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Rob Lowe recalls his addiction and aftermath

Actor has been in recovery for 21 years; he chronicles it in 'Stories I Only Tell My Friends'

Michael Barnes

Rob Lowe's memories about his last visit to Austin, during a Farm Aid concert in the 1980s, are fond but fuzzy.

"I smoked one of those little cigarettes on Willie Nelson's bus," he said during an Austin Recovery luncheon at ACL Live on Tuesday. "I tried to start a fight with John Cougar Mellencamp."

The movie star's recollections will be sharper — and tamer — this time around. He's been in recovery for 21 years, a journey he shared, humorously and humanely, with 800 guests raising money for the nonprofit group's Family Home. A new version of this residence for women in recovery and their children will be named for fervent Austin backer Dawn Crouch, it was announced Tuesday.

"Sobriety saved my life," said Lowe, known for nervy escapades with his Hollywood buddies during the years following "The Outsiders," "St. Elmo's Fire" and "About Last Night." "Not because I would have died, but because my life would have been an 'unlife,' a slow malaise of death on the inside."

Lowe has written fluently about his roller-coaster career, which included post-recovery resurrection in "The West Wing" and "Parks and Recreation," among other TV shows, and his life-saving family in the recently published "Stories I Only Tell My Friends." During his Austin speech — he was the first speaker in Recovery Austin's new Artists on Recovery series — he betrayed nothing but contempt for those who romanticize immature behavior and the way today's celebrities "use rehab to rehab their images."

"I'm old school," said Lowe, looking much younger than his age (47) in black jeans and tailored shirt. "Rehab is a serious place for doing serious work with serious people."

Answering questions from the audience, he emphasized that his wife, Sheryl Berkoff, "was the opposite of an enabler," and that he watches his two sons "like a hawk" for signs of substance abuse. "I'm not putting my stuff on them, but I am vigilant."

After the speech and book signing, Lowe spoke one-on-one in an ACL Live green room about a second memoir already in the works.

"Any story that wasn't about the themes of the book — having a dream, and what does that mean, divorce, love — will be in that (second) book," Lowe said. "It may be soon rather than later. I enjoyed the process. I learned a lot about myself."

In "Stories," Lowe tells about the wrenching auditions, rehearsals and shooting of Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 "The Outsiders," and the crushing discovery during the first screening that his role, central to the book, had been whittled down to almost nothing. Twenty years later, he first saw "The Outsiders: The Complete Novel" with the expurgated scenes (it's available on DVD).

"It is very powerful for any us to say: 'Hey, do you want to see yourself when you were 18?'" Lowe says. "I saw the bond between my character, Sodapop, and (his brother) Ponyboy. There's a scene where we are in bed together and we are holding each other. It was cut because teenage boys went berserk in the theater when they saw two teenage boys holding each other in bed. They were like: 'Whoaaa! No, no, no!' But it's so moving to see that kind of love. Here I was playing somebody the same age of my own kids — and they are brothers. It's like life comes full circle."

Lowe also explained why he has stepped away from campaigning with political candidates.

"I really admire actor-activists and at one point in my life I very much was one," he said. "I retired from it a little bit. Today, the discourse has lost so much of its civility that, if the audience sees you as a Republican or a Democrat, or a supporter of this candidate or that candidate, it's much more polarizing that it was in the '80s.

"I'm a little concerned, honestly, about putting an unnecessary barrier between me and my audience."

He tipped his hand, too, about future "Parks and Recreation" episodes.

"Chris Traeger is going to have some profoundly shattering love life issues," Lowe reports about his "literally" intense character. "And he puts Leslie Knope on trial 'for her own good.' It's sort of like, if Chris Traeger were in 'A Few Good Men.' It's a horrifying process."

CORRECTION: This story originally identified Austin Recovery as Recovery Austin.