Rob Lowe is best in small doses. That isn’t to say he doesn’t turn up to the big matches. He has the skill, charisma and appearance to be a leading man and has done so as numerous all-American heroes — in The West Wing, he portrayed a president’s right-hand man and in the forthcoming Killing Kennedy, he is set to play the president.
But it’s in the periphery — his cameos and guest appearances — where Lowe stands out.
Often in spite of their own acts of sabotage — from drink-and-drug-fuelled meltdowns to membership of questionable religious orders — some alumnus of the Eighties Brat Pack have gone on to bigger gigs. (In the case of Charlie Sheen, he’s seemingly turned his own self-destructive tendencies to his advantage.)
But at the end of that decade, a starring role of sorts — a sextape featuring Lowe and two women, one of whom wasn’t a woman (she wasn’t a man either, but she was underage) — was to cut Lowe’s career short.
(Weird when you think of the careers that sextapes have later gone on to create. Lowe was clearly ahead of the curve.)
After years in the (relative) wilderness, it took a self-deprecatory part lower down the billing in somebody else’s vehicle — as the slick, dastardly manager in Mike Myer’s Wayne’s World (1992) — to get his CV back on track (more on that later). That rare feat in Tinseltown of holding down a marriage for more than 20 years hasn’t hurt his image either.
These days, Lowe is dependable. It’s his nice-guy persona and handsomely ageing looks that, when the Californian tourist board needed someone who was on-message — starry but down to earth (and presumably available), made him the go-to face of everything that is right with show business.
But with Behind the Candelabra, out now, Steven Soderbergh enlisted Lowe to play the face of everything that is wrong with show business — a scene-stealing turn as Dr Startz, a plastic surgeon adept at delivering withering looks, despite being so firmly nipped and tucked that he can’t close his eyes let alone raise an eyebrow.
Here is Lowe’s real skill set laid out: the ace up his sleeve isn’t his prowess as a protagonist, it’s his ability to provide twinkle-eyed, self-assured — and often self-mocking — comic turns from the side lines and keep a straight (chiseled) face.
And as part of the Hollywood establishment, to make fun of the ludicrous movie industry, providing a knowing wink from the inside. A serious man who never takes himself too seriously is a valuable commodity.
Here’s a plotted history of his best guest appearances and cameos:
Wayne’s World (1992)
In Mike Myer’s first big-screen outing, Lowe was called upon to play manager Benjamin Kane, “The Man” that Wayne and Garth eventually stick it to — but not before he’s tried sticking it to Wayne’s girlfriend.
Propelling Lowe back into the public consciousness, this also revealed something that he hadn’t had to rely on in his early days as a pin-up — his natural flair for comedy.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
Austin Powers did more than introduce the word “shag” to the American lexicon; it also played its part in pushing the cut-away gag way before it became a Family Guy staple (and another show Lowe later featured in).
Lowe made a cameo as a mate at a henchman’s stag party in Hooters in the first Austin Powers film. Decapitated by a ill-tempered sea bass, the henchman never made it, but Lowe went on to play Dr Evil’s younger Number Two in The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002).
Thank You for Smoking (2005)
Lowe’s association with the inner workings of Hollywood is a running theme in his resume, and one that Juno director Jason Reitman toyed with in Thank You for Smoking. Lowe played an industry super-agent, for whom time zones (and morals) present no boundaries.
The Invention of Lying (2009)
The Office made Ricky Gervais the unlikely man of the moment in Hollywood, and he in turn made this. Big names fell over each other for a shot at a cameo (Louis CK, Tina Fey and Jonah Hill are all present), and Lowe shows up most of them. Not Gervais’ best but another masterclass of comic timing and scathing put-downs from Lowe.
Parks and Recreation (2010-present)
After so many fleeting guest appearances, when Lowe joined the Parks and Recreation cast as chipper and motivated state auditor Chris Traeger, it was literally (his most irritatingly overused and wrongly placed word) for the long haul, as this clip suggests.
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Michael Douglas has won the plaudits for his take on the flamboyant Liberace in Soderbergh’s tragic biopic (and since made headlines with his comments on oral sex), but Lowe injects some much-needed humour (and filler) as plastic surgeon Dr Jack Startz.
Behind the Candelabra is out now 7 June
Read about why Lowe's co-star Michael Douglas is way better than he's given credit for here