- By TOM WEAVER
She's been elected to the Boards
of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA, works
as an activist on behalf of women, saves homeless animals,
heads a support group for women divorced from celebrities
and has her own newspaper column. And yet many of Jackie
Joseph's fans probably think she couldn't pour water
out of a boot with instructions on the heel. But this
"dumb brunette" image is okay with Joseph,
who realizes that after all the flea-brained gals she's
played and the unusual jobs she's had, it goes with
the proverbial territory. Few parts were as dotty --
and none are as well-remembered-- as her starring stint
as the malaprop-prone flower shop salesgirl in Roger
Corman's wacky The Little Shop of Horrors.
Born in Los Angeles, Joseph started
performing while in high school, taking acting lessons
that her mother (who worked for a liquor store chain)
"paid" for by supplying the teacher with pilfered
potables. Joseph started her professional career at
the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood in That's Life
("I was the entire chorus!"), soon becoming
an in-demand actress-singer-dancer. A role in a popular
stage show called the Billy Barnes Revue increased her
visibility, as did a stint as the first "weathergirl"
on L.A. television and roles in occasional movies (Suicide
Battalion, King Creole, Speed Crazy). Other odd-very
odd jobs included work as an Easter Bunny and a polar
bear and a regular non-speaking role on the Saturday
morning kid's show Magic Land of Allakazam, in
which she was routinely sawed in half and dangled from
sound stage rafters. But all these roles begin to seem
a bit more mundane alongside The Little Shop of Horrors,
in which Joseph's "Audrey" was the namesake
of a giant, talking Venus fly trap -- and the girlfriend
of the Skid Row schnook (Jonathan Haze) who keeps it
fed with blood and human bodies.
All your early publicity plays up the fact that you
were a member of the Billy Barnes Revue. What exactly
JACKIE JOSEPH: The Billy Barnes Revue was the
first revue to tease the media, or to tease people who
were movie stars. Billy, who composed the words and
music, had a wry way of poking fun without being mean.
And it was racy for its time, because it insinuated.
Not all the time, it wasn't a rude revue, but it was
very intelligent. It had four girls, four boys; Bert
Convy was in the original cast, and also my husband
Ken Berry, that's where we met.
It was a combination of musical numbers (mostly) and
sketches, Hollywood-themed quite a bit. It was considered
kind of daring to sing a little number like "What
Ever Happened to Miss Bella Darvi?"-- people laughed
at that! It was non sequitur humor, it was fun, it was
the kind of thing that people would come, and then they'd
bring their friends and come again and again. We didn't
know it was going to be something that was going to
be remembered in the hearts forever. Now suddenly these
memorabilia shows are popping up, where you sit there
and people come over and say, "I watched you 40
years ago. I loved you!" I've done so many dumb
things, you never know what they're gonna mention [laughs],
and a lot of people say, "I saw the Billy Barnes
Revue." There's about as much sentimentality
for the Billy Barnes Revue here in Los Angeles as there
is in the film world for Little Shop of Horrors
[laughs]. Which is underestimating Billy's revue.
in with all this early stage work of yours were also
nightclub appearances and your weathergirl stint.
JACKIE: My gosh, could you send me copies of
all these early clippings you've found about me? You're
unraveling my life in a wonderful way [laughs]! Yes,
I was a weathergirl: They had these auditions for weathergirls,
and I was thinking, "Well, I can't pretend I know
about weather, so I'll just do a humorous interview."
They stuck me in front of a camera and said, "Okay,
be a weatherperson," and what I did amazed them.
I said, "There are small craft warnings, so if
you have a small craft, you better warn it!" [Laughs]
And so I was hired. There was a different girl for each
day, and I was Miss Monday. On Monday you'd go in, and
no one would be there to tell you how to do it. At some
point in the live [broadcast] I'd just have to pick
something off a ticker tape, and then I'd have to work
with a map of the country without the names of the states
on it [laughs]! Luckily, I was the humorous, dumb weathergirl,
so it didn't matter what I didn't know. (Unless anybody
was interested in the weather. Then they were in trouble!)
I've had a series of very amusing jobs. I got a job
as the Easter Bunny because when I was in school, when
I was about 19, a trunk fell on my head and broke my
nose. It was rather startling -- my nose just sort of
disappeared into my face. Being someone who adjusts
to situations immediately, I thought, "Well, that's
okay, I'll be a librarian in Kansas. Who needs a nose?"
[Laughs] But, luckily, while I was in the hospital I
mumbled, "I'm a model" -- because I posed
for free for photographers, I thought I was a model.
So the doctor said, "Then we better call in a plastic
surgeon," and they raised my nose back into position.
And because of having this huge metal thing on my nose,
to protect the nose while it was resetting, I got a
job as an Easter Bunny in one of our major department
stores. I think back and wonder what I was thinking
as I sat in the department store office, looking for
vacation work with this huge thing on my face [laughs].
It must have been a mercy job -- "Let her be the
Easter Bunny with the big head." And that turned
out to be a great job -- I did that three years, seasonally.
And because of that experience, I was hired when I later
went out for a job to be a traveling polar bear [laughs].
And that job got me three months of travel and got me
to New York!
I think the quality involved in all of this was an
innate ... well, rather than just saying stupidity,
let's say innocence. That appealed to Roger Corman.
Much of the work I've gotten was because people had
seen me in Billy Barnes' show, and Roger obviously had
seen it. I got a call from them when I was in New York:
We had just finished the New York run of the Billy Barnes
Revue, wondering, "Oh, well, what do we do now?"
when I got a call to come back and do this movie. (I
didn't know it was only gonna be for two days!) I
heard Roger say afterwards that the quality he wanted
in Audrey [Joseph's Little Shop character] was
sincere innocence. Audrey just believed everything that
was put in front of her. (Which isn't a bad thing
-- I have to defend that, because I tend to be someone
who believes everything that's put in front of me!)
Has that segued into what you want to talk about?
a perfect segue! Okay, you're in New York and you find
out that you're going to be in this movie. It's not
"Come back and audition," it's "Come
back and do the movie."
JACKIE: It was "Come back and do the movie."
Which is very flattering, because I was young and wanted
to be in the movies. (I had done a few fairly weird
and dinky movies before that.) From what I recall, at
first they told me it was a detective movie; then, while
I was flying back, I think they wrote a whole new movie,
more in the horror genre. I think over a weekend they
rewrote it. [Screenwriter] Charles Griffith was working
with Roger, and he was just an immensely clever and
funny guy. And Roger -- isn't he interesting for the
stuff that he does? He's like a country squire; his
persona is not some daffy, outrageous director. I don't
know where this bizarre bent of his came from, because
he's kind of an elegant man. No, not "kind of"
-- he definitely is a gentleman.
yet he could knock out all these exploitation movies
with the best of 'em.
JACKIE: He must have an incredible business
sense. I think a lot of his work maybe didn't come from
being an artistic director, but from saying, "Maybe
this'll sell." And he was just totally right, and
he became a legend in his time.
when you got the call in New York to star in the movie,
they told you it was a detective movie.
JACKIE: As far as I remember, yes. Look, when
I first heard about it, the key word for me was movie
-- I didn't care what it was! Also, because I'd never
been asked to do anything untoward, the thought of being
careful what I said yes to never came to mind. And,
really, I wasn't somebody who was "on top"
of all the goings-on -- it was just, "I'm in the
movies!" [Laughs] What I really cared about was
being responsible to my craft. We had to memorize the
whole movie, which, when you think about it, is pretty
funny, 'cause that's a big hunk of memory. We had to
do that because it was going to be done so fast. Your
main concern was just showing up and changing your clothes.
And hurrying all the time! I did a lot of my changing
of clothes in a carpenter's booth right on the stage,
because you don't want to hold anybody up. Jackie Haze
and I had a couple of days before the filming, and we
just sat and went over the script and "learned"
the movie. We did that in whatever dumpy apartment he
or I was living in at the time. (No one was going to
rent a studio for us to rehearse in, not at those wages!)
Jonathan -- or "Jackie," as they call him
-- had practically all the pressure on him. I don't
think any of us would have been as successful if he
hadn't been on top of what he was doing. It's funny
to think of "professionalism" when you think
of something as dopey as Little
Shop, but there definitely
were professionals on that stage. Everybody came in,
not with a "We're doing something stupid"
attitude, but with a "We're going to work"
attitude. Everybody's object was to do the best they
could. (Which I think is usually what you do.) What
we didn't know, even though we knew it was unusual,
was that it was going to be a classic. We just thought
that, on our list of funny jobs, here was a big one
Haze nice to work with?
JACKIE: He's a very nice boy. I mean, I know
we're all grown-ups, but someone you knew as a lad,
you still think of as a lad. (And hopefully he still
thinks I'm a nice girl!) Jonathan was all-business,
even now. For awhile he went into the "technical
end," he was producing and directing commercials,
but now he's getting back into being an actor again,
which is cute. We do see each other every now and then
at these sweet [autograph] shows where people like to
come and say, "Oh, I've always wanted to meet you."
you have any misgivings at all when you finally found
out that the movie was going to be a comedy about a
giant talking killer plant? Didn't you think it was
just plain dumb?
JACKIE: No, not at all. The nature of the work
in those days was that you got a job and did it. I really
should just speak for myself, but I don't think we were
that analytical, I don't think anybody said, "I
won't be in this garbage!" Also, there was more
work at that time than there is now, so it couldn't
be just anything-for-a-job. But when you're a young
beginner, it's a way to show your stuff. And you just
played it real. In my instance, maybe it came from being
in a revue that was pretty dippy in a lot of ways. You
had to do it with all seriousness and heart. I think
everybody did that -- I don't think anyone was trying
to be funny. And, again, it was just another in a series
of loopy jobs! We shot at a studio that is currently
A&M; in those days, it was
the Chaplin. I can drive by there and still get a sense
of "That's where [Little Shop] happened,"
those amazing two days in my life when I became an icon
to the weird [laughs]!
cameras? Three cameras?
JACKIE: Three cameras. And I think Roger had
really chosen that form to save time, so you didn't
have to do any cover shots. I imagine he had to do some,
but it was like you do the master, and all those other
cameras are covering you. And if you happen to be in
a big shadow, too bad! As you might notice if you see
the film, sometimes you're talking and the shadow of
your partner is over you. (Which is usually something
that they'll scream cut for.) There may have been as
many as four cameras, and that was something he probably
borrowed from I Love Lucy,
which was a real pacesetter in the three-camera show
concept. It was fun, it was like live TV. Really,
that's where I think being in the theater for so many
years really benefited, because you just do it. You
just act. And not worry about the equipment. You just
do your thing. Maybe that's why Roger chose someone
from the theater -- although I think he just chose the
type of girl that I happen to have been.
It's funny, I'm getting very third-person about myself.
It seems far enough away that I'm very interested in
her [laughs]! I can look at some old stuff and say,
"Gosh, she was cute," or, "What potential!",
or, "What a brave little girl." 'Cause it's
certainly miles away from the woman I am now. And it's
fun to just...adore yourself!
the plan to shoot the movie in two days -- on the first
day, did Corman say, "The plan is to make it in
two days"? Or did you guys work so fast that it
ended up being done in two days?
JACKIE: I wasn't the kind of person that Roger
took into his meetings -- in fact, I don't know if he
was the type of person to even have a meeting and make
up a plan. But what I am pretty sure of is, the reason
it was designated to be two days was because (a) his
brother Gene had this set sitting there, and they didn't
have to clean it up for a couple of days. The space
was just there. That was one thing
that probably initiated the whole thing. And (b) the
reason Little Shop had to wrap by midnight of
New Year's Eve, 1959, was that, contractually, starting
in 1960, the concept of residuals would come
into play. Roger, being an exquisite businessman, certainly
didn't want to pay anybody [residuals] if it wasn't
really necessary [laughs]! It was a question of beating
the deadline before the new residual rule, and so it
had to finish in two days. I don't even know if we had
a call sheet! I remember a very wonderful guy called
Ed Nelson, who did very good work; early on, he did
several of Roger and Gene's movies also. I remember
running into Ed on the set of some movie that was being
made by Gene, and he was just so crabby, he was just
really cranky. They had been on some dire location (where
you can get really hot and tired after many, many hours),
and the crowning insult was that they were served their
little meals on used TV dinner trays [laughs]!
I talked to Mel Welles, he said that everybody on Little
Shop was so well-rehearsed,
there wasn't really much for "director" Corman
JACKIE: Well, let's just say ... somebody has
to say, "Next!" [Laughs] And if Roger hadn't
decided, "Okay, let's do this," then there
wouldn't have been a Little
Shop of Horrors. But as far as being well-rehearsed
and ready, I think that went with the memorizing of
the movie. Luckily -- and this also comes into Roger's
domain -- he selected people who were professionals.
I don't think he wasted anybody's time with people who
he thought "looked good" or "were adequate."
Even down to the young girls [Tammy Windsor, Toby Michaels]
who come into the shop to buy flowers -- they may have
been frivolous, but they knew how to make their point,
they stood on their mark. Nobody dared waste any time
-- there wasn't any time! You didn't have a chance to
make friends on that set. Usually there's lingering-around
time, you're sitting in your chair, waiting. On Little
Shop, nobody was waiting for anything!
tell a great story I want to ask you to repeat, about
the makeup man.
JACKIE: Oh! Yes! At the time, my sense of entitlement
was fairly low; also, I took it for granted that anybody
who was (say) a cameraman knew what the camera was doing.
And that a makeup man was a professional, and he knew
what he was doing. So you go to him and you say, "Here's
my face. Make it right for the movies." I never
wanted to interfere; not having a huge sense of self,
I didn't want to say, "I think something's funny
here." The makeup man [Harry Thomas] went to work,
and I watched as the eyebrows on my very self become
more bushy than any woman I've ever seen in the movies!
Rather than say, "I'm nervous about my eyebrows,"
I started asking him about his life and what kind of
movies he did and what movie star ladies he'd ever done
before. And he said, "Oh, I've never done a woman
before." [Laughs] Then you start thinking, "Hmmm,
maybe my concerns are well-founded!" I asked him,
"What did you do?" and he said, "Well,
I mainly just did monsters." And I'm thinking,
"Whoops! Here comes one now!" -- one more
monster to put on his list [laughs]! I still didn't
have the nerve to say, "This is too much"
-- God forbid you should hurt anybody's feelings. But
I was really very distressed, which is probably why
I remember it so well. I was thinking, "Here's
my big movie, and I'm going out there looking like a
monster." So I'd get a Q-tip or two and head into
the little ladies' room and start daubing away. I think
I still have very generous brows in the movies!
about some of the other actors in the cast, like Mel
Welles and Dick Miller?
JACKIE: It's funny, Mel was probably like three
years older than I, but I thought, "Well, he's
a grown-up." Maybe it was because he was portraying
someone like a "good ol' uncle" or whoever
Mr. Mushnik was, but I just thought of Mel as more of
a grown-up. And of course he does have this great, confident
persona. He's also a director, he's on the creative
side, and so I thought he was a step ahead of all of
us kids. I only knew Dick Miller a little bit from being
on that set -- since we were running around a lot, we
didn't have time to really become friends -- but he
and I later worked in a movie
called Get Crazy (1983) as the sweet family of
some girl going to a rock concert. And then we worked
twice for Joe Dante, who undoubtedly is the nicest person
you could ever work for in the world. There are some
people who ... it's like, they inhale and they're
kind. And that's Joe Dante -- who is also amazingly
humorous and talented. Dick Miller and I played husband-and-wife
[Mr. and Mrs. Futterman] in Gremlins, and I like
that they resurrected Dick and me in Gremlins 2.
I was sure we were really wiped out pretty good
in Gremlins, the first one -- I mean, if you're run
over by a snowplow or a building comes down upon you
should do it!
JACKIE: I don't know if anybody even heard it,
but in Gremlins 2,
at the very top of the movie, just as a little
throwaway line, the kids are walking around New York,
chatting and saying, "The Futtermans are coming.
They're feeling much better!" [Laughs] Dick is
an interesting guy; he's got this tough "street"
exterior, and he's portrayed such a grumpy weirdo in
so many of the things he's done, but he's really quite
a sweet gentleman, and sentimental. And (of course)
extremely talented. He also has a wonderful wife who's
just darling, and they're excellent together. Dick likes
to eat breakfast at the same place all the time, and
see whoever wanders by. I should go there sometime and
watch Dick holding court. On the set, Dick and I shared
lox and bagels together.
the set of Little Shop?
JACKIE: No, I don't think anybody ate on that
set [laughs]! Not that I know of -- we were too busy
running and changing clothes.
Dick Miller ate.
JACKIE: That's right -- he ate the flowers!
And I think he was eating [real] flowers. They said,
"Eat flowers," he ate flowers, and luckily
they didn't give him a bouquet of anything that was
poisonous [laughs]! He's a funny guy, and he and Jackie
Haze have a huge history.
Q: Any recollection of
seeing Jack Nicholson in action?
JACKIE: I do have a recollection of Jack. I
tend to remember, even though Jack was still a minor
player in those days, that there was a bit of mystique
about him. I still think of him as a kid. When you first
get your brain tuned in to somebody, it's hard to ever
think of them as changing. I know we have, obviously,
but I still think he's this kind of nice kid who just
fell into a great opportunity. And talent meeting opportunity
is always so nice! But even before he was famous, there
was a little "buzz" (when I didn't even know
what a "buzz" was). He had less than an afternoon
-- he just came in and he did his thing, which was a
hysterically funny part.
there any ad-libbing on the set of
Little Shop? Do you
remember making any suggestions?
JACKIE: I don't think so. Although as a youngster
I was in improvisation, my training was that you respect
the script. You're hired to do what the words say. And
I don't think there was a lot of leeway for ad libs.
Or time for them. There was no time for, "Now let's
try it this way," it was like, "Do it. Okay.
Now let's do the next one." It really kept on cooking,
and someone would have had to make a major mistake for
us to repeat a scene.
much were you paid for starring in Little
JACKIE: I may have gotten $500. But, of course,
I was doing it for "the art" [laughs]!
you recall when and where you saw it for the first time?
JACKIE: I don't recall where; I do remember
I was amazed that it even came out. It was a second
feature, tucked in at the end of the evening, and anybody
who even stayed for it got this kind of surprise. When
Little Shop came out, I was either about to get
married or I was newly married (I married Ken Berry
in May of 1960), and I was doing a Billy Barnes show
then. A year or two earlier, when I was working in Las
Vegas, Suicide Battalion  was playing at
the Palace, and in my mind I was thinking, "I'm
at the Palace!" I was working with an actress called
Mitzi McCall at a book show in Vegas, and I said, "I'm
in the movies! Come with me! I'm so excited!" So
I took her to see this B-minus war movie, and
at the end of it I was waiting for her to say, "How
nice. You were in a movie." And she said, "You
dragged me to see this in the middle of the afternoon?!"
[Laughs] It didn't dawn on me to be embarrassed about
any of that stuff!
recent years, of course, Little Shop has become
a real cult item.
JACKIE: I didn't know it had became a cult event
until I started to get fan mail that would have borders
of hanging, stringy plants. It was from
Little Shop fans. "That's funny...where
did these people come from?" Then it became more
and more pronounced. And the one thing I know a lot
of us here had no idea about was the [stage] musical.
When that came into New York, none of us was apprised.
Now, what we found out later was that Roger knew, and
I don't know if it didn't dawn on him to notify us,
or if for some reason he wanted to keep this "his"
thing, and not have the cast intrude upon it a little
bit. There was a lot of publicity about it after awhile,
when it really caught on.
When I finally got to New York, I called them and I
said, "I'm coming to the show. I did the movie."
A lot of the people were really excited -- they brought
a photographer and all. But the part that made me a
little sad ('cause, you know, overly sensitive, naturally)
was that some of them were very hurt that we [the original
cast] had never contacted them or supported them earlier
on. It was like we ignored them. And the truth was that
we didn't know about it! But I felt badly about that.
Q: When the play was turned
into the 1986 movie, and the actors from the old movie
weren't asked to get involved, did you feel snubbed?
JACKIE: I have to tell you what I did -- it
was one of the most overt things I've ever done, because
I'm not one of those people who
sit and say, "How can I push my career?" I
actually wrote to the producer-director, the Muppet
guy [Frank Oz], and said that I was assuming that, just
like the  Invasion of the Body Snatchers,
which had Kevin McCarthy [in a bit], he would be considering
using some of the original cast. I told him it would
really be a great pleasure for me to do...anything.
To be humming on a street corner, or whatever! I got
a letter back saying, "Thanks a lot, but no thanks."
The letter was nice, but it said that they didn't have
it in their budget to bring people over to London --
they were doing it in England for some funny reason.
I must say I loved the stage musical, and a lot of work
in the movie was wonderful, but I think the movie got
too big. There was something about the smallness of
the original Little Shop, the intimate feeling,
that made it work. The new one got too "show business,"
and it lost something. Of course, if I had been standing
on a street corner in it, my attitude toward the movie
would be wholly different [laughs] -- much better!
I've been elected to the boards of
the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA -- sort of a late-in-life
server to my unions. Personally, it's a way to carry on
some of the activist work I do on behalf of women and girls;
also, I believe in merging the unions, 'cause it's kind
of dopey for actors to be in so many unions. People think
of you in the tone of your board work, and then every once
in awhile some other dignified board member will say, "Wait
... were you in Little Shop of Horrors?" [Laughs]
And the funny thing is, it elevates you! Suddenly you're
a person, not just some old actress. It's incredibly funny
to me, 'cause you'd think their noses would turn in a different
direction! So although there weren't financial residuals
from Little Shop of Horrors, there have been the
kind of residuals that money can't buy.
Tom Weaver is the author of Science Fiction and
Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster Movie
Makers and many others available from McFarland