Belinda Balaski has had a long and prolific career. She has starred in a number of TV series including Baretta, Starsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angels. Her film credits include The Food of the Gods with Marjoe Gortner and Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, also with Gortner and future Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter; as well as a long body of work with director Joe Dante including The Howling and Gremlins.
It was 9 AM on a cold Sunday morning when I sat down for a telephone interview with Belinda. I spoke with her about her career, her work with director Joe Dante and BB’s Kids, the children’s acting school of which she is the creator and owner.
How did your career begin?
I started as a child actor when I was five. I took some dance classes and was in a dance recital; but they had me doing a little acting bit in that dance recital. I just always knew that’s what I wanted to do; I heard this voice when I was really young that my life was going to be about acting. So I have sort of followed that voice throughout my life. I did theatre most of my life until I came to L.A. Then when I came to L.A., I did several plays and I won the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for the first play I did, which was pretty exciting and suddenly a lot of people started coming to our theater which was a 47 seat theater called the Met Theater which was owned and run by Jim Gammon and Timothy Scott, both wonderful actors. We did a series of Inge plays, the first of which was Bus Stop and I played Elma Duckworth and won the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for that; and it was such a big deal that this tiny theater won 5 awards over The Ahmanson, The Mark Taper Forum, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or the Shubert or all these huge other theatres where people were being paid. But suddenly all these people, actors, directors, producers, casting directors, everyone was coming to our theatre. I mean you’d look out in the audience and Cloris Leachman would be sitting there or Robert DeNiro; it was such a small room that you could see everybody sitting in their seats.
So that was kind of how it all began; but at the same time I was going to a workshop which was run by an actress named Lieux Dressler. You probably know her from- “Truck Stop Woman” -she did a bunch of movies back in the day. Anyway, there was another actress in that workshop named Merrie Lynn Ross; Lynda Carter, myself and Peggy Stewart and quite a few of us that were there in that workshop; and Merrie Lynn was dating Mark Lester and Mark was wanting to put together a movie called Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw. So he came one night to the workshop to see us all do some scenes and I guess fell in love with everybody and he ended up casting me as Essie and Lynda Carter as the lead character and Merrie Lynn of course played the other girlfriend and Jesse Vint and Jim Gammon, Virgil Frye, Peggy Stewart as Lynda’s Mom, everybody was in this movie, all these wonderful, delicious actors were in this movie and that was the beginning for me.
You have done several TV shows; Baretta, The FBI, Starsky and Hutch. The FBI was your first TV credit, was it not?
FBI was my first TV credit, exactly! There was Henry Silva, Sharon Farrell, myself and-oh, there was another actor Burr DeBenning. Efrem Zimbalist, Jr’s daughter Stephanie had gone to The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, where I attended from 7th through 12th grade, so Efrem used to come and emcee our fashion shows and things like that down at Bishop’s School in La Jolla. So here I was now on this set with him and I was so excited; it was like I felt like I had really stepped through the eye of the needle.
You mentioned that you were in Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw and you were also in Food of the Gods and Cannonball; however your main body of work has been with director Joe Dante.
Yes, as far as films are concerned, yeah. As far as TV is concerned you might say Dick Heffron. As far as films are concerned yes, I have done eleven different films with Joe. Actually some of those were for television; Runaway Daughters was for television for HBO and that was with Joe Dante and so was The Second Civil War which I think was for a cable show.
I have a list here of the movies that you have done with Joe; which include Piranha, The Howling, Gremlins, Explorers, Amazon Women on the Moon, Gremlins 2, Matinee, The Second Civil War, The Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy and Small Soldiers. Did I miss one?
Probably (I laugh at this point). I would have to look at my own list to remember but I know there are eleven (I missed Runaway Daughters).
How did the two of you get started? How did this…relationship, so to speak…begin?
Actually, I was doing ‘Bobbie Jo’ and Tina Hirsch was editing ‘Bobbie Jo’; and it wasn’t a Roger Corman film or anything; but I guess Mark Lester had asked Roger if we could borrow his editing bay to cut the film. So Roger, being the most wonderful and gracious man on the planet said of course. So Tina Hirsch was using the editing bay there at New World and so was Joe Dante who happened to be cutting Hollywood Boulevard at that time, which was his first movie. So they would find themselves sitting next to each other editing their different films and ask each other “What do you think of this cut?” or blahblahblah and so that’s how Joe got to know me. From there I had done Cannonball; and Paul Bartel was a good friend of Joe’s and Joe was actually in Cannonball (laughs). So the next thing I know because years before I had done a movie called Black Eye which was a pilot for Fred Williamson and I had done it for Jack Arnold who was Susie Arnold’s father. Jack Arnold also cast his daughter Susie in Black Eye and Susie and I became friends on that set back in-this was like 5 years before or something. So the next thing I know Susie is casting Piranha with Joe Dante; and because she and I were still friends and he had seen me in these other films they called me in for this part and when I went in the door Joe said, “You and I were in the same movie.” I was like oh my gosh who is this and I was caught in that moment of who is this and I should know who this is and then suddenly I realized he played the car mechanic in Cannonball and I’m like “Oh my God, you were that wonderful, greasy car mechanic”. He started laughing and he and I just became great fans of each other and friends for life.
Let me just say this: Joe, he kind of grew up watching what he watched and he always had this dream of having a repertoire company of actors that he could use over and over in all of his films and I just happened to get very lucky to fall into that.
Yes, it’s always been said that Dick Miller is Joe’s favorite actor and has been in all of his films and then look at your-
So has Robert Picardo and Kevin McCarthy certainly would have been if he could have been. I mean yes, Joe has a lot of favorites, but he absolutely loves Dick Miller and who wouldn’t; he’s a genius. The funny thing is that Dick and I have been in eleven of Joe’s films and of all of those films he and I have only had one scene together and that was in The Howling.
Yes, the bookstore scene.
Yeah (laughs). Although he’s in Runaway Daughters, he’s in Gremlins; we’re all in all these same movies, just not in the same scenes.
I have seen The Howling so many times; it’s got to be my absolute favorite werewolf movie.
Aww, that’s sweet. (Note: there really needs to be a ‘blushing font’ because that is exactly what I am doing at this point.)
I was watching one time and I had seen the movie so many times and there was the scene where he (Dick Miller) talks about the silver bullets and he talks about how the guy ordered them and never picked them up; and I’m watching one night and I realize he never picked them up because he had been killed by the werewolves (Belinda laughs). Dick Miller is still alive, right?
He’s still here.
Great! I should know these things.
He’s still with us, absolutely.
Now even though you have had this long body of work with Joe, is it one of those things where he calls you up and says, “Hey, Belinda I have a part for you and…
Unfortunately, no; only in The Howling did that happen because I was in Piranha and John Sayles had written Piranha and when John Sayles saw the screening of Piranha he really liked what I had done with the character of Betsy, because he was asked to write the script for The Howling from the book but there was no character of Terry Fisher in the book. So he just liked the way I played this Betsy character and so he took the character that he saw me play her as and created the character of Terry Fisher for me. Actually he told me that the day we shot the morgue scene in The Howling. I didn’t even know! I had no idea he had written this part for me. I was so astounded. But all other parts Joe made me audition for.
I would always really character myself up like when I went in for, well I don’t know if you’re aware of “Foreverware”; did you ever see Eerie, Indiana? I did two Eerie, Indiana’s, both for Joe. There were two segments and the first one was called “Foreverware” and it was this really funny segment about people who preserve themselves in Tupperware, or “Foreverware”, as in the story. We had to sing and all this stuff and it was just crazy, okay? When I read it I called Joe up, after the audition when I got the part, and I said, “Look, if I’m going to do this I’m going to have to have a wig” and he said, “Why would you have to have a wig?” and I said, “Because I can’t play this character as me. I have an idea, just please I have to have a wig.” He says, “You don’t need a wig.” I said, “Joe, would you just please let me do this?” So he finally agreed, and I went to the hair department and I told them exactly what I wanted. To make a long story short when I was in college back in the day my roommate was Heather MacRae; and if you know Heather MacRae at all she had those blonde bangs with the straight blonde hair, you might remember her from Bang the Drum Slowly; she was wonderful in that. Anyway, she was an old friend of mine and I wanted to play her because she characterized this character for me. So I got this blonde wig that was just like her and I had wardrobe wardrobe me in this sort of lime green A frame dress and white go-go boots, et cetera. I walked on set and Joe takes one look at me and he almost fell over he was like, “Oh my God”. Well, the producers fell so in love with this character that they, two episodes later, brought my character back and gave me a set of twins; and it was in the one called “Hole in the Wall Gang” with Hoyt Axton and they had me standing in the bank with my daughter and she’s dressed with the little blond wig and the green A frame dress and white go-go boots and it was really visually very, very funny.
So, Joe always allowed me a lot of creative freedom; but I always had to audition for him except for in The Howling.
One of my favorite Joe Dante things that I ever got to do was Amazon Women on the Moon because rarely did I get to do comedy; I’m usually running from someone or some thing. So ‘Amazon’ was really fun for me to shoot and I enjoyed that so much.
Actually, I have Amazon Women on the Moon and I think it’s hilarious.
Thank you. I do, too; it’s so underrated and I think it’s so funny.
It is underrated.
It’s one of the few I’ll watch again. I think I have only seen The Howling once, myself.
I can’t count the number of times. But it (Amazon Women on the Moon) is; it’s like totally underrated. When it first came out I rented it and then I started looking at reviews and the reviews were, like, nobody liked it.
Yes, it was dead. I remember the screening and it was dead; I think there were like nine people there. It was so funny and I didn’t even think it read that funny. I was shocked by how funny I thought it was and I was really excited but, you know, nothing ever came of it.
My three favorite scenes in the film were your scene-the wake slash roast for Harvey Pitnick; and also Ed Begley as the Invisible Man; and then David Alan Grier’s part as Don ‘No Soul’ Simmons.
I will never get over him. Whenever I think of somebody without soul he just pops into my head as big as life. It is just the biggest, funniest brilliant performance.
I laugh so hard at that scene. It’s just hilarious.
I know. I still laugh at it.
But those are the three scenes that I love the most in the movie. The entire movie is hilarious; but those are the three I find myself laughing at the hardest.
I was so scared. He was shooting ‘the roast’ with five live cameras at the time and a live audience so it was like in seriously one take. I knew that there were five cameras live going and there were all these wonderful, great comedians and I’m totally sweating from the top of that ridiculous hat down to my silly little heels; I was soaking wet I was so scared. Picardo knew I was shaking; I mean literally shaking. That walk across the stage was for real; I was like ‘No, no, no’ and he’s pushing me forward. Then I think they only wrote one or two jokes for me but the Haas’ brothers were out there while I was shooting and they thought I was so funny they started writing new jokes; this guy’s crawling across the stage handing me 3 x 5 cards. That’s why they added that little thing about the Pitnick funeral being held over two weeks or something like that and you can still hear me telling jokes.
Your last film that you did with Joe Dante was Small Soldiers.
Yes, I believe Small Soldiers was the last one. Neither of us worked for a long time after that.
Does Joe still direct?
Oh yeah, he’s directing a lot now. He’s been doing a bunch of Hawaii Five-0’s and he’s got a few-I don’t know exactly what they are-irons in the fire that I believe are going at this time.
I haven’t seen every film he’s directed; but the ones that I have seen-Piranha, The Howling, Gremlins-I’ve enjoyed immensely.
I personally loved Explorers; I thought that one was really underrated. Most people don’t know this but I did the voice of the female monster. I’m not in it; I’m just the voice. But it’s a really wonderful coming of age story with Ethan Hawk & River Phoenix that is just delightful!
Would you share a little about BB’s Kids?
Well, I started teaching because I became a foster parent and when my child was placed in my home I just didn’t want to travel anymore. All your priorities change when children are involved. So I just wanted to be here and not moving around but I still wanted to be doing what I was doing and so I started teaching. Actually, I started running camera for a friend of mine’s workshop; and I did it one week and the next week she called me up an hour before class and said, “Look, I’m not coming. I just want you to run it.” I said, “What are you talking about? I don’t know how to teach this.” She said, “You’re so amazing with those kids I have no business being in the room.” Anyway, that was the beginning of my teaching and I was so scared and intimidated but I did one step at a time and I went from running her classes to creating my own. Each class the kids created themselves; they were like, “I want to do TV and film class; I want an Improve Class, I want to do this, I want to do that.” So that’s what we did. I ended up raising about two or three different sets of kids from young kids into adulthood and throughout that process my team that I had known for ten plus years and I all wrote a play called The T- Files which we produced three different times to standing ovations almost every single performance. So BB’s Kids has been really successful; I’ve started a lot of kids in the ‘biz’. There’s a section on my website called BB’s Kids at Work and you’ll realize that we started people like Miranda Cosgrove and David Mazouz (the boy on Touched), Vanessa Lee Chester from My Little Princess, Jurassic Park 2, Me and the Boys etc.; just a zillion kids on a zillion different commercials and TV shows that you’re watching. It’s been really successful and wonderful.
Are you working on anything right now?
I have an art show that’s been offered to me in London; because I recently started painting and I’ve been very involved in taking a lot of different art classes. So, this coming summer either July through September sometime whenever we decide the best date I’m going to have an art show in London; at the Misty Moon Art Gallery. They have actors come to do like an evening with their films-they’ll show a film and invite an audience for a Q and A. So they have asked me to do three or four nights (they will screen different films) and I’ll bring my artwork- it’s a two-floor gallery and I’ve been doing oil paintings and watercolors; but back in the day I did a lot of rock and roll photography; so I’m going to have a floor with my rock and roll photography and a floor with my artwork and then four nights of films and Q and A’s which will be very exciting. That’s what I’ve been working very hard towards, getting this show ready.
I remember you said that you had an art class to go to just the other day.
I’m getting in as many art classes as I possibly can right now. I’ve been saturating myself because art is really new to me. As a child I was a drawer but I stopped and did my acting and now I find myself falling back towards it and wanting to just paint constantly yet I’d never really taken classes; so I started taking classes at this place and I’m loving it and I’m getting deeper and deeper into watercolor and I’m really enjoying painting.
My wife does pencil drawings and I mentioned to her that you did artwork and she got excited and was like, “Oh, ask her what kind of art she does” just all excited like that.
You can see a lot of my paintings on my Facebook page if you scroll through you can see I’ve been posting some. I also have an art website at artwanted.com; if you go to artwanted.com and type in my name I’ve got a page of stuff there.
And nobody really knows about it-as a writer and artist I’m sort of in the closet still-but I’ve been working for the past six years on a novel with my writing partner about a Persian girl named “Shadooneh” and we’re very close to finishing that so that’s another thing that I’m very involved in.
You mentioned rock and roll photography; who are some of the musicians that you have photographed?
One of my best friends was Don Gooch; and Gooch was the sound engineer for Crosby, Stills & Nash. So, fortunately whenever they were playing Gooch would call me and say, “Hey, come along with me, I’m driving up to Santa Barbara. They’re playing a benefit for blahblahblah.” Or, “Come with me to the Forum tonight” or “Come with me to the Universal Amphitheater.” Of course wherever they played Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, everybody would come with them because they were always doing these concerts for causes, you know, for the American Indians or for Viet Nam vets or for Musicians United for Safe Energy and I was graced by God to be there. But I’m a person who can’t hold still when something is happening I have to be doing something. So I said, “As long as I can bring my camera” and I always got a press pass and a backstage pass. So now I’ve spent the last seven months digitizing the slides and right now I’m going through them putting them together in a book and I’m going to bring that book to the gallery in London and take orders. I’ll bring one and see what happens, you know? But these are pretty fabulous shots of everyone from the Doobie Brothers to Paul Simon to Stevie Wonder to everybody you know and love, well… if you’re my age (laughs).
It’s pretty exciting. I’m putting the book together online myself and each night I close it up and I’m just like (draws in breath excitedly) “God, that’s so exciting! It’s really hot looking at this!”
When you look at a photograph does it take you back; do you remember when the photograph was taken and what was going on at that time?
Most of the time; but you know I did the five nights of the MUSE concerts in Madison Square Garden and that’s like eight hours a night of a blur, especially five nights in a row. So what night was Carly Simon there and when was-wait a minute-wasn’t…and it’s all so confusing. Everybody was jamming with everybody and it’s like…wait, was he playing with Tom Petty and wasn’t he the bass player for…everybody was like mixed with each other; so for identifying people I called Tiran Porter, who’s an old friend of mine, he was the bass player with the Doobie Brothers. He’s got a mind like an elephant; he never forgets anything. I called him and said, “You know what you’re going to be doing soon.” He said, “I know, I know I’m going to have to identify everybody in your pictures.” I’m like, “Yeah, you are; you’re just going to have to.”
I actually went to the theater and saw the No Nukes movie.
Oh, you know what? There’s all those credits right there. I bet you I could find a lot of names right there.
It was an amazing concert; not only for the cause but also to have this much talent in one area, one space.
Do you want to know the irony of the whole thing?
It was five nights of musicians united for safe energy which is all anti-nukes, right?
Well Madison Square Garden is powered by nuclear energy.
Oh, that is ironic.
But you know it’s just what it is… I remember those five nights; I did them in high heels and mini-skirts and I had this apron with all my camera lenses in it, and me carrying my two Nikromat FT-2’s. I don’t know how I did those things, but I did them.
I was telling my wife last night about how people say that there’s all this bad stuff on the internet and yeah, there is. But at the same time I have gotten to speak with and interview two of the stars, the other being Dee Wallace, of what is my all-time favorite horror film and to be honest I don’t think that would have been possible for me without the internet; so I feel pretty darn lucky.
On the other side I would have to say this; I was doing a Femme Fatale panel in El Paso with Margot Kidder, Dee Wallace, myself, Brooke Bundy, the twin French girls and somebody else; and they were going down that row asking various questions and they asked me, “When did you know that The Howling had become a classic and how did you find out that you have such a huge fan base?” I looked out at this audience of…kids…basically 20 to my age and said “Facebook” and the whole room dropped because it’s true. Before Facebook I had not a clue any of you existed or that anybody ever saw The Howling or that any ‘fans’ had ever happened.
I read the book “The Howling” before I saw the movie and I was there on opening day. One thing you have to admit is that the book and the movie are two totally different things and I loved it.
He’s (John Sayles) such a brilliant writer. I just thank my stars that I had done Piranha because I don’t think Terry Fisher would have been in The Howling because she’s not in the book. Terry Fisher came directly from my character Betsy from Piranha, which John Sayles also wrote. Thank heavens John Sayles liked what I did with that character. I guess she was just sort of blah and then I created this person out of her and he liked that person so much that he put that person into The Howling and named her Terry Fisher. That’s the way he explained it to me when I met him that day at work. John Sayles is such a wonderful writer; The Howling is a classic because of the way he wrote it, not the book. It’s John Sayles, Joe Dante and Rob Bottin and the cast; that’s what makes The Howling.
I remember being in the theater and watching Robert Picardo transform in front of Dee Wallace and thinking that this was something that neither myself or anyone else had ever seen before.
It was seriously cutting edge; and the truth is Rob Bottin had not even finished the werewolf when we shot the movie. All those shots you see of me looking close-up at that werewolf; there was no werewolf there. I hadn’t even seen the werewolf. I had no idea what that werewolf was going to look like and what it could do or how big it was or anything. Nobody did. Rob Bottin did not finish that werewolf until 3 months after we wrapped the movie. I was back living in Hawaii. Joe called me and said, “Okay he finally finished the werewolf. Come back.” I said, “Are you kidding?” He said, “No, come on back.” I flew back and my hair was like two inches longer and I told the hair lady that my hair was longer and she said, “No it’s not it looks exactly the same, I have Polaroid’s.” Well, you watch that scene; watch it in slow motion because if you watch it in normal you’ll miss it because it’s too well done. But if you watch in slow motion you will see that any shot with me and the werewolf in it my hair is three inches longer than any shot without it because they are three months apart.
What was your initial reaction when you first saw the werewolf?
I had already created him in my mind. I had to match those close-ups; I had to match what they did three months earlier. I had to match a close-up to a two-shot, which is not the way you do it; you go from the two-shot to the close-up. So I’m going backwards, you know; but I had already created that werewolf in my mind. So as brilliant as Rob is you’re dealing with the ghosts in your own head. Ask Dee (laughs).
So did you have a pretty good idea that this thing was going to tower over you?
Well, you know in that last scene where I’m sort of hanging up there, yeah. I knew how big it was then but when Joe tossed that gurney at me I had not a clue what was going to be behind it, you know?
Belinda, it has been fantastic talking to you. Thank you and you have a happy new year.
Thank you and you have a happy new year, also.