'Elephant Man' Co-star Devoted to Life-long Learning
By ANNE PAPINEAU
AS A LITTLE girl in World War II-era Carmel, Barbara Babcock looked up at the night sky and, spotting the Pleiades, remarked, "That's where I'm from." That Carmel is a place where one can still view the stars appeals to her very much. "Carmel still looks the same at night. No light pollution," she remarks.
From that stargazing child Babcock grew into a most accomplished soul: Wellesley graduate, champion of African wildlife, actor (much-honored) in television, films and theater. Not merely honored, in fact, but steadily employed. That's no mean feat in an industry where a fraction of guild members work at all, most especially women who entered the business at the dawn of the 1960s.
"Eighty percent of all professional actors are unemployed at any one time, and only 5 percent earn a living wage," she notes, speaking from the sanctuary of the Circle Theatre of the Golden Bough. Upstairs, she opens this week in the Pacific Repertory Theatre staging of "The Elephant Man."
Babcock recalled how, fresh from college and theater in the East, she enrolled in a theater workshop in L.A. "Watching how bitter and unhappy many of the actors there were because they were waiting for work &emdash; I vowed I'd never wait for work. This body is your instrument, and if you don't keep it oiled and greased, it will die on you, and when you get a job, you want to bring energy to the work. I let my other interests come in to play, animal behavior, primarily, because I decided I wanted to be actively engaged in something."
As it turned out, she needn't have worried. Barbara Babcock has almost come to define the expression "working actress." Anybody with access to a TV has probably seen Babcock in at least one of her video incarnations, from roles in "Dobie Gillis" to "Star Trek," "Taxi" to "The Golden Girls," "Murder, She Wrote" to "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman."
Perhaps her seminal character was Grace Gardner, seductress of Sgt. Esterhaus on the ground-breaking police drama, "Hill Street Blues." She played Grace for five years and won an Emmy. At the moment Babcock is back in the town where it all began. She's playing Mrs. Kendal in "The Elephant Man," a modern-day female actor playing a 19th century one.
"At one point Mrs. Kendal says, 'I know everyone, and I do pretty well as I please.' That statement is extraordinary given its time," Babcock says of her character. "A woman of good breeding did not go into the theater. Even in my mother's day, it was considered risqué. And when I made the announcement to my grandparents on my father's side, they thought it was not even appropriate to be photographed in public."
Barbara Babcock's parents met in Carmel-by-the-Sea. It was a 1927 production of "Romeo and Juliet" at the Outdoor Forest Theater, and Jadwiga Noskowiak was Juliet. Babcock's father, a career Army officer, was running lights. The couple married, and Jadwiga, "Jaddy" to her friends, raised a family and had to make a home in 31 places around the world. During World War II, they came back to Carmel for a time.
"I remember we had blackout shades over our windows because there was constant talk of submarines being out in the bay," Babcock said. "I remember being taken down Ocean Avenue, which was the only paved street then, riding in the rumble seat of my mother's best friend's open car. And when we hit these big bumps we'd sail over them."
Her father competed in equestrian events in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and rose to the rank of major general. Babcock recalls receiving riding instruction from him. The setting was Emperor Hirohito's mirrored indoor riding ring in Tokyo, and she was astride the monarch's Arabian steed.
The product of a peripatetic childhood, Babcock is not one to settle in any one place for terribly long. She maintained a home in Pasadena for a number of years, and even starred in the series of that name last year. Curiously, "Pasadena" was filmed in British Columbia. But at present she is at home in Carmel, remodeling her late mother's residence and creating Mrs. Kendal for PacRep. Other interests always beckon.
"I started going to East Africa in 1973, doing volunteer work through the Smithsonian Institution to help wildlife." She'd slog through mud and take all-day truck rides with anesthetized elephants, content to perform whatever work was needed, even if it were of the "drudge" variety.
Babcock said she'd like to become involved in helping animals on the Monterey Peninsula, domestic or wild. "And a goal of mine is to work for Hospice, an extraordinary organization. My mother was helped by Hospice. She fooled them, she lived longer than anyone expected. I want to get involved in Hospice and stay involved in the community here."
Another tug comes from Ireland. "It feels like my heart home. It's made up of people who are musical, mystical and verbal. These are all traits I admire and appreciate. And I love rain. I'm more cheerful in the rain." In Ireland Babcock polishes her writing: miniseries, screenplays, novels. She need not work, if she so chose.
"Retire; I can't stand that word. Its root in French means 'to pull back.' To me that is just anathema. The most important thing to me, if I had to use two words, is 'stay curious.' Be like a child, always wonder and be curious, open to new things."
In this, the town where her parents met, Babcock recalls fondly the strength and beauty of her mother, who graced Carmel stages long ago. "She had an extraordinary life force, that kind of energy that is survivor energy," Babcock notes. "She went through a lot in her life, particularly towards the end. She was never sorry for herself and she never complained. She had an enormous zest for life and I think we're each born with a particular energy. I think we've an obligation to use it. Now I think all sins come out of our not living up to our gift."
Not living up to our gift. That is a sin alien to Barbara Babcock.
Copyright ©2002 Carmel Pine Cone
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Original Spin to Mother's Old Turf
PERFORMS IN 'ELEPHANT MAN' AT CARMEL THEATER
By Karen D'Souza
Every time Barbara Babcock steps onstage at the Golden Bough Theatre in Carmel, where she is appearing in "The Elephant Man'' this month, she is taking a walk in her mother's footsteps. Back in the '20s, her mother, Jadwoiga Noskowiak, was an actress who appeared frequently on the boards at the original Golden Bough.
Babcock -- who has been in everything from "Star Trek'' and "Dallas'' to "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman'' but perhaps is best remembered as Grace, the 40-something siren on "Hill Street Blues'' -- recently moved to Carmel from Los Angeles. And she couldn't wait to get up onstage and explore a little of her family history.
Now in her 60s, the Emmy winner recently took some time to talk.
Q What appealed to you about this show? Had you done it before?
A Not at all. As a matter of fact, I am probably the only cast member who never saw the play before, never saw the movie. So I am the only one who is pure. My interpretation is not influenced by anybody. Actually, the major reason I am in the show is because I always wanted to do a production at the Golden Bough, where my mother worked. That was the original Golden Bough.
Q That was the theater that burned down?
A Well, it's a funny story. They both burned down. The original Golden Bough burned down during a production of a play called "By Candlelight.'' And then 20 years later, at the new Golden Bough, they did "By Candlelight'' again, and it burned down again. So, needless to say, they have never done "By Candlelight'' again. They had to rebuild the theater, which is the one we are in now.
Q What made you move to Carmel?
A I was doing a movie with Clint Eastwood ("Space Cowboys'') and I thought, well, if he can do it, I can. I had been coming up here for years to visit my parents, you know, and it is such a beautiful place ... and it is very easy to get down to L.A. to work.
Q What makes this role, Mrs. Kendall, right for you?
A What interests me is that she is a woman of the 19th century who is able to do pretty much as she pleases, as she says in the script. For a woman at that time to be able to say that is something. There were very few positions of power for women, unless you were the mistress to the king. The only other seat of power was the theater, if you were an actor. So this is a great role to play because she is in that era, when women had no vote and no power and no say, and yet she worked her way up as an actor.
Q Why do you say actor instead of actress?
A I started that back in the '60s when I learned why they make that distinction, between male and female. Actress was a derogatory term in many ways because it was supposed to be only women of ill repute who got up on the stage. It is primarily for animals -- lion and lioness. I mean, you don't say lawyer and lawyeress or doctor and doctoress, do you?
Q You seem to have made a career of playing strong women. Is that something you set out to do?
A No, I set out to be a character actor. I never set out to be a leading lady. For me the most interesting thing about being an actor is getting to play different roles, to get under the skins of different people. So from a very young age, I would insist on that. They like to box you in because it is easier to cast. This is a so-and-so type and so forth. I infuriated my agents for years and gradually over time I got them to see that I can do a range of things. And that has helped with growing older. You know, a lot of my peers do not work. It is a tough business for women. When you hit the 40s and 50s, you drop into this black hole and they forget about you until you are the grandmother or the bag lady. I have been very, very lucky.
By: Bernard Pomerance, produced by the Pacific Repertory Theatre
Where: Golden Bough Playhouse, on Monte Verde between Eight and Ninth in Carmel-by-the-Sea
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Through: June 30, 2002
Tickets: $30-$35 (student and senior discounts available); (831) 622-0100 or www.pacrep.org
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