Lowe is back in high school these days, on ABC's acclaimed Sunday night domestic drama Life Goes On, and still feeling like an outsider—only now with a heartrending difference. He plays Jesse McKenna, a high school senior who has tested HIV positive (after contracting the virus through a heterosexual affair) and who, in the course of eight episodes, teaches the Thatcher family some lessons about AIDS.
Lowe learned a sorrowful lesson himself a year ago when his manager, Tim Wood, died of complications from AIDS at age 45. "I remember going to the hospital nurses' station," Lowe says quietly, "and them pointing out his room, and seeing that big orange sticker on the door. It warned against coming in contact with [his] blood. My heart just dropped, and I got a big lump in my throat. I walked in, and he was all smiles. He confronted AIDS. It's such a painful memory—he was with me from the beginning."
Wood helped Lowe through a rough battle early in his career. When Lowe was all of 16, he quit his 1984 NBC series, Spencer, a ribald little sitcom about a libidinous teen, after only six episodes because, he says, "it had lost its responsibility to be tasteful to a young audience." (A breach-of-contract suit was settled out of court.) Among those impressed was Chad's dad. Says Charles Lowe, a trial attorney in Dayton, Ohio: "The fact that he was true to his convictions fortified his character."
Not so long before Spencer, Chad hadn't remotely worried about what he owed Young America. Brother Rob, who had begun acting in Dayton, was a teen star in Hollywood by the late '70s. That wasn't long after the boys' mom, Barbara, a former schoolteacher, had settled the family in Point Dume, a suburb north of Malibu (she and Charles Lowe divorced when Chad was less than a year old; her husband now is psychiatrist Steve Wilson). By contrast, says his dad, Chad was "committed to normal things that boys are committed to, particularly athletics."
Lowe used to play baseball with a neighborhood friend, Charlie (Hot Shots!) Sheen, now 26. Hanging out at the Sheen house, the teenage Lowe encountered a steady stream of nascent Brat Packers. "Charlie's brother Emilio Estevez would be there," he says, "and Sean Penn."
Inevitably, Lowe was drawn to the acting life. He credits the final push to Charlie and Emilio's dad, Martin Sheen, who explained to the 15-year-old Lowe how simple—almost karmic—his own career choice had been: "Chad, you either are an actor or you aren't." Although Chad had originally told Rob that Hollywood wasn't for him, he decided that he was an actor, after all. He promptly quit school and started making the audition rounds.
The result was Spencer—and instant celebrity. A Luke Perry—esque mall-mobbing by young fans, as well as dissatisfaction with the show, caused instant misery. "He could barely get out of bed to go to work." says his mother. Post-Spencer, Lowe attended a private school in Malibu and has since done occasional film and TV roles. "It's been a consistently slow climb," he admits.
Regardless of their respective current perches in showbiz, says Lowe, he and Rob have a good relationship. And both of them rushed to Dayton last year when their father was diagnosed with lymphoma. "They've been a wonderful source of strength." says Charles, 51, who's doing well after chemotherapy.
Chad, who at the time was living in New York City and working off-Broadway, recently moved back west, where he bought a rustic two-bedroom house in Laurel Canyon. "This is a perfect bachelor pad," says Lowe, whose idea of decorating is lining up baseball caps on a shelf. "If my girlfriend lived here, it would be all well-kept."
He will identify the girlfriend only as "an actress who works a lot" and as "my first broken heart." They had tried a relationship in 1985 but remained friends. At a catch-up dinner a few months ago, he says, his heart was repaired. Now "we go to yoga together, we see movies together. We spend a lot of time talking."
Lowe also spends time at a nearby shelter for abused kids who have run away from their families (he leads a weekly current-events discussion group). The kid role model sees himself as having his own kids someday, but catches himself—"I have to remind myself of my youth." For now, he'll just let life go on.
NANCY MATSUMOTO in Los Angeles