Adrienne Barbeau, a 1970s TV role model as Maude’s divorced daughter Carol — and equally famous as sexy “scream queen” of ex-husband John Carpenter’s horror films — is soon to be 70 and setting a new standard for modern women of a certain age: She’s raising teenage twins and swinging from a trapeze in the Broadway touring company of Pippin.
“I’m supposed to be rehearsing on the trapeze,” Barbeau says at the end of an early-morning interview, briefly interrupted twice as she sends her sons off for the day to school. (“I love you,” she tells them. “Are you coming home for dinner?”)
Barbeau, her trapeze and the rest of the Pippin company arrive Tuesday for 12 days at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. She’s playing Berthe, a role originated in 1972 by Irene Ryan, Granny Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies.
In 1971, CBS canceled hit slapstick shows including Beverly Hillbillies after producer Norman Lear introduced wildly popular, relevant comedies beginning with All in the Family. Soon, audiences met Edith Bunker’s loud, liberal cousin Maude, played by Broadway veteran Beatrice Arthur. That led to an inevitable spin-off, Maude, starring Arthur and William Macy as her fourth husband, Walter.
Lear turned to the stage as he cast the role of Carol. Barbeau made her Broadway debut in 1968, stepping into the role of Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel, in Fiddler on the Roof. “I shared a dressing room with Bette Midler (playing daughter Tzeitel) and John Savage was in the show,” Barbeau says.
After touring in Fiddler, she took a role in an Off-Broadway play called Stag Movie. “I had gone into Fiddler when it was running. I had never been seen by any reviewers. I barely had been seen by any of the industry people because the show had been running for so long,” Barbeau recalls. “I needed to originate a role and this one came along. They said, ‘Well you’ll be singing and dancing and starring in this musical. You’ll be doing 14 songs. Maybe 12 of them you’ll be nude. I don’t think it was 12. Maybe it was two.”
The payoff came shortly after, when Barbeau won the role of Rizzo in the original Broadway cast of Grease. The monster hit wasn’t an immediate success, though.
“When we opened, the reviews were bad. We got very mixed reviews. The New York Times didn’t get it at all,” Barbeau says. “We didn’t know if we’d be employed for a week. Then the producers — the second string reviews were so good and the word of mouth — that they raised more money. They came to us and said, ‘Listen, if you guys want to buy a share, it’s only $500 or something.’ Well, $500 was my emergency medical fund. I couldn’t afford to do that. What a mistake that was.”
A Lear casting agent suggested Barbeau be tested for Carol. Weeks later, she moved from New York to Los Angeles and began a six-year run on Maude. This month, Shout! Factory released the complete series on DVD.
“I was so grateful that I hadn’t ended up on a sitcom that was pratfalls. Not that there isn’t a place for that. But I was so proud to be associated with something that had some meaning, some social impact,” Barbeau says. “We did shows, how you will see when you watch the entire thing, dealing with medical malpractice, dealing with homosexuality, manic depression, the psychiatrist show that Bea did all by herself. Nobody was talking about those things.”
Maude has long held a cult following.
“The thing I’ve come to realize in these later years, as I’ve been doing autograph signings and things, so many people come up to me and say your character, or Maude’s character, or the family itself taught me how to be in the world,” Barbeau says. “I remember one fellow coming up and saying, ‘It was the first time I had ever seen a family who love each other and could still yell at each other. I didn’t know that if people were screaming at you, it didn’t mean they didn’t hate you, it meant they still loved you.’ And that’s what we portrayed.”
Many young women of the era related to Barbeau’s character, telling the actress “Carol taught me it was OK to be strong and independent and stand up for myself.”
In addition to Arthur, Macy and Barbeau, Maude also co-starred Conrad Bain, Rue McClanahan, Esther Rolle and Hermione Baddeley. But despite the strong supporting cast, it was always Arthur’s show.
“She was the most giving, loving, professional actress that I’ve ever worked with,” Barbeau recalls. “And I took it all for granted because it was my first television show. I had only done stage and I had only worked with theater actors all of whom have a fairly high standard of professionalism. So I just took it for granted that Bea was going to be the first one in the rehearsal hall and probably the last one to leave. She was going to be there every day and know her lines before anyone else.
“Bea was always the first one to say, ‘You know, I think this line would be funnier if Rue were saying it,’ or wouldn’t this work better if Adrienne … She was so giving. She just wanted the material to be the best it could.”
After Maude folded, Arthur and McClanahan joined Betty White on The Golden Girls and Bain became co-star (with Gary Coleman) of his own sitcom, Diff’rent Strokes.
Barbeau married director John Carpenter in 1979, starring in two of his hit horror films The Fog and Escape from New York. In 1984, their son Cody was born.
After they divorced, Barbeau married actor-playwright Billy Van Zandt, brother of Steven. On March 17, 1997 — at age 51 — Barbeau gave birth to twins, William and Walker Van Zandt.
“My children are the greatest joy in my life. There’s nothing else without the kids,” Barbeau says, acknowledging the twins are clueless about her early show business success.
“I had to force them to watch the horror films,” says Barbeau, who has written a memoir and a series of vampire books, along appearing steadily on television since the early ’70s. “I did get them to watch Criminal Minds, but it was so upsetting to them, I don’t know if they’ll ever watch anything else I do.
“As long as I’m at the soccer games, they don’t care what I’m doing. I did ask Shout! Factory to send me a few copies of the box set. I thought I’d put them on the shelf and maybe someday when they’re sitting around and they’re 40 years old, they’ll go back and look and see what their mom did.”
If you go
Stephen Schwartz’s ‘Pippin’ featuring Tony-nominated actress Adrienne Barbeau runs Tuesday through April 12 at Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
Tickets range from $34.75 to $134.75 at www.browardcenter.org or 800-745-3000 to purchase.