sweeping cultural, technological and geopolitical changes.
It was the best time to be a young actor, he said: "To be at the right place at the right time when all of artistic culture was turning toward youth in a way that had never been done before."
So much happened, of course, during a decade that introduced us to small personal electronics and big corporate power. Lowe helps illuminate the period as the voice of "The '80s: The Decade That Made Us," a six-part documentary series that premiered Sunday on the National Geographic Channel. The 49-year-old "Parks and Recreation" star reflected on the '80s with The Associated Press.
AP: Why do the 1980s merit a documentary series?
Lowe: The '80s had such an amazing dichotomy: It had the yuppie, shoulder pad, bad hair, really interesting music, MTV cultural youth explosion as the froth over some unbelievably revolutionary, game-changing events - from the fall of the Berlin wall to the advent of the personal computer. The way we live today is a direct result of things that started in the '80s.
AP: What elements in the series might surprise viewers who didn't live through this period?
Lowe: How much of the world that we take for granted today that feels like it's been in existence for 100 years on the basis of how much it's a part of our lives actually didn't even exist in 1981. It really all comes down to how we communicate with each other, whether it's computers, cellphones or how we watch television. In 1980, it was still a big deal to have a TV series that focused on African Americans. ... MTV was one of the things that helped bring the Berlin Wall down. For the first time, entire nations were exposed to the freedoms that Americans have had forever, and they wanted their MTV. They wanted their MTV so much they tore the wall down to get it.
AP: Your career exploded in the '80s, so how much did you personally discover about the decade in doing this documentary?
Lowe: What gave me so many mixed emotions, and I don't even know how to articulate it, was many of those events I was actually there for or knew the players personally. We talk about Iran Contra for example, which was really the end of the Reagan era of power. We talk about Oliver North and what that meant geopolitically. We talk about (North's secretary) Fawn Hall, who I dated! So for me it was looking back on things that I took for granted as just living my life in that time and space and now looking back and realizing that I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat at a really interesting time. It made me nostalgic in the best possible way for that time.
AP: Whether it was Day-Glo clothes or Flock of Seagulls hair, everyone has an embarrassing '80s anecdote. What's yours?
Lowe: We talk a little bit in the documentary about the rise of the teen film... People like to say that "St. Elmo's Fire'''s success was predicated on the rise of the teen film. I like to say "St. Elmo's Fire'''s success was predicated on the invention of hair mousse. I remember the day I discovered it. I'm not kidding. I remember where I was. I was like OK, this is a game-changer.