Interview: Actress Julie Cobb Remembers 1979’s SALEM’S LOT



SHOCK talks to “Boom Boom” Bonnie herself, actress Julie Cobb from Tobe Hooper’s SALEM’S LOT.

She was the sultry small town vixen that was married to a hot-tempered oaf whilst having an affair with the local Realtor Lothario. Nicknamed “Boom Boom” Bonnie, receptionist Bonnie Sawyer was one of the “lucky” ones in the sleepy New England town of Salem’s Lot; heading out just in time before the entire quiet provincial halcyon hamlet would fall under the spell of something very sinister and very ancient – the slow, cagey and creeping onslaught of vampires!

Now the incredibly charming actress Julie Cobb who gave Bonnie Sawyer her free-loving, “good time” girl energy speaks to SHOCK about working on the iconic, Tobe Hooper directed adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel, SALEM’S LOT…

SHOCK: Firstly, SALEM’S LOT is one of my all time favorite works full stop – the novel is one of those books I go back to and re-read and the miniseries is just brilliant. And your fantastic contribution makes it all the more superb. I wanted to first ask if you read Stephen King’s novel at all, before landing the part of Bonnie Sawyer?

COBB: No I haven’t read it and I still haven’t read it, I regret to tell you – but I have to say that the miniseries is most definitely one of the best miniseries ever made, most certainly one of the best that I have been a part of and such a brilliantly made event. It was quite amazing when we went to the screening, because as you know when you shoot it’s all done in different pieces where my part was my part and so forth, but when it was put together and when we saw it in a theater with an audience with the cast and crew you were totally terrified! It was so scary! I really need to see it again, I have it and I need to re-watch it. Tobe Hooper was a fantastic director and he mastered this film perfectly. It was suspenseful and then also on top of that there was this “shock” element. There were these very effective shock moments that were just amazing.

SHOCK: The character in the novel is having an affair with a 22 year old telephone company worker named Corey Bryant, however in the novel they have changed this to Bonnie sleeping with Larry Crocket who is also her boss at the real estate. What were your thoughts about this aspect of the character?

COBB: You know her nickname was “Boom Boom” Bonnie, she was a good time girl! And I very much doubt that this was her first foray into sleeping around. She was a good time girl, and that’s how she was and who she was and that is how she presented herself. She did whatever felt good. I had no thoughts at the time of political correctness, I mean that was her character, that’s who she was. She was so much fun to play because that role and several others to follow that came around in that period of my career, was very different from what I had been playing. In my early twenties I was always playing a little pregnant girl who was put upon and I could cry on cue, so I was always playing these sad, waif-like little girls. Then I did a play in Los Angeles and suddenly I was getting sexy parts, and some of them were good and some weren’t, but this here for SALEM’S LOT was so well written and so well directed do it was fun on several levels.


SHOCK: SALEM’S LOT is PEYTON PLACE or OUR TOWN with vampires. What are your thoughts on the idea of playing a small town woman? What were your first thoughts about a small town being plagued by a very ancient evil?

COBB: That is a great questions and very layered one. The small town aspect of the story is really fundamentally driven by the mentality of such towns – the gossip, the idea that everybody knows everything about everyone else. I mean everyone knew about my character and her affair with the real estate guy and her relationship with her own husband. That kind of thing is incredibly distinct for small towns – so that worked beautifully for SALEM’S LOT. And then you have the James Mason character of Straker coming into the town, and he is most certainly elegant and exotic and mysterious, so he stood out because he was the exact opposite of the community who belonged to a small provincial town. So when he arrives, he brings up a lot of concern for the others, because people fear the unknown and the different – yet again, more small town mentality that is so wonderfully used in SALEM’S LOT. It’s a great way to tell a story set in a small town and Stephen King just knows how to write characters, and he knows how to populate his small town of Salem’s Lot: there’s the good time girl, the real estate guy, there’s the hometown girl who’s more straight (Bonnie Bedelia as Susan Norton) – so it was just perfect. Stephen King is such a great writer. He knows how to write women so well. I just read his memoir ON WRITING and I just loved it. At the moment I’m writing memoirs myself and a friend put me onto his book, and not only is it brilliant in terms of tips on writing, but it’s his story – his childhood, his later years, his marriage, his alcoholism – I just loved it. I loved Stephen King more after reading that book. So reading his work has really helped in what I’m working on which is a memoir on my childhood and my early years.

SHOCK: What was the audition process like?

COBB: I auditioned for everything in those days. My agent submitted my audition request and at that time I was getting used to playing those sexy parts that would be perfect for Bonnie. So I auditioned for the casting director and she had me back, and then I performed for Tobe Hooper and the producer. And I don’t think I had to audition from beyond that.


SHOCK: Most of your scenes are shared with both Fred Willard and George Dzundza – what were these actors like to work with?

COBB: They’re both wonderful talents. I mean it was a fabulous cast all round. But yes, Fred and George were very different. Fred I still see around town, and he is a very successful comedian but also a very good under-player in that he played all the scenes straight faced in SALEM’S LOT and played it just under the surface, so it had this tension. I don’t know if he considers himself a “serious” actor, but it doesn’t matter, because what he does and what he did in SALEM’S LOT is brilliant. George on the other hand, took himself very seriously as an actor and he was very good. He was the real deal.

SHOCK: It’s interesting that both you and Fred Willard are cast in SALEM’S LOT – actors usually associated with comedy doing a horror film. It’s a very interesting choice. What are your thoughts on this?

COBB: Well, you know, at the time I was working the most I wasn’t doing much comedy. I was doing theatre in Los Angeles and TV drama, so I was much more of a “serious” actress who would be doing this heavy dramatic work. But because careers go into phases I got into comedy later, and of course this was after SALEM’S LOT. After doing that incredibly dramatic piece, I went on to work on sitcoms such as CHARLES IN CHARGE and many other shows and movies. I was very fortunate because I really got to run the gamut from straight drama to comedy and had work with Universal as a contract player. I mean the original STAR TREK provided me with my first job! I am so happy to know that I did so much in regards to a broad range of things which is something you can only really respect in retrospect. I think when you’re living your life – and especially in this industry – you don’t appreciate much until later on, when you can look back and take it all in. I mean it’s a hard industry, there is always someone prettier than you, thinner than you, more blonde or sexier, so as an actress especially in my day, you never felt great – you were always worried about the next job so you could afford to eat. I mean, it was tough. But you worked hard and you did your job and in the long run it is all worth it. Now I look back and I think “Wow! How fabulous! What a career I’ve had!”

SHOCK: The miniseries boasts some incredible Golden Age talent such as Marie Windsor, Lew Ayres, Elisha Cook Jr. and of course James Mason. Although you don’t share scenes with these actors, do you remember them fondly? Are there any stories in regards to these wonderful people?

COBB: I didn’t have scenes with them but I was always around when James Mason was working. I mean James Mason was simply terminally charming. He was the most erudite, cultured, sophisticated, handsome, elegant and graceful man and he was a wonderful actor! My goodness it was a treat to work with him – and although I didn’t share any scenes with him, it was beautiful to be around him.

SHOCK: There were also many great stars of the 70s who would become staples of the decade – such as Geoffrey Lewis, Bonnie Bedelia, David Soul, Lance Kerwin – what do you remember of some of these actors?

COBB: Bonnie Bedelia was very intense. She was very serious and she was very committed. She’s a brilliant actress, and even though, once again I didn’t share any scenes with her, I got to watch her work and she was just truly dedicated to this piece. She was incredible to watch. David Soul was good, but it was because Tobe Hooper was such a great director. One of my fondest memories of either working on just being on set was the fact that everyone that Tobe directed was completely committed, I mean we all knew what he wanted. He simply bought out the best in all these actors. Geoffrey Lewis and I worked years later and I loved him, I miss him dearly. He was just terrific.


SHOCK: What was your working relationship with director Tobe Hooper like? What was something you treasure most about his directing method?

COBB: SALEM’S LOT came before his real status as a horror movie director, so I didn’t come into it from the perspective of “this man is a horror legend and has made something as important as THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE”, I just thought he was incredibly smart, easy going, he had a great sense of humor, he was an amazingly attractive guy and he was so good with actors. I trusted him. And in those scenes where I’m walloped by my husband and caught in bed with Fred Willard, I felt exposed and he nurtured me and worked me through it. I sadly never worked with him again, and I probably only ever saw him at the screening. I loved him a lot.

SHOCK: Most of your scenes are interior shoots – where were these filmed?

COBB: We were on location. As I recall we flew to Eureka in Northern California, which would border Washington. It was a little town and we stayed in a hotel inn, and I think the interiors were on location, so real life houses.

SHOCK:Do you recall having a say in how Bonnie should look?

COBB: No I didn’t have a say. I was so shy and self-conscious about the way I would look in those hot pants and tight tops, because I was normally more modest. So high heels and tight shorts were not me. It wasn’t that I was worried about it, but it was not the real me, but that’s the beauty of acting – you get to take on a character and do things and wear things that you normally wouldn’t. So in many ways it was very freeing playing Bonnie. Also, my natural hair color was very, very dark brunette, almost black, so they lightened my hair and I was willing to have them bleach it, and they did, I never asked for a wig. And it was all part of the fun in playing Bonnie!

SHOCK: There is that great one slow zoom in shot of you on the phone with Larry (Fred Willard) – do you remember shooting this scene?

COBB: I remember flirting and twirling the phone wire, but I don’t recall if it was done in one take or anything. I remembered the scene more so because you had posted it on Facebook, so it bought back the memory of that sequence, but I will have to re-watch the movie to tell you more about that!

SHOCK: What was it like shooting the scene where Cully comes in and catches you and Larry in bed?

COBB: I remember that we were clothed and Tobe Hooper didn’t want Fred and I to be too kissy with each other but what made it scary was George! He was terrifying. When he bursts in with that rifle, he was scary! Everyone was so good in their part. And I mean, I went in there with a total history on the character of Bonnie in that she would be that type of lady who wouldn’t have that be the first time she copped a black eye.



SHOCK: Were you on set at all to see any of the vampire action – the child vampires, Clarissa Kaye’s scene, or anything with Reggie Nalder?

COBB: No. Sadly not. And that is why when we showed up for the screening, it was so thrilling and terrifying! No one had seen the film cut together, I mean you think you know, we were like “Oh yes, it’s about vampires and this happens and that happens…” but we were not prepared! We were screaming and just having a fantastic time! I mean there are so many great sequences, like that scene with the little boy in the window tapping on the glass. Just so great.

SHOCK: Why do you feel SALEM’S LOT holds such a special place in people’s hearts? What is it about the piece that you think has such a lasting legacy?

COBB: Well I think a lot of that has to go back to Stephen King. If something is so brilliantly executed and wonderfully directed, and the director has the right actors in the right roles and the means and the budget and the studio’s support, than it would be great. I mean look at Stephen King as a writer. What he is able to do is bring to life these very real characters and then have this horror come in and ruin these people. There is something so profoundly effective in the way he creates these people and this small town and sets up these vividly scary situations for them to go through. It has to be real for people. It’s not just simple shock value. And that doesn’t get old. Talking about it gives me chills. If it is grounded in reality then the horror is more palpable. You see those crates arriving and you don’t know what’s in it, but you know that it is not going to be good. King and Tobe Hooper know what they’re doing, there was nothing over the top or sensational about it. Suddenly you’re in a world where “Holy shit! This is happening!”

SHOCK: Finally, you’re the daughter of the wonderful actor Lee J. Cobb who was in so many fantastic movies including THE THREE FACES OF EVE, 12 ANGRY MEN, ON THE WATERFRONT, THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING and of course THE EXORCIST, what is some of the best advice he ever gave you as a young actress?

COBB: We did an episode of GUNSMOKE before he died which was such a beautiful piece of work. And it was an honor to work with him. I remember some wonderful advice from him when I started doing bit parts here and there, he advised me that most young actors try to make too much and that if they have less to do, they try and make it count. And he said “Don’t do that.” And that was great advice, because what he meant was that whatever part you’re playing, however big or small, it needs to remain realistic to what the character is doing, feeling, thinking or saying. So never over do it just because the part is tiny. My father had a wonderful sense of humor, I mean he was a brilliant dramatic actor, but he was also incredibly wacky. I mean, when we did GUNSMOKE he dies in my arms, and I was like “Oh my God!”, it was so beautiful and moving. We would go to CBS in the morning and he taught by example. He never talked about his work or technique, he never believed in acting classes even though I did, but he learned by example. Both he and my mother were amazingly talented and giving actors.