Needing little introduction, seasoned actress Adrienne Barbeau has enjoyed a lengthy and colorful career spanning nearly every performing medium: stage, film, music - and now author.
Having appeared in such genre classics as John Carpenter's original The Fog (1980), Wes Craven's Swamp Thing (1982) and George A. Romero's Creepshow (1982), Barbeau has not just graced countless screen horrors, but in the process has had the extraordinary opportunity to work with terrordom's most prolific modern auteurs.
With the release of her new memoir, There Are Worse Things I Could Do, a charming Barbeau reminisces fondly about her past four decades in the business.
The multi-talented actress was kind enough to sit down with The Terror Trap and discuss her fascinating career highlights: from her 1972 Tony-nominated role in Grease, to a hot summer in Escape from New York (1981), to filming under political strife in Burial of the Rats (1995). And everything in between and more.
The Terror Trap: First, we have to say you look fantastic. Come on, what's your secret?
Adrienne Barbeau: (Laughs.) Well...I have three, I guess...
AB: My mother and father...I think I ended up with good genes. The second is probably a lack of tension in my face. I think over the years, I've just worked to stay healthy and relaxed. I don't let the stress in my life get to me.
TT: That's terrific. What else?
AB: The third one is that years ago, when my son (Cody Carpenter) was probably twelve years old, I went to a dermatologist and he had some little face cream around. He said, "I think this really works." I started using it and that's the only thing I've used all my life. Maybe that made a difference...I'm not sure if that's the root cause, because now I don't know what I would have looked like if I hadn't used it!
TT: Well, you really do look wonderful.
AB: Oh, thank you.
TT: Let's get started. You've had such an enduring and broad journey in movies. We thought we'd begin by asking you how you knew that you were first interested in acting and your recollections of wanting to be an actress...
AB: You know, I started out on stage. I began doing musical comedies because it's the only thing I knew. When I was in fifth grade, my mother had me take voice lessons because somebody told her that I could sing. And so I used to go to a music conservatory and they did operettas, stage productions and musicals...so I started with that.
I went to junior high, then high school and on to one year of college in San Jose, California. They had a community theater organization, which even at that time was a multi-million dollar operation. But it was community theater...the San Jose Light Opera...and I started out doing musicals.
When I graduated high school, I went off to what was in those days called the Orient...now it's 'Southeast Asia'...to entertain G.I.s.
AB: Yes. And then I came back to college and decided I wanted to pursue professional theater, so I moved to New York and started doing Broadway.
TT: At this stage, who would you list, if any, among your inspirations in terms of people who had come before you?
AB: No one. (Laughs.)
TT: You didn't think about such things?
AB: Well, I didn't know anything about the business. I mean, I had a girlfriend who had been in New York and she had been in an Off Broadway production. We worked together and she was the one who said I should go to New York and study. But I didn't go to movies, I didn't watch television. I sort of learned by doing it and didn't really have an icon that I looked up to.
TT: Which makes your career and success all the more interesting. What was your first big break?
AB: I did Fiddler. I was hired to play one of the daughters in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. And then that led to portraying the original Rizzo in Grease.
TT: You co-starred with Barry Bostwick in Grease and won the Theater Guild Award for playing Rizzo. What was the experience like of receiving that honor and being nominated for a Tony?
AB: First of all, it was completely unexpected. It had never crossed my mind that the Grease cast would be even eligible for a Tony. The show opened in an Off Broadway arena. It was [technically] a Broadway contract because we were in a huge theater...but we were definitely 'outside' the Broadway area. And so it never crossed my mind that we would be eligible.
The producers felt that we were eligible because we were on a Broadway contract...we were playing to larger houses with 500 seats. I believe they petitioned the League of New York Theaters.
TT: How did you find out about the nomination?
AB: I was washing my hair one morning and the phone rang. It was a girlfriend saying, "You just got nominated for a Tony."
TT: That must be the biggest high...
AB: It was. I couldn't take it in at first, I just really couldn't understand. It didn't make sense to me...I didn't know what she was saying. (Laughs.)
TT: Were you offered the chance to be in the film version of Grease?
TT: Why not?
AB: There are probably several reasons. The producer of the movie Grease was a man named Allan Carr and Allan managed Stockard Channing. So I think that Stockard probably auditioned for him...
TT: And she had an "in" for the part...
AB: Right. But I was also doing Maude at the time and it never even crossed my mind to look into the audition process because I thought I was too old.
I mean, we were old when we were doing Grease on the stage. We were playing teenagers but we were all in our early to mid twenties. So by the time they made the movie, I was...I don't know, I don't what year it was made...
TT: It was filmed in 1977 and released in June of 1978.
AB: Okay, I was...you do the math...
TT: You would have been 32. But Stockard Channing was 33 at the time!
AB: You know, I've never seen the film...I really don't know anything about it. But it didn't happen for me. I was doing a television show and I went in a different direction.
TT: Let's talk about Maude. Like the song goes "And then there's Maude..."
What can you tell us about playing Bea Arthur's daughter Carol in a very successful TV series?
AB: Being on Maude was fantastic. It was the starting point for the rest of my career really, but it was also just on a day to day basis, a fantastic job. I was fortunate enough to be involved with people that I loved and loved working with and to be doing material that was exceptional.
I was very proud of the series. And I was proud of it not simply because it was a good situation comedy...but because it was groundbreaking and socially significant. And you don't normally find those two things in the same project. It was just a fantastic job.
TT: How did you get that part?
AB: Well, Grease had led directly to my getting cast as Carol.
Norman Lear had read reviews (or maybe he had read that I had been nominated for a Tony) and he sent his casting director to see the show. And they called me in for an audition and that led to Maude.
TT: Since Maude was a spin-off of All in the Family, were they filmed near each other or in the same studio?
AB: Yes, the first year we were both at CBS Television City. The second year, Maude went over to another studio and I believe that All in the Family stayed at TV City.
The first year, we were there with The Sonny & Cher Show...which was next door in one of the other studios, All in the Family of course, The Price is Right and The Young & the Restless...
TT: So you were in mixed company?
AB: We were in mixed company, that's right. (Laughs.)
TT: We're going to jump ahead a few years to the The Great Houdini, a supernatural-tinged Made-for-TV movie that you made in 1976...
AB: Oh yes...
TT: We love Houdini. It's very rare, having never even been been put out on video, but we have a copy and remember seeing it when it aired.
Do you recall how the role of Daisy came your way?
AB: That was an offer. I had just signed with Creative Artists. I didn't even know who they were. They were just getting started, but through a series of coincidences, I ended up signing with them. And they called one day and said, "We've got this offer for you to do this part."
It was the first film that I had ever done and I knew nothing about films. I had only done stage and tape up until that time. We did Maude the same way you do a stage play. We just rehearsed for 4 1/2 days and then did it for an audience straight through, no stops or anything.
So we did the master...the first establishing shot...on Houdini...and I didn't know that people did close-ups. I went off and started to change clothes to do the next scene! (Laughs.)
TT: That's funny.
You know, in particular one of the things that strikes us about The Great Houdini is that you got to work with such a fantastic cast: Paul Michael Glaser, Ruth Gordon, Sally Struthers, Peter Cushing...that must have been a very fascinating experience for you.
AB: My husband would remind you that we had Vivian Vance on that one...he's a big I Love Lucy fan!
AB: I've had a fascinating career...because I've worked with so many wonderful actors and interesting people. I knew Sally, of course, because she was doing All in the Family at the time. Unfortunately, I didn't have any scenes with Ruth or Peter, so I didn't get to spend any time with them.
As I said, it was my first film experience and a real learning process.
TT: In terms of your work in the mid to late '70s, you appeared in so many diverse projects on television. From Return to Fantasy Island (the second pilot for the series) to Quincy to appearances on The Tony Orlando & Dawn Show as well as Battle of the Network Stars. Is there anything from this period that you particularly enjoyed doing?
AB: I remember the Quincy. I was pleased with the work there because up until that time, I had only done Maude. And the Hollywood industry only saw me as a sitcom performer. Nobody was interested in seeing me for any dramatic work.
TT: You played a rape counselor in an episode entitled Let Me Light the Way.
AB: Right, I played a rape counselor who got raped. In fact, the other actress in that episode was Kim Catrall. It was one of her first things.
TT: It's an intense episode.
AB: That was the first dramatic piece of material that I did for television and it turned every thing around. Suddenly, I was being hired to do other things like that TV movie with Karen Valentine...what was the name?
TT: Having Babies.
AB: Yes. And Red Alert and all these other dramatic TV movies.
TT: So anything that was more along the lines of drama such as Quincy was refreshing for you?
AB: Well, the Quincy specifically because it was the first one. It was the one that changed everyone's idea about what I could do. And that then led to the others.
TT: How was Jack Klugman to work with?
AB: I loved working with him. He was an absolute sweetheart. It was just a good role to do for someone like me who'd previously only done sitcoms and musical comedies.
TT: You mentioned Red Alert. We've watched a number of things in preparation for our talk...it's been "Barbeau Week" for us...
TT: We watched Crash...
AB: Oh my God!
TT: Let's just say we were so impressed with the film and your performance, which is really good. The film is amazingly gritty and you were wonderful as the tortured stewardess in this disaster flick.
Do you remember much about either Red Alert or Crash?
AB: You know, what I remember most about Crash...and I have not seen it since it aired that one time...so I'm interested and pleased to hear you say that I was okay...
What sticks with me most is that the director was a screamer. I mean, this man just screamed and his language was horrible. It sort of took me by surprise. Barry Shear, I believe was his name...
TT: Right, Barry Shear...
AB: I liked him but I had never worked with anyone who screamed at people and used expletives so it was a bit of a shock.
TT: Was that helpful?
AB: Not to me.
I also remember acting with Sharon Gless and we were working nights and it was cold. We were wet and it was messy. That's all I remember.
TT: It's very good...
TT: Yes. Unfortunately, Made-for-TV movies are too often criticized for their low budgets and small scale, among other things. But the special effects in Crash are effective, the depiction of the crash into the Florida Everglades is very suspenseful, and your performance is terrific.
AB: I'll have to look for it! (Laughs.)
TT: Do you recall anything about Red Alert? Working with William DeVane...
AB: Yes, and Michael Brandon. Oh...the experience of being inside NASA, that was fascinating.
TT: It's an excellent little environmental potboiler. And there's that awesome crane shot of you trapped in the Minneapolis airport...
Now, let's move on to John Carpenter. How did he come into your life?
AB: John had seen me in Maude and liked my work. He called me in for an interview for the first television film that he had to do...and I believe the first union film he'd ever done. It was initially called "High Rise" but was finally released as Someone's Watching Me!
TT: At this point, had you been a fan of the horror or science fiction genres?
AB: Gosh no! And I'm still not. I've never seen PSYCHO...you name it, I haven't seen it. I don't like to go to the theater to be scared. I do have a soft spot for action-adventure, however.
TT: It's fascinating that the best actresses in thrillers and horror movies generally say they have no preference for the genre. And yet, it always seems to make them more genuine in the role. [Note to directors: horror fans make poor scream queens onscreen!]
Someone's Watching Me! is a stunning creative nod to Hitchcock (in particular Rear Window). Here, you co-starred with Lauren Hutton and chalked up your first working collaboration with Carpenter, your future husband. Did you have any trepidation at this stage in your career about playing a lesbian?
AB: No, actually. I loved the way John had written her. It's one of the things we talked about in that first meeting. He wasn't hitting anybody over the head with it. I think it was dealt with maybe in only three sentences.
For example, at some point I'm talking about getting over a love affair and Lauren says, "Oh, who was he?" And I say "she." And she says, "...oh" and we just went right on. I thought that was really cool and fantastic.
TT: Right. It's subtle and that's why we like it. Nowadays, they would hit you over the head with it. But with Someone's Watching Me!, it's just kind of thrown in the room and lands where it will. Dealing with it subtly - but honestly - makes the character so multi-dimensional. And the acting quite adult.
AB: I agree. I really loved it and that's just the way he wrote it.
TT: Do you have any anecdotes about the shoot?
AB: What I remember most about filming Someone's Watching Me! is that I met John and found him very attractive. And then I found out he was involved with someone...and so I decided to find him unattractive. (Laughs.) Mostly, it was an emotional reaction on that shoot.
TT: Interesting. In an old interview, you talk about that and you mention that you found out in hindsight that John was attracted to you as well on the set of Someone. But it was only after the shoot was over that things took flight.
AB: Yes. You'll get a lot of that in my book.
TT: We're looking forward to it.
Next up, you appeared with one of our favorites, Ray Milland, in The Darker Side of Terror along with Robert Forster. It was kind of an offbeat sci-fi fantasy mix.
AB: That was a rather difficult shoot because Robert Forster did not get along with the director and they actually went to fists at one point. I stayed out of it and I couldn't even tell you now what they were fighting about. Not an experience that I think about too often.
TT: After you've done some of these television projects, you probably haven't seen them in forever...
AB: That's right.
TT: Let's move into The Fog. The role of Stevie Wayne, the disc jockey who owns and operates a radio station out of a lighthouse in Antonio Bay, was created specifically for you by Carpenter. Did you have any involvement as the character was being written?
AB: Not as he was writing it. Once John was finished, I think I changed two lines. (Laughs.) I said, "Oh...can I say this?" and he said, "Okay sure, why not!"
During the filming, I remember John was setting up a scene and he said, "Okay, sit down and we'll shoot from over there" and I told him I didn't think she'd sit down because she's too upset. He said, "Okay...stand up" and that was the end of it.
TT: Was it a demanding role?
AB: No, no. It was great fun. We filmed The Fog in Inverness, California. And John and I ended up buying a house there in the town. It was such gorgeous countryside. Still is.
The hard part was the scenes going down to the lighthouse. Because as you can see, the camera equipment and all of us had to go down 365 (I think it was) stairs. If it got too windy, the forest service just shut the shoot down and we had to move someplace else. That was difficult.
But no, my role in The Fog was not a demanding part per se. Maybe because John had written it for me and I had the advantages in that way...he saw that that's the kind of character I played...
TT: Did you enjoy playing a mother to Ty Mitchell and was he easy to work with?
AB: Yes, he was a sweetheart. Cute little boy.
TT: Any thoughts on Dean Cundey's camerawork? The film is shot so nicely.
AB: Well, he's a master. I mean, he made me look beautiful. I learned from Dean the exact angle to shoot someone from if you wanted to enhance their attractiveness or whatever.
I think Dean was the one who sort of built a little special lighting device for me because I'm dark under the eyes...I have deep-set eyes...and this lighting device filled in the darkness under the eyes.
TT: You've never looked lovelier.
AB: Thank you...
TT: The Fog is rife with all these great green and red hues. And people don't usually look good cast in green...
AB: It's true. Dean did a beautiful job.
TT: What was it like at that time to work with someone with whom you had a personal relationship?
AB: It was great because first of all, I had the advantage of him knowing me so well that he had written something that was very comfortable for me to do.
And because I trusted John so much. He basically never had to tell me anything and I never had to ask him anything...except as I said, that one moment when I said I didn't think the character would sit down.
TT: So your relationship made the process more efficient?
AB: Yeah...and it was just a pleasure. Although when we started out the first day of shooting The Fog, we were concerned that we wanted to be very professional.
So we barely spoke to each other and, after about three hours of that, John said, "This isn't any fun." I didn't want anyone to think that I was getting preferential treatment because I was married to the director!
TT: Since most of your scenes in The Fog are played alone as you talk to your radio listeners, did you have much interaction with the rest of the cast? Or did you feel as isolated as the character is?
AB: Well, most of the cast and crew were very good friends. Tommy Atkins was a very close friend. Nancy Loomis, close friend. I knew Jamie (Lee Curtis)...we all hung out together. Before we made the movie, I had met Jamie through John because of Halloween.
Debra Hill, good friend. And the crew...even by that time, John had a group of people that he worked with repeatedly and I knew them all and we all socialized.
So on The Fog, we all spent time together...lunches and dinners and things like that. I was never really aware of feeling isolated, in terms of the plot structure, because these people were all my buddies.
TT: That's nice.
You've made reference to the famous Stevie Wayne "disc jockey voice" and the fact that people remember it so fondly. What do you think it is about the voice that sticks out?
AB: Hmmm...there was a woman disc jockey in New York about the same time or maybe earlier named Allison Steele and she had that sort of low, intimate, quiet voice.
TT: Was that in the mid to late 70s?
AB: It had to have been earlier because I left New York in 1972, so it would have been in the late sixties. I sort of remembered that and patterned the voice after her.
TT: Stevie Wayne should be paired up with the Clint Eastwood DJ character in Play Misty For Me because he was the male version of that...low and slow...
AB: (Laughs.) Yup!
TT: Carpenter has said that he went in after seeing an initial cut of The Fog and shot additional scenes of gore. He's mentioned what sequences he filmed to give the movie more "oomph" and make it more bloody, after being initially disappointed with the first version. Did you ever see that first cut?
AB: Yes, I did see the first cut of The Fog. And I do recall that John felt that it didn't work as it was.
TT: You've referred to the fact that Carpenter liked the Howard Hawks' type of female persona. By that, we assume you mean tough and resilient - in old parlance a 'dame,' if you will. Is that the kind of character that you meant and if so, is that the character that you feel most comfortable playing?
AB: Yes. I think what Carpenter saw in Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, or whomever, was that they were strong women. Not necessarily heroines like Stevie Wayne or Maggie in Escape from New York, because we weren't dealing with that genre...but they were strong women who could take care of themselves and they had a wit about them.
That's what he saw in me and that's what he wrote.
TT: And we think that really resonates with fans. With your performances on film, even when you're playing the "victim" - you never really come across as a victim in the surface sense of the word. With The Fog, Stevie evinces helplessness - but it's always with a tinct of resolve for survival. The same could be said for Alice in Swamp Thing.