On Friday, October 15, 2010 I received a phone call from none other than Belinda Balaski, the star of many of director Joe Dante’s films. Belinda was an absolute delight to talk to, and really loved to tell stories that I wanted to hear.
In this interview, we cover pretty much every big film she’s ever done, plus a few more… dig into some forgotten films, and get to hear her first-hand account of working with David Hasselhoff.
GS: You filmed “Till Death” in 1974, it wasn’t released until 1978, and today practically nobody has ever heard of it or seen it. What was this film?
BB: That’s the funniest thing I ever heard. First of all, the fact you’ve even heard of it is a little scary to me. One thing about film is that it never goes away, so you’re sort of stuck with it later in your life. This is the first film I did, and it was director Walter Stocker (his only time directing, he had previously starred in such B-movies as “The Madmen of Mandoras”). I did it like 100 years ago… have you ever seen it?
GS: No. I don’t even know if it’s available.
BB: Yeah. Joe (Dante) actually taped it one time when it was TV at around 2 or 4 in the morning. The print was so dark that you couldn’t even see it. That was the only time I know of where anyone has seen it. Though, once in a while, a fan will come up and say something about it, and it always surprises me. We did that very early 70s and I wear this long, black wig with bangs. In it, I die almost immediately after a wedding on the way to our honeymoon. There’s fog and a car crash. The rest of the film takes place in a morgue, where my husband takes me out of the morgue and I come back to life and there’s a whole two hour movie about what could have been and should have been. Every time the actor playing my husband put his arm around me, he was a little bit clumsy, and the wig would slide up my forehead. The whole movie, you see my bands moving up and down. I’ve actually never even seen a real print of it. I really don’t know how anyone would find it.
GS: Horror fans probably came to know you through Bert Gordon’s “Food of the Gods” (1976). Gordon is something of a legend in the B-movie world.
BB: Isn’t he?
GS: What kind of character is he?
BB: Bert is younger every time you see him. I don’t know what it is about him, but I remember shooting that on Bowen Island (in British Columbia) and he seemed like an older man to me. Recently, we did a convention together and he looked like he lost twenty years. He looked great. And he’s brought out… have you seen his book?
BB: He just did this autobiography that came out 6 or 8 months ago. It’s great, it really is. It has everything he has ever done in it. It really archives the history of film-making during that period of time.
GS: “Piranha” (1978) was your first of many times working with Joe Dante, and had an amazing cast, including the late Kevin McCarthy. It’s getting a lot of coverage because of the remake.
BB: Yes. Recently I was brought out to do scenes for a documentary on Roger Corman, along with a million others I assume, because Roger started everybody. All my conversation was about Roger, as were the questions. And I ran into someone and they say, “Oh, you look great on that ‘Piranha’ re-release DVD.” And I asked what they were talking about, because I didn’t do an interview for “Piranha”. But they pulled it from Roger’s doc, and that surprised me. You do an interview and you never quite know where it’s going to end up. I understand “Piranha 3-D” came out, and they’re already talking about a sequel. What shocked me was all these fans on Faceook are putting up “Let’s get Belinda Balaski in the next Piranha. She should have been in the last one.” Then they posted some phone number on Facebook. It was really sweet.
GS: I have a mad crush on Barbara Steele. Did you get to know her at all?
BB: Not on the set, no. But many years later, maybe ten or twenty years later, I was leaving my therapist’s house, and as I was walking out she was walking in the gate. That’s pretty funny. So we’d run into each other every Tuesday at our friend Elaine’s house. And we also share in common a love for Dan Curtis, who directed “Mrs. R’s Daughter” and a million things with Barbara Steele. But, I think she’s amazing. If you look back on what she’s brought to the world of television and cinema, it’s pretty amazing what that woman has done. But she still should have died in “Piranha” and not I.
GS: Also, how awesome is Dick Miller?
BB: Oh God, I love Dick. Dick is the cutest thing on the planet Earth. Seriously, he is. And the funny thing is, Dick and I have been in 11 movies together — Joe’s, of course — and in all those movies, Dick and I have only ever shared one scene. Ever.
GS: And that scene is…
BB: The book store scene in “The Howling”. That’s the only time you will ever see us in the same scene at the same time. It’s bizarre that after all these movies, our characters almost never connect. We were shooting on different days… we would see each other on set, but not in the same scenes. Dick and I actually used to play poker, at least until I won. He wouldn’t play with me anymore. I won 11 dollars and he wouldn’t play. But yeah, Dick is one of the greatest character actors ever… all the way back to “Little Shop of Horrors”, he just lives in our subconscious as a million different people.
GS: “The Howling” (1981) again featured McCarthy, Miller and had Joe Dante at the helm. Many horror fans today consider it a modern classic. What do you see as its cultural impact?
BB: I think horror films do have a cultural impact, and I think Rob Bottin did such an amazing job on the werewolf. By the way, we didn’t even have that finished when we shot the movie. It was finished three months after we wrapped the movie and we had to come back to shoot our close-ups with the werewolf. But at the time of filming, we were reacting to something we had never seen. Rob is such a perfectionist that he was not willing to put that werewolf in the movie until it was perfect and exactly what he wanted. And you’ll see, thirty years later, people are still blown away by that movie and by that werewolf. No CGI can touch Rob Bottin.
GS: Oh, absolutely. His work on “The Thing”…
BB: Anything he touches. When I first met Rob, he was 16 sitting on the set of “Piranha”. I think of him as a young kid, but he’s such a genius and he makes us all look good. If Rob didn’t do such a great job in his department, we would all look like idiots.
GS: I wouldn’t go that far.
BB: But, you know, we would. He makes actors look good and we make his werewolf look good. It’s mutual. But we never saw the werewolf the whole time it was in that garage. Yet, we had such faith in him and knew something awesome was going to emerge.
GS: You next made appearances in both “Gremlins” films.
BB: Joe always wanted a repertoire company. He grew up in the day where studios had their actors, and he wanted his group of actors and various different people that he used in all his films. And I bless the day that I met him because I got to be one of those people. And I got to be in “Gremlins”, which was so much fun. The funny thing about “Gremlins” is that the night before we were supposed to arrive on set, I called Joe and told him that nobody had delivered a script. And he said, “Script? What script? I don’t even have a script. Come in and ad lib.” I had no idea what the film was about so I know I spent that night panicking. I ended up writing about fourteen different scenes and brought them to Joe and asked him to see if they were what he wanted.
GS: Do you know why we never saw a third film?
BB: I think we were all tired of walking around in the snow in the back lot of Warner Brothers during the summer. No, no. You know, in a sense, “Gremlins 2” is kind of a farce on the first one, and where do you go after that?
GS: I suppose. But, you know, I actually prefer the second one.
BB: Really? That’s funny. People really have torn opinions one way or the other about that.
GS: Probably one of Dante’s least known films, “Matinee” (1993) starred John Goodman and again many of the regulars. Why should fans look for this one?
BB: Because it’s about William Castle and along with many of Joe’s other films is extremely political and about Kennedy and the missiles of October. John is wonderful and anyone who is a William Castle fan just loves this film because it has all the tricks from all the theaters he ever did. He did the buzzers on the seat and just amazing things to get reactions…
GS: Even more obscure, what is “Warlord: Battle for the Galaxy” (1998)…
BB: It was made for TV, I think maybe HBO.
GS: …and why have I never seen it?
BB: Because you’re lucky.
GS: Because I’m lucky?
BB: Yeah. It was a bad film. I’m not quite what that was about or why he (Joe Dante) did it, or why I did it, or why any of us did it. It was one of those things that just didn’t work out well. To be honest, I never quite “got” it, but that might be my limitations. It’s not one of my personal favorites. My favorite is “Amazon Women on the Moon”, which I think is brilliant.
GS: What can you say about “Hallow Pointe” (2010)?
BB: It is in the making and I don’t know when it will be released. It’s one of these low budget films, and it has a great deal of passion. The people behind it are working very hard to make it work.
GS: Some of my favorite people are in this one, and some people we haven’t seen in a while, like Lar-Park Lincoln.
BB: The director is adamant about having genre people in this film. He’s one of these directors who has set in his mind what he wants and who he wants. He Facebooked me and over time we started chatting and he ended up calling me and he really wanted to put me in this film. He said he had a trading card of me from “Gremlins” and when he was a child, maybe four years old, he used to carry the card of me around the house.
He said I was like one of his best friends as a child. And that’s how he felt about all those actors. He’s a film buff and he loves those actors. And I thank God for it. Going to these conventions recently, and a lot of young directors are coming up and telling me they want me in their film. I have seven scripts on the floor right now, and some are really good.
GS: There does seem to be a resurgence of putting classic actors in films, at least in cameo roles.
BB: Yes, and lots of them also seem to be against CGI. They love the 80s movies and the old special effects. They want to stop the CGI thing that has run rampant, turn it around, and go back to the Rob Bottin or Rick Baker way.
GS: Any dirt on David Hasselhoff?
BB: (laughs) I did “Baywatch” three times. And to be honest, he was one of the nicest people on the set. That’s the truth. I played a grandma twice. I wasn’t some thing in a bikini. In one show, my kid disappeared on the beach and I never even worked with him. I also had a two-parter as a grandma and he saved my grandson. And he was just a dear. Whatever else there is about him, he didn’t bring it to the set those days. And i thought he was just a delight, and I was pleasantly surprised. Any rumors I heard were subsequent, so I can tell you he was friendly, and not standoff-ish like some actors.
(I can’t thank Belinda enough for talking with me… she was a joy, plenty of fun and it was a real honor to speak with a living legend.)