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Adrienne Barbeau charmed by her role

Saturday, November 01, 2003

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Portraying a sultry snake dancer who could charm the Lord himself certainly beats playing a sobbing matriarch.

"The snakes sort of tell you what kind of choreography you're going to do," says Adrienne Barbeau of her role in 'Carnivale.'

Adrienne Barbeau views her role as Ruthie in HBO's "Carnivale" -- a drama series about a Depression-era traveling carnival and a California preacher's parallel battles with forces of good and evil -- as a wonderful gift from the casting gods.

"It's fantastic to have any role at this stage," laughs Barbeau, 58, via telephone from Los Angeles. "Normally, you see women my age playing judges, doctors, lawyers and the crying mother."

The character Ruthie, initially described as a "wizened, tattooed snake charmer," is mother of and barker for the carnival's strong man, Gabriel, played by Brian Turk.

"As the show goes on, she becomes less wizened and a little more sexual," says Barbeau, best known for playing Bea Arthur's daughter, Carol, in the '70s sitcom "Maude." "I didn't know that it was a period piece when I auditioned. I didn't know anything. I just went in and did it and when I walked out the casting director said, 'That was fantastic.' "

A month later she learned that she had gotten the part. She originally signed on for seven of 12 episodes, but ended up being in 11.

"With Adrienne, it felt like it was an entirely new kind of way to view her," Carnivale casting director John Papsidera says on HBO.com. "Her Ruthie has a ballsiness and a solidity to her and a strength to her that isn't old, it isn't haggard; there is a sexuality and a vivaciousness to it. It just felt really right."

From her Broadway debut as Tevye's second daughter, Hodel, in "Fiddler on the Roof" to her recent recurring role as Oswald's mom on "The Drew Carey Show," Barbeau's varied career has spanned four decades. She played the role of Tevye's wife, Golde, in the Pittsburgh CLO production of "Fiddler on the Roof" in June 2002 and considers local actor Tom Atkins a very close friend.

"I'm a huge fan of Pittsburgh and I'm hoping I can come back soon," says Barbeau, mother to three boys: 6-year-old twins William and Walker and Cody, 19. "I brought my kids last summer when I was there for 'Fiddler,' and it's a wonderful town for children."

Barbeau earned a Tony nomination for originating the role of Rizzo in the original Broadway production of "Grease."

She also has appeared in such films as "The Fog," "Escape From New York," "Cannonball Run," "Swamp Thing" and "Creepshow," directed by her old friend and Pittsburgher George Romero.

However, Barbeau's role in "Carnivale" is giving her an opportunity to do things she's never done before. Despite her '70s sex symbol image, she hasn't had tons of on-screen romance.

"I've never done a romantic scene, really, except one in the mid-1970s in the film 'Houdini,' " she says.

In "Carnivale," her character has a relationship of increasing emotional intensity and sexual tension with Ben Hawkins -- the mysterious, sometimes Christ-like, young fugitive with strange visions and healing powers played by Nick Stahl of "In the Bedroom" fame.

"What they have isn't traditional chemistry, but there was a certain connection," says Swissvale native William Schmidt, a supervising producer on the show. "She's important to Ben -- she literally is the only person he can talk to and he can't even much talk to her."

In last Sunday's episode, Ruthie, who is reviving her snake charming act, invited Ben to go snake hunting with her.

"So, snake charmin' pays pretty good. Don't seem natural folks paying to see that," Ben says.

"Something about watchin' a woman handle a snake that gets a man downright percolated," Ruthie replies. "Probably goes back to the serpent in the Garden."

Barbeau stresses that her character isn't so much a snake charmer.

"She's doing some erotic dancing with snakes," says Barbeau, who's married to comedy writer Billy Van Zandt. "The snake dancing is not something we've seen on TV before."

Barbeau wasn't fearful about working with snakes. Her 6-year-olds have had snakes at their birthday party. In preparing for the role, she met with a woman who dances with snakes professionally around Los Angeles.

"The snakes sort of tell you what kind of choreography you're going to do," she says. "It enabled me to understand what I could do, what I couldn't do and what they wouldn't like."

Once on set, she worked with two snakes, a Bolivian milk snake named Fred, which was fairly small, and a 20-pound diamond boa, about 6 feet long, named Taxi for its yellow and black coloring.

"They were gorgeous," she says.

During the shooting of one scene, she suggested to the snake wrangler that she might put one of the snakes in her hair.

"I was holding him in my hands when something hit my foot," Barbeau says. "I got him away from my body just in time to save the costume. They only go to the bathroom once a month."

Snake excrement aside, Barbeau says working on an HBO show was a strong draw for her and the quality of the show's writing has made going to work a pleasure.

"There was one night when I came home from shooting at 4 a.m. and couldn't wait to read the script for the next episode," she says.

She's got some fans among the show's writing staff, too.

"It's pretty sexy watching Adrienne Barbeau with a snake," Schmidt says. "I remember saying to someone, 'If you'd told me when I was in Swissvale watching "Maude" and having a crush on Adrienne Barbeau that I'd be writing a scene [in which she has] a snake wrapped around her bosom, I think I would have thought that's fantasy and I've died and gone to heaven.' And here I am."


L.A. Johnson can be reached at ljohnson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3903.

For more information about Adrienne Barbeau, visit: www.abarbeau.com.

For more information about Carnivale, visit: www.hbo.com/carnivale.

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