Adrienne Barbeau has done it all. She originated the role of Rizzo in the Broadway cast of Grease. She played Bea Arthur’s daughter in the groundbreaking TV series Maude. She went on to become an icon of the horror genre, starring in films like The Fog, Swamp Thing, and Stephen King’s Creepshow. She married director John Carpenter, dated Burt Reynolds, and became a pinup queen with the release of her iconic 1978 poster. In recent years Barbeau has turned her attentions to writing, having penning a best-selling memoir, and a series of fun, funny vampire novels. She’s coming to Memphis’ Orpheum Theatre this week to play the role of Berthe in the musical Pippin.
Memphis Flyer: I love the way you write. That’s probably not what you expected me to say. And I do want to talk about everything— the Broadway, TV, film, and horror movies especially. But I had no idea you’d written novels until recently. It was unexpected, and Love Bites is so much fun.
Adrienne Barbeau: It was unexpected to me too. Ten years ago ago if anyone told me that I’d be writing something that somebody else would possibly read I would've laughed.
What inspired you to do it?
The launchpad was, I guess you would say, a psychic experience. My closest friend was a film editor who I met on the first day of preschool for my older son Cody who is now 31. Suzanne and I met in the late 80s and she passed away from breast cancer. On the first day of preschool for my twins a woman walked onto the campus who looks just like my deceased friend. The resemblance was so striking I think I must have stumbled or paled or something because she asked if I was okay. I said, “Yeah, I'm fine. You just look like a friend of mine who you wouldn't know. She was a film editor who passed away couple of years ago from breast cancer. And this woman said, “Oh, well I'm a film editor. And I have breast cancer. We could be best friends.” Those were her exact words. The next day we had a three hour get to know each other session over coffee. She just happened to mention that she had attended a reading of actors and actresses who were all studying writing with a woman who’d been a musical comedy star on Broadway at about the same time I was there. As soon as she said this I thought, “I'm supposed to go and study with this woman class. This is Suzanne coming to me from wherever she is telling me this is what I'm supposed to do.”
Did it come easy?
If you take a writing class you’ve got to write. So I started taking homework assignments just writing little pieces about my life and my career. You know, things I thought people might find interesting or funny or humorous. Like, I’d just finished doing a low budget horror movie based on a Bram Stoker short story in Russia. It was called The Burial of the Rats, and I took it because I wanted to go to Moscow. Well, we landed on the day of an attempted coup. They fired on Parliament and martial law was declared. That was interesting. I was also supposed to be working with 50 trained rats, but there were only 16 and I think eight of them were dead. The rest had only been trained to eat anything that smelled like fish. So every time I’d do a scene where the rats had had to swarm all over me, they took fish eggs and squeezed the juice all over my body. I thought, “Well, somebody might find this interesting. I wrote about that. I wrote about meeting dating Burt Reynolds and being married to John Carpenter. And after about six months of bringing in homework assignments the teacher said, “You need to get an agent because this is a memoir.” So I did and that turned into Their Are Worse Things I Could Do. So Michael Scott, an Irish author read that, and approached me. He said I should write something for my horror fan base—all the people who go to the conventions and still watch The Fog and Creepshow. I said sure. I can write the characters and the scenes and the dialogue, but I am not a story person. So he said, “Well we'll do it together.”
I love how all the old Hollywood stars become vampires. And how you can write a line that’s scary, sexy, funny, and just the right amount of campy.
They're still working out the paperwork, but it looks like Love Bites has been purchased, and I wrote the screenplay which is something I never thought I’d do. Because I don't understand the screenwriting format at all. Maybe my mind doesn't work that way.
Really? I’d have thought you’d absorb that by osmosis. Right now I’m thinking about how much of The Fog John Carpenter rewrote and reshot after the first screening, and thinking that, being a couple, and being in the film, that had to be a crash course in every aspect of filmmaking.
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I never thought about that. I remember the night John screened his first cut of The Fog, and how upset he was because he felt like it didn't work. But I don't remember my reaction. Maybe he pulled me out of the room and asked, “Will you still love me if I never direct again?” I was certainly aware of the additions that he made and how they supported. It’s like when I did Escape From New York. People wanted to know what happened to my character, so we had to go back and shoot a scene with me dead on the garage floor.
I’m inclined to talk about Escape From New York, but before I get too distracted we should talk about about Pippin, since that show is bringing you to The Orpheum, and to Memphis. You play Berthe, the grandmother of Pippin— the son of Emperor Charlemagne. And her song, “No Time at All,” is all about the need to embrace life and live in the moment.That’s so you.
That's why I took the role. I never had seen it, and I think it's because I was either doing Fiddler on the Roof or Grease when Pippin opened on Broadway. When I was called just last year and asked if I’d be interested in going on the road I said, “Oh, I can't do that. My boys are just finishing high school, I need to be with them. Then I looked at the scene. Berthe sings, “Now when the drearies do attack, and a siege of the sad begins, I throw these regal shoulders back, and lift these noble chins.” And then she gets on a trapeze and hangs upside down. When I saw what [director] Adrian Martin was doing my first thought was, “I can do that, and it will be really fun to do.”
You started on stage and have occasionally returned. Do you like going back?
I started on stage and I've always been very comfortable with that approach. Then I went to LA with Maude. And then married John and Cody was born. When John and I separated there was no question that I was ever going to go back to New York for any extended period of time because I wouldn’t take Cody out of the town where his dad was. But I’ve gone back several times.
Do you have a preference? Films? Stage?
As I've gotten older my body clock is aligned with making movies. I wake up on my own at 5:30 or six and I'm happy to race off and sit in a trailer for 12 hours a day to do films. I don't enjoy theater the same way. It feels, weirdly, like I’m wasting my day when I have to spend so much of it working my energy up so I can go on stage at night. So, if I were just choosing projects based on the medium, stage would probably be the third choice after film and television. Because I'm just not as happy working at night. But this is a great show whatever my energy level is. it's just so joyful to start the first number and the audience goes so crazy for it. And I get to be on a trapeze.
So, it has to be the right project to tempt you back.
It’s like I say in the memoir, whenever I hear a producer say “We couldn't get this or that person for the part, they’ll never do something like this,”— you never know what someone will do. Make the offer and let them decide. I've taken jobs because I had to put a tent on my house to get rid of the termites. I've taken jobs because I want to go to Moscow. So I read everything that comes to me and, at this point in my life, I take roles because I want to do them whatever medium is. I took Argo, which was basically cameo but oh my God, to read that script and to know who was involved. By the same token, I get numerous horror scripts and they're not even spelled correctly. Nobody's even edited them. Maybe I'll get 10 pages in and I’ll think, “You know what? If this writer doesn't have enough respect for the medium to even use the correct word, there's no way I'm doing this.
From Broadway to Maude, to the horror films to voicing Catwoman in Batman the Animated Series, your career has intersected with pretty much all of my nerdy interests. The voice work seems like a lot of fun.
I really do enjoy the voice work for several reasons. One is I don't I put makeup on. I don't have to get dressed. It doesn't matter what I look like when I walk in the studio. I've been doing a lot of video description for the blind. I do that for the TV series 24, and Scream Queens, and a lot of movies. Playing Catwoman in Batman was such a great gig. And you never knew who was going to be in the studio when you walked in. I mean it was James Earl Jones, and Mark Hamill who was one of the regulars. I can do a couple of things well, but I'm not one of these people they can give you an eight-year-old boy with a cold, or a voice for a dog. I’ve also done a half dozen video games. About three years ago I did my first motion capture for Halo 4, where you you wear the full body suit with all the cameras on it.
I remember watching Maude every week. It was an early education in issues of the day wrapped up in a situation comedy.
I think that was the only way we were able to get away with it. We dealt with some really strong subjects and some very divisive and controversial subjects. I don't know what happened in Memphis, but you probably know there were many, many stations or affiliates that refused to carry the abortion episode. But because we dealt with it with humor, and with characters that the audience loved and wanted to see, we were able to cover all the bases. Had it been a diatribe— if somebody beat you over the head without the humor— it never would've gone past the first three weeks I don't think.
And what a cast. What a great group of actors to work with. Bea Arthur, especially.
I was coming from stage. And I had only done stage. I had no idea. I read a lot but I never watched TV. I didn't grow up watching television. I didn't watch anything. So I had no idea I had no idea how fortunate I was to be in that show with those people, and it wasn't until I started guesting on others television series that I realized how incredible Bea was. Not only as an actor, but as an actor applying her craft. She was the first one in the room every day and she was the last one to leave. She knew all of her lines before any of us. She was incredibly professional and giving. She was the first one, when we’d have a table read, to say, “You know, this just might be better if someone else said it.” Then I’d get on other sets and it would be like, “Where's the star?” And they’d say, “Oh, well he's not coming in until after lunch. Or, “Oh, he's pissed off,” or whatever.
Did Bea help with the transition from the stage, since she did so much Broadway?
You know, we shot the whole show like it was a play. We didn’t stop once the camera started rolling, and we had a live audience. We did it twice in a day. We did a 5 o'clock show and we did an 8 o'clock show. After the 5 o'clock show the writers rewrote jokes that didn't work or cut whole sequences that went too long. So, while having dinner we were getting our notes and new pages. And we’d memorize those new pages. If you didn't have a stage background and you couldn’t memorize and incorporate all those changes you were screwed. We did have some guest stars that needed cue cards. They’d never worked that way. It took me a while to realize they hired me to basically be myself. Because something in me was able to stand up to Bea. But I wasn't so much like Bea in my comedic delivery that we worked well together. And, of course, I love her so that made it easy.
You’d been fishing for definitive roles, and there you are in this groundbreaking show. Did you know right away what a big deal it was?
It wasn't until years later when I started doing conventions and women and men would come up to me and say, “You had such an impact on my life. You taught me how I could be a strong woman at a time when society was still saying, “You don't have a lot of rights.” Or whatever. One young man came up and said, “You know, watching your family on Maude let me know that people could yell at each other and still love each other.” I knew we had a hit show. And I was really proud of it, and it was really funny. But I had no idea about any of the issues that the journalists were going to come to me and make me the the spokesperson for. Because, up until that time I grew up in a household where I didn't even know what political party my parents were registered in. And as far as they were concerned it's nobody’s business if they were Democrats or Republicans. If they read the paper they read it at work, because I don't remember ever having a newspaper the house or watching the news or anything. So I was just concentrating on being an actress, and getting a job, and all of that. And suddenly it was like, “So, how do you feel about the Equal Rights Amendment?” Of course that started me thinking, “How do I feel about these things?” Of course I was aligned with [Maude creator Norman Lear’s] thoughts. I know it caused [All in the Family star] Carol O'Connor great grief to be playing [Archie Bunker,] someone so different from him. I was fortunate that I was on the other side.
You somehow found yourself at the vanguard of cultural shifts. Nudie musicals like Stag Movie may not have gotten the best reviews, but they opened the door for adult content in musical theater. You do Maude, and you’re also doing comic book movies way before they’re the dominant box office attraction. What drove your decision making?
The decisions were all totally professional. Stag Movie. was the first starring role anybody offered me. I was going to sing 12 numbers I think. And yeah, I was gonna be doing some of them in the nude. I remember calling my mother to tell her. I think she said something like, “Well... It's off-Broadway Adrienne. Are you going to get paid?” It was all about what was the next step in the career. I guess I'm just very practical. Sometimes I took jobs because I needed to support myself.
Your horror writing is really playful. You seem to have a real affinity for the genre.
Oh no. In fact, I can count the number of horror films I've seen on one hand. I don't like seeing them. I remember when John showed me Halloween, and I thought, “Oh my God!” He was black and blue because I kept hitting him sitting next to me. I don't like being scared. Now, I love doing horror movies. And probably the reason I love doing them is they give me an opportunity. I don't play victims very easily or very well. I don't play weak very well. So those roles give me the opportunity to be the strong woman.
That’s actually surprising to me.
When they sent me the script for Creepshow I didn’t know who George Romero was. I knew nothing. And I read it and I thought, “Oh no. I can't this. It’s too bloody. It's too gory. There's so much violence. And John is saying to me, “Are you kidding me? Turn down an opportunity to work with George Romero? I mean, he's the master.” I saw that Tom Atkins, an actor I know, had been cast. I called him and said, “Tom, you're gonna do this? It's really bloody and gory. And he said, “No, no Adie, you’ve got to understand, he's gonna shoot it like a comic book. And I said, “Okay, alright, I'll do it. So I showed up, put myself in George's hands, and had more fun than I've ever had. Many years later I got an offer for a script by a director my agent said was a rock-and-roll musician or something. I read it and I said, “No way I'm doing this this.” It was The Devil’s Rejects, Rob Zombie's big hit. I'm still not sorry I turned it down, but it turned out to be huge.
With so much interest in horror and comic book properties, are you getting lots of scripts?
They come in all the time. Unfortunately, they're not very good. There's a lot of dreck out there in the horror genre. I don’t know how they get financing.
You’ve conquered Broadway, TV, film, and publishing. What’s next?
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Well, we just did the rewrite on the screenplay of Love Bites. I'll also be playing a secondary role if it all works out.
Oh. Ha! No. You know the poster was John's idea, actually. I think Farah's had come out. Or Cheryl Tiegs had come out and John said, "You aught to do this!" And I attribute the success of it to the photographer, a fella named David Alexander. He shot the James Taylor album where he's curled up in a box. And he shot a Linda Ronstadt cover. And when I walked into his studio he handed me the bustier and said, "Let's try this." And I loved it. And it was great for the cover of the memoir.
No. I don't think so, anyway. You know, I don’t even think I met Farah until we did Cannonball Run together. And I never met Cheryl. There may have been rivalries between the publishing companies, but it was just something we did.
We’ve gone through this whole interview and I didn’t bring up Cannonball Run. I must be slipping. Thanks for the chat Adrienne, look forward to seeing you in Memphis.