Robin Sherwood is a former model turned stage and film actress who appeared in such horror outings as the grindhouse fan favorite The Love Butcher (1975), David Schmoeller's classic Tourist Trap (1979), Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981) as well as the vigilante Charles Bronson thriller Death Wish II (1982).
She has graced fan conventions including Chiller Theater, and will be featured in the genre lecture series Fear-Mongers: Fireside Chats about Horror Films at Dixon Place in lower Manhattan on December 21, 2010. Sherwood was gracious enough to sit down with us and reminisce about her career highlights.
The Terror Trap: You’re originally from Florida, correct?
Robin Sherwood: Yes, I’m from Miami Beach…which some people think is the sixth borough of New York. (Laughs.)
TT: What’s your earliest recollection of your ambition as a child?
RS: I remember reading Curious George and wanting to be a performer because I would make these cut-out pictures and I’d put them on sticks and do a play in a shoebox.
RS: I would bore my family and friends to death by coming out and doing some sort of performance…
TT: Like a puppet show?
RS: Exactly. But in a shoebox with the cut-outs.
I also had a life-sized doll and I would act a little scene for my parents. I was really young.
TT: That’s charming. When did that creativity turn into you wanting to be an actress?
RS: There was a short being filmed and I was able to be in it if I rode an elephant. That’s my first recollection. But I started crying!
RS: Because I’m such an animal person and at that point, I didn’t want to ride an animal. But I was very young and I knew I wanted to act.
When I was around eight, there was a play called Our Town and one of the little girls got sick. They needed a child for the part and my mother knew the people involved. That was the first professional work I did. I took dance classes. I was very serious about it.
TT: Your first stage outing…
RS: Yes. But before that, I did ice-skating shows in, believe it or not, Miami Beach. I did little things like that. Or there would be a charity. I remember they needed someone for Thank Heaven for Little Girls.
My first really serious theatrical moment was when I signed with an agent at fourteen. That’s when I started to go out on interviews. I mean, serious interviews with film and commercial companies who would go to Florida to shoot because of the weather.
TT: Did you study acting at that point?
RS: No. And not only did I not study acting…I never even took it in school. I started to work professionally as an actress before I studied.
TT: So you had an agent but it was purely intuitive.
RS: Right. I didn’t even know I was an artist.
TT: At what point did you study?
RS: I was sixteen or seventeen and I was doing print modeling. My brother, who is four years older than me, was going to Sarah Lawrence.
The theatre department had an opening and they would take people to England to study acting. They were short one person and my brother thought he could get me in. And he did…even though I was not enrolled at Sarah Lawrence.
RS: We stayed at the London School of Economics and I studied with RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts).
I never had to go back and finish my senior year because I had already gotten into college. I worked that whole year and then I entered college.
TT: Did your modeling continue?
RS: I was doing it at the same time.
After that, I got a commercial from J. Walter Thompson and got into the union. So I was able to work on camera and in motion, whereas before that…I was working in two-dimension.
TT: What was the commercial for?
RS: It was for Binaca! There was a guy who shared an agent with me and he invited me to go to the audition. I was wearing jeans and a bathing suit top, which is what a sixteen-year old wears in Florida. I got the principle part and the guy didn’t even get cast.
TT: Was he angry?
RS: Yes, he was. But he didn’t sing and they needed people to sing. He couldn’t have done it anyway.
TT: You sing?
RS: Yes, I’m a trained legit singer and dancer.
TT: Did you know if you wanted to do film or stage work?
RS: I didn’t really know about film but I did have a desire for the stage. When I was in school and I started studying, I did stage and summer stock.
Then I traveled to Los Angeles while I was in school…and that’s when I did The Love Butcher. I had to go back to school to graduate, but I thought that I worked so much better in film.
I was starting to be horrified by the auditions where you go into those huge Broadway type theatres and have to sing. It was just frightening for me at that point.
TT: We can imagine.
RS: Film life is different from stage. The people who are serious about their work…you might go out to dinner with your significant other but you have to get home because you have to get up at 4:30 or 5 in order to get ready to shoot. It’s a more settled lifestyle.
TT: Tell us how you landed the part of Sheila in The Love Butcher.
RS: I was represented by ICM in New York as a “variety talent” - those are people who would sing and dance. I was going to school and auditioning in New York. They kept an apartment there so I could do that.
I went on work study at Franconia College, where Leon Botstein (the famous conductor and president of Bard College) was the president then. Work study meant that as long as we worked in our field, we got credit for the year. And I said, “I’m going to Los Angeles.” I’ll never forget, I went from New Hampshire to New York to California.
They didn’t have variety talent on the west coast so the only department I could sign with was the commercial department. Erik Stern was the photographer who they recommended that I work with. He was signed for commercials but he also took photos of the clients. He said he was putting together a film and thought there was a part that I’d be good for. That’s how I got The Love Butcher.
There were two directors on The Love Butcher - Donald M. Jones and Mikel Angel.
RS: Yes, Mikel Angel was the first.
TT: Do you recall why there were two?
RS: There was a personality conflict between Mikel and the producers.
TT: It’s an unusual film. In that it’s a character study that is both gory and comical at times. What appealed to you about the character and the script?
RS: When I read it, what I thought was nice was that the character changed a lot. For a young character, she was very mature. I really liked that. I certainly was a very mature young person.
TT: Were all the hairstyle changes in the script?
RS: No, we did that.
TT: The accent?
RS: I added that because Sheila was pretty mysterious in a certain sense. Where did she COME from?
So I thought she was a street-smart person and to me, no one is more street-smart than a New Yorker.
TT: What do you recall about Louis Ojena, who played your husband Carl?
RS: He was easy. He was fun.
TT: And how about Erik Stern? He gives a really charismatic lead performance.
RS: Erik was a real sweetheart. He was always wonderful and has a great sense of humor.
TT: He does a good job of conveying two different characters: the “brothers” Caleb and Lester.
RS: He does.
TT: Did you have any hesitation about the on-screen nudity?
RS: Oh, I definitely did. I was told that none of it was going to show. I just needed to do that so they could shoot it. (Laughs.) That wouldn’t work for me today.
TT: So you were naïve about that.
RS: Right. (Laughs.) When you’re young and it’s your first film, you don’t really know what’s going on. Or what they’re capable of doing.
TT: What was your reaction when you saw that it hadn't been removed?
RS: I was VERY upset.
TT: Did you feel it would have a bearing on your future chances for other roles?
RS: I did think so.
TT: Nowadays it’s not a big deal but 35 years ago…
RS: Right. And especially the print work that I was doing…launching a campaign for Levi’s for example. I was thought of as glamorous and certainly not someone who would be doing nudity.
I did think it might hurt my career but as a matter of fact, it didn’t because they couldn’t get any distribution. It went into the can and wasn’t released until I made Death Wish 2 and that was a hit.
TT: The character of Caleb/Lester kills people using gardening tools. What are your thoughts about Sheila’s unusual death by water hose in the swimming pool?
RS: I thought it was really silly. That’s it. I thought this is all just silly.
TT: Did you have trouble filming that sequence?
RS: Well, I was not pleased with doing it. I just wasn’t but I did it. (Laughs.)
TT: In hindsight, what is your opinion about The Love Butcher?
RS: (Long pause.) I’ve wondered how it has become a cult film. I believe there’s real nostalgia for movies that were made on the cheap and played in drive-ins.
TT: That’s absolutely true. There’s probably a nostalgia for the roughness of it. Don’t you think?
RS: I do.
You know, someone brought this up to me. In the beginning, horror films used to be fun and harmless. Like The Bride of Frankenstein. We used to get pizza at night and when we knew it was going to rerun (usually on New Year’s Eve) we would watch it and laugh. Or The Blob or The Fly. They were not necessarily frightening but just fun.
Now, horror films are truly gory and horrific.
TT: And yet not nearly as gory as some of the real life news you see on television and the Internet.
RS: That’s a good point.
TT: You made a TV movie produced by Roger Corman in 1978 called Outside Chance. Tell us about that.
RS: I was supposed to play a character they gave to Betty Thomas. I spent a lot of time in France from the time I was ten. We would go there every summer so I have a very French aesthetic.
Ralph Gaby Wilson had written a French/American character especially for me. But Michael Miller, the director, decided that Thomas should get that role. It was completely rewritten and I was given a very insignificant part. I had billing but it’s very small. It was a slap in the face - but as an actress, you learn to deal with that.
TT: What was Miller’s issue with you?
RS: I was married to a producer that he was a partner with - and I think he just didn’t like that.
TT: The Love Butcher had featured a dummy quite prominently in the Caleb/Lester scenes. Your next feature, Tourist Trap, would include the use of mannequins in a much more frightening way.
RS: Helmut Newton was very hot then. He shot mannequins during that period. He was always in Vogue. I believe that mannequins were a fashion trend at the time.
TT: How did you get involved in Trap?
RS: I got a call from my agent who said that there was a film that was being done that had a really good script and it was a horror movie. Of course, as an ingénue, those were considered very good films to do.
RS: So he said it’s a horror film with a great script…and the people that are working on it are the sons and daughters of famous filmmakers. He told me it looks really good and I should go out for it.
TT: Some of the famous offspring involved with the film included Nicholas von Sternberg and William Wyler’s son David.
RS: That’s correct.
TT: What happened next?
RS: The part of Eileen was written as a blonde. And at 5’6”, I’m not short…but you kind of got the impression they wanted an athletic looking blonde. My agent said I should read for it.
I went in, and there was David Schmoeller and Larry Carroll - and they immediately wanted me. Which was great. They called my agent and told him to have me come in and read with the other people they thought would be right.
I came back another time and I think I read with Jon Van Ness. That was it. That’s how I got it.
TT: That’s great.
What do you recall about Schmoeller as a director?
RS: I thought he was a VERY GOOD director. He was very quiet but he was good about knowing when he got what he was looking for.
TT: He’s clearly a talented filmmaker who would go on to make a number of well made pictures.
RS: Tourist Trap was all in a different level from The Love Butcher. Just think, it came through an agent, it was all Screen Actors Guild. It was handled in a very professional way. We had our trailers. If we went overtime, we got paid overtime. Everything was done the way a film is supposed to be done, even though it was such a little budget.
I really don’t think it looks as small as the budget was.
TT: Not at all! It looks great. The direction, the cinematography, the score by Pino Donaggio...are top-notch.
RS: I remember seeing the film one time and during the first scene, I thought, “This is really pretty.” It’s really a pretty movie. Lots of pastels. That set that we worked on…the house…Bob Burns, the Production Designer, made it look like that.
Regarding David Schmoeller…as an actress, I felt very comfortable working with him. I thought he was very, very good at directing. When I went in for interviews for movies through casting directors, they would say to me that the acting was terrific in that film.
TT: How did you approach the character of Eileen, who is clearly established in the first shot as being somewhat vain?
RS: In that first scene, I showed how involved I was with my beauty by looking in a handheld mirror. As a young actress, there are moments I played that I would not play now. For example, I would have not chewed gum and would never have had Eileen do anything as crude as placing the gum wherever I did. I don't believe it added to the character. I was the same age as her but I would never have done that in real life.
TT: The film was called Horror Puppet in Italy. Where was it shot?
RS: In a few different places. That house was actually on Hollywood Boulevard, which I have since found out was torn down years ago. It was really an old house. That was one place. The interiors with the mannequins…that was really shot in the house.
Then there was a place that we shot the pond scene - it was somewhere in Malibu, I believe. There was also a façade of a house that was rented. It was in the middle of nowhere, like in the forest.
I don’t remember where the museum actually was but the shots in the road were definitely in the Valley, way far.
TT: You mentioned the pond scene. This time, you put your foot down about any nudity…correct?
RS: (Laughs.) Yes. It was great because by then, I was very aware of nude scenes so I had an actual deal in my contract whereby when I went in the water, I had a wetsuit all the way up to my neck. That’s why all you see is my smiling…
TT: Smart thinking!
How did you get along with the other women in the cast? Tanya Roberts? Jocelyn Jones?
RS: We were very close. And we were having so much fun. We were working hard and obviously when you see the film, we were working through the night. So you get to know someone really well. They were all wonderful. There were no prima donnas, everyone loved the movie. The shoot went very smoothly.
TT: Roberts went on to a high profile part during the final season of Charlie’s Angels. Did she seem particularly ambitious to you or did you have any inkling she would be a breakout star within a few years?
RS: No, I didn’t. To me, Tanya is just Tanya. I wouldn’t have even thought about it.
TT: She has beautiful eyes.
RS: Yes, she does and she’s an absolutely beautiful woman. It just made me sick because she never had to diet and that’s what her body is. (Laughs.)
TT: She’s originally from the Bronx. Would you say she was kind of a tough gal or a girlie girl?
RS: I don’t think she’s a girlie girl. She seemed very mature and wise. She didn’t seem like a California girl at the time. I’d say she was very urban.
TT: How about Chuck Connors?
RS: Chuck Connors saved my life.
TT: That’s a great headline!
RS: It’s true. You know the scene where Sheila comes in and puts on the scarf?
RS: She’s looking at herself in the mirror and then it cracks. I was told that the glass would not hit me when the FX guy popped it from the back with a 2 x 4. I was supposed to look and keep straight.
Chuck came in and pulled me aside and said, “I don’t care what they tell you, you just turn away because your face is your life.”
Well, I didn’t know and I heard it crack and I turned away. Well, sure enough…the glass shattered and I ended up in the hospital.
RS: I turned away only because Chuck told me to do that.
TT: He had done so many of his own stunts on things like The Rifleman that he knew it could be dangerous for you.
RS: Yes, I agree. I absolutely agree 100%.
TT: How long were you in the hospital?
RS: I was in the hospital overnight. I had little stitches up the side of my body because the glass had struck me there.
TT: But not your face…
RS: Thank God! And not my neck. I did have some glass in my arm and in my shoulder. I went into shock and then my husband Jeff took me to the emergency room. I was out the next day because I told them I had to be back on the set to shoot.
My agent said, “You’re a real trouper!” I’m not quite sure if that was the smart thing to do but that’s what I felt I wanted to do.
TT: Aside from the accident, what else do you recall about filming Sheila’s death scene?
RS: Well, Chuck told me to smile a lot!
And something else. Usually, I’m not affected too much by things like the mannequins and the special effects. I’m just very involved with my world and what I’m doing at the time. But Chuck Connors was so big and his voice was striking…that when he came on, I actually freaked out a little bit. I had to grab a hold of myself and say, “Okay, you’re an actor.” He really did give me a jolt.
TT: He seems like he was very imposing.
RS: That’s what it was. And he was tall.
Going back to what we talked about earlier regarding Eileen's vanity...when I first looked at the script, I asked myself - if my character is in a haunted house, why would she peer around for a scarf? The answer to that was that I was proud of the way I looked and that was also what was attractive to my boyfriend Woody, whose name I call out while looking in the mirror with the scarf on.
TT: Schmoeller had mentioned to us that there were two different approaches to acting on that film. He said that Jocelyn’s introspective method sometimes clashed with Chuck’s straightforward “go out and just do your thing” style. Were you aware of this at the time?
RS: Oh, I was so aware of that clash. Who wouldn’t have been? I just thought it was funny because I wasn’t involved. There have always been two schools: the people who play themselves and the people who play characters. Jocelyn and Chuck were head to head but they both turned in good performances. As long as David was getting what he wanted and we could work with what we had, it wasn’t a problem.
David Schmoeller on working with Sherwood:
Tourist Trap was my first feature film as a director. I was probably the only person in the cast and crew who had never worked on a feature before. I had made a lot of short films, but never with professional actors. So, the one area where I knew almost nothing was in working with actors. This was where I was most uncomfortable. I’ve talked extensively about working with Chuck Connors and Jocelyn Jones; the former very experienced and the latter very trained AND experienced. But, I haven’t talked much about working with the other lead actors: Robin Sherwood, Tanya Roberts and Jon Van Ness. Now, they had all worked in TV and features before, but they were still pretty new to the game. Robin was the newest to show business next to me. So, maybe she was as scared as I was - but neither one of us let on. In fact, she probably exuded the most confidence of any of the cast (except for Chuck). She was very game and willing and present. All my actors were very kind to me - that’s what I remember the most. So, it’s nice to see so many of these actors still in the game, in one fashion or another. It’s nice to see Robin still in there.