‘Escape From New York’ Star Adrienne Barbeau on Playing a Kick-Ass Action Hero and How Teenage J.J. Abrams Changed the Ending

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, Adrienne Barbeau,
©Avco Embassy / Courtesy Everet

When John Carpenter’s action classic “Escape from New York” premiered 40 years ago on July 10, 1981, moviegoers were treated to a dystopian nightmare unlike anything they’d seen before. Set in a grim future where the island of Manhattan has been converted into a giant maximum security prison, the film featured Kurt Russell in a career-defining role as Snake Plissken, a one-eyed Special Forces soldier turned master criminal who is tasked with saving the President of the United States when Air Force One crashes on the walled island.

Carpenter assembled a colorful cast of character actors to accompany Russell on his thrilling mission, including Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes and Donald Pleasence as the President. Aside from a brief appearance by Russell’s then-wife Season Hubley, the film’s lone female role was portrayed by Adrienne Barbeau, who was married to the director at the time and had made her feature debut in his stylish ghost story “The Fog” a year earlier.

In “Escape from New York,” Barbeau plays Maggie, a tough-as-nails femme fatale with an itchy trigger finger and a hidden knife tucked away in her stiletto boot. Other than Snake Plissken, she’s perhaps the deadliest and most physically capable character in the entire movie, which made her an instant favorite with genre fans.

When the film arrived in theaters, the concept of a female action hero was still quite new. Apart from Pam Grier’s groundbreaking work in the 1970s and Sigourney Weaver’s influential role as Ellen Ripley in “Alien,” there simply were not a lot of significant action parts for women in features at the time. Barbeau, however, didn’t view Maggie as a trailblazing character when she made the film.

“I never thought of her that way,” Barbeau tells Variety. “I first worked with John on the TV movie ‘Someone’s Watching Me’ in 1978, so I knew from the beginning that the type of women’s roles he wrote were the Howard Hawks women, as he called them. They were the kind of characters Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn often played. Strong, assertive, take-no-prisoners types of women, so it never crossed my mind that Maggie was unique. But then again, I’ve always played strong women, whether on television, in movies, or on stage.”

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Kurt Russell and Adrienne Barbeau in “Escape From New York” Courtesy Everett Collection

Like Russell, who was not yet thought of as an action star at the time, Barbeau was seen as somewhat of an unusual choice to play Maggie. Best known for creating the iconic role of Rizzo in the original Broadway production of “Grease,” which earned her a Tony nomination, as well as her Golden Globe-nominated work on Norman Lear’s hit TV series “Maude,” Barbeau had no experience with the action and horror genres before meeting Carpenter.

“I don’t think I’d even seen ‘Psycho’ back then,” she says. “In fact, the first horror movie I ever saw was on the night when I announced my engagement to John on ‘The Tonight Show,’ and we went right to the first screening of ‘Halloween’ afterwards. But because my first few films were horror movies, and because I was identified with John, that sort of began the journey of my becoming a scream queen, as they say. And it was also something I was good at.”

According to author John Walsh, whose book “Escape from New York: The Official Story of the Film” will be published by Titan Books on Oct. 26, Carpenter wrote the role of Maggie specifically with Barbeau in mind. “She brought both vulnerability and strength to a part that saw her using her femininity to get what she needed, which was an escape from the island prison,” Walsh explains. “It’s a credit to Barbeau’s performance that she managed to make Maggie sympathetic to an audience, therefore creating a greater impact when she’s denied her dream in the film’s violent climax. Of course, credit also goes to John Carpenter for making so many of his female leads both caring and strong. That’s a creative balancing act that many filmmakers found difficult before ‘Halloween’ in 1978.”

Barbeau says she approached “Escape from New York” simply as a chance to play an interesting character, not as a trendsetting action masterpiece that would continue to influence new filmmakers four decades later. “At the time, it just felt like a really good role in a really fun film, with a bunch of truly great actors. Of course, visually it was remarkable, but I didn’t think, ‘Oh my god, this movie is breaking new ground!’ or anything like that.”

Working with firearms was a new experience for the actress, but one she took to rather quickly with a bit of instruction from the film’s stunt department. “I don’t think I had ever shot a gun on screen before, and certainly not in my real life,” she says. “So Dick Warlock, who was Kurt’s stunt double in the film, showed me what to do. And that was helpful because props are very important to me. Knowing that I look like I know what I’m doing in a performance is something I always try to bring to each role.”

While learning to fire a Smith & Wesson revolver took some practice, Maggie’s killer instinct came naturally to Barbeau, who exhibits a sly grin of pleasure in the film each time she pulls the trigger and eliminates another threat. “That little smile is how Maggie reacts in the moment,” she says. “There’s a sense of satisfaction she gets at taking people out that needed to be taken out.”

Eager to make sure her character looked like someone who’s been locked away in an urban hellhole without access to goods and supplies for years, Barbeau improvised several details on her costume and her appearance. “I made the decision that since Maggie couldn’t just walk into a store and buy things like nail polish or a hair clip, she would have to manufacture them for herself. So I painted my nails silver, because in my mind I imagined that Maggie had melted down batteries and used them as polish somehow. And for a clip to hold my hair back, I roasted a turkey, boiled it down and cleaned it, and then used the breastbone as an actual hair clip. So if you watch the film closely, you’ll see a turkey bone stuck in my hair.”

Though she’s not usually a memorabilia collector, Barbeau did manage to walk away from the production with a costume keepsake that she still owns to this day: Maggie’s sexy stiletto boots. “I don’t know what happened to the dress I wore in the film, but I still have those boots, and I even wear them occasionally,” she reveals. “They’re gray with a very high heel, and they come right up to my knee. The costume department put a metal reinforcement under the heel because I was doing so much running on screen and they didn’t want the heel to break off. In fact, I wore them to a Christmas party right before the pandemic started. Someone actually came up to me and said ‘I love those boots!’ and I said, ‘Oh, thank you, they’re 40 years old.’”

Although Barbeau was virtually the only woman in front of the camera on “Escape from New York,” behind the scenes, legendary producer Debra Hill was working tirelessly to keep the film on track for its July 10 release date. Having produced several of Carpenter’s early hits, and co-written “Halloween,” “The Fog” and “Halloween II” with him, Hill was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. “Debra was a good friend and an incredible producer,” Barbeau says. “When I first met her, she and John were a couple, and she was gracious and loving enough to accept me as a friend after she and John separated and he and I got together. She was a remarkable talent and a mentor to so many women in the industry who came after her. Sadly, she died far too young, and it was a great loss for everyone who knew her.”

Since most of Barbeau’s scenes in “The Fog” had taken place by herself in a lighthouse, without any other principal cast members to interact with, sharing the screen with her eclectic co-stars in “Escape from New York” was a welcome change of pace. “I knew Kurt already because John had directed him in ‘Elvis’ a couple of years earlier, and he was brilliant in that,” she says. “He’s just so easy to work with, and he’s great in ‘Escape.’ But all of the guys were amazing in it, to be honest.”

One of her favorite actors to work with on the film was Pleasence, who had previously starred in “Halloween” and would return again in Carpenter’s “Prince of Darkness” six years later. “He was one of the funniest actors I’ve ever met,” she says. “Invariably, he would say something hysterical right before John called action, and I’d have to go, ‘wait, wait, wait!’ because he’d make me laugh to the point where I just couldn’t get started on the scene.”

As for Harry Dean Stanton, who plays Maggie’s partner in the film, Barbeau says the actor’s penchant for spontaneity occasionally frustrated Carpenter. “Harry loved to improvise, but John was the kind of filmmaker who wanted to hear the words that were there on the page, so sometimes he’d have to ask Harry to just try saying the lines the way they’re actually written in the script. But Harry was truly a fantastic actor. I don’t think I really came to appreciate his incredible talent until I watched him in ‘Big Love,’ because I might not have seen anything he’d done before we made ‘Escape.’”

Filming took place from August to November in 1980, and the majority of the gritty action sequences were shot on the rundown streets of St. Louis amid a sweltering heat wave. “Kurt and the guys had a much more difficult time than I did, because when they were shooting in St. Louis, the weather was so hot that the tar on the streets was literally melting,” Barbeau reveals. “At one point, several of the stuntmen had to jump out of a helicopter and rappel down to the street below, and a few of them broke their ankles because the ground was so soft.”

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Kurt Russell, Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton and Ernest Borgnine in 1981’s “Escape From New York” Courtesy Everett Collection

In a movie filled with indelible scenes, the one that stands out the most to Barbeau is her character’s doomed last stand on a mined bridge, seconds away from potential freedom. “I love that final moment when Maggie reaches out for Snake’s gun because it’s an expression of her entire belief system, her entire morality. That scene really gave me Maggie. We instantly know that avenging the death of her lover is more important to her than her own life. There’s just no question about it. And you can tell from Kurt’s eyes in the scene that Snake knows it too. He goes through a whole gamut of emotions in that final exchange with Maggie.”

With a master of terror like John Carpenter behind the camera, it’s no surprise that Maggie’s death is one of the bloodiest moments in the entire film. But it might not have turned out that way if not for the intervention of a then-teenage J.J. Abrams. As the story goes, Carpenter assembled a rough cut of the film and held a test screening for a small audience, and the future director of “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” was in attendance with his father.

“Apparently, J.J. raised his hand afterwards and asked John, ‘What happened to Maggie?’” Barbeau recalls. “I guess he didn’t think it was clear enough that she died when the car hit her. So a short while later, John and I got together with a very small film crew, and we went into our home’s garage and shot that final image of Maggie covered in blood. I got back in my costume and makeup, roasted another turkey for my hair, laid down on the floor of the garage, and they poured blood all around me and shot that last scene of dead Maggie.”

In the years after “Escape from New York,” Barbeau continued to appear in a variety of films and television series, including HBO’s Emmy-winning “Carnivàle.” But she often returned to the horror genre to the delight of her fans, and one of the most popular films she made was the 2000 cult classic “The Convent,” directed by Mike Mendez. “Oh, I love that movie!” Barbeau says with obvious glee. “It’s like I got to play Snake Plissken in that one, that’s exactly how I describe it.”

An avid devotee of ‘80s horror, Mendez always had Barbeau in mind when casting the film. “We needed a real badass for ‘The Convent,’ and when I thought back to who was a female icon that was tough and kicked ass, Adrienne Barbeau was the person that really came to mind,” he says. “I grew up with films like ‘Escape from New York’ and ‘Swamp Thing,’ and Adrienne was never the wilting flower or the damsel in distress in those movies. She was usually there to save somebody else, and that always made her very cool and distinctive, so I just loved her.”

By the time Barbeau appeared in “The Convent,” her instantly recognizable curly hairstyle that was such a vital part of her image in the 1980s had softened to a much shorter look. “So at one point I said to her, ‘if only there was a way to get that ’80s hair back again,’ and she went, ‘You want that ugly hair?’ And I thought, well, I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but yeah! I do kind of want that hair,” Mendez says. “So she said, ‘look, if you really want that hairstyle, I still have the wig that we used for the stunt people on ‘Swamp Thing.’ So she actually brought her ’80s hair in a box to the set, and we used it in the film.”

Reflecting on the 40th anniversary of “Escape from New York,” Barbeau remains grateful for the film’s enduring popularity. “It’s amazingly gratifying to me,” she says. “I’ll do an occasional appearance or an autograph signing, and so many people come up and say it’s their favorite movie. That kind of reaction is just fantastic. It’s a film that still really grabs people, and it’s got a huge fan base to this day. They just love it.”

That said, she can’t resist pointing out one tiny flaw in the movie’s otherwise eerily prescient vision of the future. “John got almost everything right, except for the size of the phones,” she says with a laugh. “I mean, if you look at the movie today, he projected 20 years into the future and he predicted a lot of things exactly right, he just didn’t realize that we’d all be using miniaturized iPhones. But he did a great job with everything else!”