By Tim Parks
Adrienne Barbeau is the quintessential dame, a woman with a backbone so strong it could very well be unbreakable. At least those are the types of characters she is most widely associated with playing.
Characters like the gun toting Maggie in Escape From New York, the stalwart Stevie Wayne holding her own against murderous ghouls in The Fog, playing opposite the Swamp Thing, being served up as dinner for a creature in Creepshow, revving her engines to compete in The Cannonball Run, or charming more than snakes on “Carnivale.”
And, of course, she went toe to toe as Carol Trainor against Bea Arthur’s “Maude” for six seasons, and even did her part to rival Farrah Fawcett’s famous 70’s poster with one of her own.
Her personal life saw her marry her Escape From New York and The Fog director John Carpenter, whom she had a child, Cody, with and divorced in 1984. She married current husband, Billy Van Zandt in 1994, and gave birth to twins, Walker and William in 1997, at the age of 52.
Her life sounds like the makings of a book, which makes sense that she has penned her memoir, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” which was her anthem during her run on Broadway in Grease, in which she originated the character of Rizzo.
Upon closer inspection, Barbeau has a deeper connection to the persona of Rizzo ; a tough cookie with a soft center, as I found upon speaking with Ms. Barbeau, who was insightful, intriguing and one very nice lady.
Gay & Lesbian Times: You originated the role of Rizzo in the original Broadway production of “Grease.” Were you offered the role in the film version?
Adrienne Barbeau: I was not offered the role in the film version; it never crossed my mind to inquire about the casting of the film. I don’t know, now, whether it was because I was doing “Maude” at the time, or whether it was because we were all too old when we did the Broadway show. And then that, coupled with the fact that the producer was Stockard Channing’s manager, and I think he was probably considering her right from the beginning.
GLT: What do you feel is that character’s lasting appeal?
AB: I didn’t even realize, truly, until after I had written the book that people remember her. I was surprised that so many people recognized the title of the book being from the show. I think you saw what she was doing, she was presenting a certain face to the world, but you saw her vulnerability underneath, and maybe that’s why people responded to her.
GLT: “Maude” was controversial at times…do you ever think we’ll see a show like it on television nowadays?
AB: We aren’t, we are on cable, I suppose. But we certainly aren’t on the networks; I suppose that’s a reflection of the politically correct right having so much power. I would like to think so, but it doesn’t seem like anytime soon. Certainly in the mainstream media we have gone backwards.
GLT: What was it like working with Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan?
AB: Fantastic! They are both great ladies, but both separate from the personalities (on television) and the fun of going to work everyday to be with all of them –they were extremely professional. It was a wonderful six years, which I think I sort of took for granted at the time. I didn’t realize you could walk onto a set where it wasn’t like that; where people either didn’t want to be bothered doing the work, or weren’t pleasant to hang out with.
GLT: Your roles in the horror and sci-fi films The Fog and Escape From New York were strong female characters written specifically for you – would you have accepted them if they were of the damsel in distress variety?
AB: I don’t tend to get cast as the woman who’s not capable (laughs). All of the roles I have taken, there has never been one factor that has lead me to take them. The character and the words come first, and then I look at all of the other elements – I suppose if there was a character that was a victim, or not a heroine in a really good piece of material, oh sure I’d do it.
I loved Maggie in Escape because she did have such a code of ethics. And, the same with Stevie Wayne because she stood there and held her ground and did her job.
I’ve often thought, there’s so few times in our lives when we are put in a position to find out how we would react (to a dangerous situation), and I would hope that I would react in a heroic manner, but you never know. But, I certainly strive for that and that’s what important to me in the roles.
GLT: You’ve been involved in television, film, radio, theatre and are now adding author to your resume-which medium has proven the most satisfying and why?
AB: I loved writing the book. I think one of the reasons was that I was not dependant upon anybody else for my creativity. I got up every morning and took the kids to school, and came back and sat at the computer and wrote. I didn’t have to wait for a script to be offered, or I didn’t have to go in and audition – I was just totally on my own, and I loved that part of it.
But, I love acting, when it’s right. And, I like the process, I even like having to get up at four in the morning at go sit in the trailer, and sit there for four hours before they get to me.
GLT: What extra challenges are there with raising twins after the age of fifty?
AB: I think the challenges come from the fact that they’re twins, and not from the age. I haven’t really noticed any difference in terms of the demands of child rearing, because I’m older.
If anything, I have more of a sense of the value of time spent with them, because I’m aware that I’m not going to have as much time.
I find myself sometimes thinking when they say, “Mommy, can you…” and when one part of me is thinking, “Oh, can you just get it yourself?” The other part is thinking, “Adrienne, how much longer is he even going to be asking?” (laughs).
I mean I’m not runnin’ laps all the time (laughs), it’s not much different for me, I have a lot of energy. I’ve always had a lot of energy. They’re the best thing in the world.
GLT: What might fans be surprised to learn about you through your memoir?
AB: Well, it’s pretty revealing, and maybe that would be the surprise, that I chose to expose myself (laughs). Well, most people don’t know that I dated Burt Reynolds. I talk about my marriage to John (Carpenter). A lot of people don’t know that I sing; and there was a whole journey that involved singing for me.
I never set out to write a book, least of all a memoir. I don’t think I’ve had any more of an interesting life, than anybody else that it was worth telling about. I found a style that I think is readable, and I hope that’s what they come away with, that they enjoyed reading it. It seems to be happening, people say, “Oh I started the book yesterday and I finished it this morning, I couldn’t put it down!” And, that is like an Academy Award for me.
This interview was originally published in September 2006.