Elisabeth Brooks: Sexy She Wolf

Elisabeth was born on July 2, 1951 in Toronto, Ontario and adopted by William Harrison “Sandy” Luyties Jr. (1927-1996) and his wife Joan (née Brooks; 1935-2010) when she was 6 months old.

Out on the west coast, Elisabeth balanced her career goals with fostering her infant son. While waitressing at both L.A.’s Roxy Club and the then exclusive upstairs affixture On the Rox, she became acquainted with Hollywood high-rollers, including Warren Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton and Jack Nicholson (with whom she claims to have had a wild six-month relationship). While working an onset babysitting assignment, she was discovered by the actor Don “Red” Barry. It was never clear to me what specific contribution he made, but shortly after her introduction to the actor, she made her television debut in an episode of the NBC series, EMERGENCY (1972-1977).

Elisabeth subsequently earned prime time visibility from guest appearances on hits like Starsky and Hutch and made the telefilm Heart to Heart. Brooks also made the rounds at Universal Studios, appearing on The Rockford Files, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and even The Night Stalker. She played a nurse’s aide on the episode, “The Spanish Moss Murders.”

She tells of her first role in a Universal movie: a small bit in Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976). “I had a very small part,” she admits, “and when I first got on the set, I overheard the make-up man and wardrobe people and crew talking about how he [Hitchcock] had not talked to anyone in two weeks. He just wasn’t a friendly person to the crew. He wasn’t rude to them, he just didn’t talk to them. He didn’t spend much time talking to anyone. He didn’t care to get into conversations with actors so he had an Assistant Director give all the directions.

“When I started to do my two lines, he sent the AD over to the guy I was working with to give him some directions and the AD came to me and said, ‘Mr. Hitchcock suggests…’ and way in the corner I hear this booming voice saying, ‘Young lady…’ and he started talking to me and I got very nervous and I was the talk of the set because I was the first actress he had directed on the film directly. I felt really impressed

“And of course the first few times I screwed up. I got him to laugh. I was very nervous and I dropped my purse right in the middle of everything and he started laughing and I said, ‘I’m sorry…’ and he said, “That’s all right, that’s all right.’ This was just a small start.”

For nine months, Brooks lived in New York and played an ex-alcoholic country singer on the soap opera, Days of Our Lives. It also brought Brooks her first fan mail. “She was kind of a spaced-out character,” ‘Brooks says with a laugh. “She wasn’t too sure what was wrong, what was right and what she was going to do next. She ran off to be a rock and roll star.” It was on that show that Brooks began singing, and writing her own music and lyrics. “During the show I opened my own publishing company and I did a couple of my songs on the show. The part I played was not a good singer and so it was easy,” she chuckles. She is now taking lessons and is planning on performing when ready.

Elisabeth was best known for her role as Marsha. the tempestuous werewolf in Joe Dante’s cult classic, THE HOWLING (1981). Brooks had never heard of the novel, The Howling, but she received a call at home, telling her Avco Embassy was making the movie and they wanted her to come in and read for a part. “I went in and I was given a script and I read it and came back. I did a scene for the producer, Mike Finnell, and the director, Joe Dante, and came back again and did another scene, or the same scene for the executive producers, Daniel Blatt and Steven Lane. And then I had to come back with a long, dark wig on.” Brooks was wearing short, blondish hair at the time.

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Marsha is described in the film as “elemental” with vast untapped powers. She’s also a seductress, who has little use for men and even less use for women. She’s accused of taking men and bending them to her will for whatever purpose she chooses and no one can understand her motives.

“I was told not to read the novel,” Brooks explains. Marsha may be one of the few elements to remain similar to the book’s depiction. Marsha Quist is also the toughest role Brooks has undertaken. She describes Marsha as an animal. “And in being an animal, she has no compassion or desire to be associated with human beings. She has very definite points of view on the human race and being an animal, she finds them extremely threatening to her unless she can control them. And she does control the humans.” To her, it was an extremely challenging role and she feels she accomplished what she set out to do: create a complex character and make her believable.

What disappoints her is the final cut of the film. She describes working with Director Dante as being very easy. “We really didn’t have any trouble until I saw the film–and then we really didn’t have any trouble. I had a meeting with him to voice my complaints, I felt he didn’t leave enough substance to my character. He just centered on the sexually stimulating parts of her which are fine. Those are just actor’s and director’s opinions. He had to make his movie work. That’s the way he said he could make the movie work. I am upset as an actress because I worked very hard on developing a character that I spent a lot of time and energy trying to develop. It’s a little disheartening when you work so hard on something and you see so little of it up there except something that you were told wouldn’t be the substance of the character and all of a sudden that’s the substance and everything else you worked on isn’t there anymore. I know how much was not left in and I’m a little upset but it’s ok,” she says.

“For Marsha,” Brooks continues after taking a breath, “I was told to think of a cat. A very sexual, soft and feminine cat but very dignified. The type of thing a cat is. A cat gets it victims through sex-they have a very sexual outlook. I think a lot of that was left out of the film. A lot of the power was left out. The power that was left in was sexual power. So that’s ok. Joe and I had many talks about it but by the time I found out about the cuts, it was too late to go back and change anything.”

Part of the sexual nature of Marsha is also very visual since Brooks had to do a scene with full frontal nudity. “It was freezing,” she remembers. “It was done very late at night and it was extremely cold. We did it very quickly. It was my first such experience and hopefully one of my last.”

What made the love scene so difficult was not just the cold. Both Brooks and Christopher Stone had to go through partial transformation into werewolves while supposedly making love. Both wore fangs in their mouths that slid into place when wires were tripped with their tongues.

Thinking about Marsha, the young actress goes on to discuss her, “In the film and the character and the script I read, my character had a lot of substance and credibility to it. And this person I played had a lot of dimension that in the actual cut of the film, I feel, has been diminished. I think The Howling is a cartoon brought to life. In looking at it as a cartoon, my character is a cartoon character, totally different from me as a person. I think it will be a very, very big hit.

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“It is fun and it doesn’t gross you out. They didn’t put a lot of traditional horror elements in it, yet it encompasses all of it. I’ve heard it’s almost a classic type of film. I think it will reach for more than the horror audience. Everyone has a good time.”

She was very vocal in her objections to scenes that required full-frontal nudity. “I was signed to do the movie on my acting ability alone. I was told the sex shots would be smoke screened by a bonfire and that you wouldn’t be able to see anything.” Playboy published the nude footage, without Elisabeth’s approval, in the magazine’s annual “Sex in the Cinema” retrospect. With no heat waves nor smoke, she disrobed near the embers of a modest blaze. Elisabeth was further quoted, “In the past, I’ve always refused to do nude magazine work because I believe in the Bible and have morals.” Elisabeth later told me that she had a reputation to consider as a single mom; she was referring to Jeremy, who was seven years old when THE HOWLING was released. Elisabeth refused to marry the boy’s father.

To make Marsha come alive, and turn into a carnal werewolf, Rob Bottin worked with her. Brooks says of him, “He’s a sweetheart, really easy to work with. They put a mask on my face when I turn into a werewolf. My face gets all distorted. They put a plaster cast over your whole face and it’s a total freak-out, totally blows you away because you can’t breathe. The whole time I was there, knowing Rob was there … he never stops talking, never. He has a soothing voice and you get comfortable and you don’t get scared. Anytime I started to get scared, he would sense it and he’d say, ‘It’s ok Elisabeth, sit still … He explains every step that he is doing so you know what’s going on. He’s fabulous to work with and he’s like that with everyone.”

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While THE HOWLING cleaned-up at the box office, Elisabeth required a hysterectomy to recover from PID (pelvic inflammatory disease). The illness was one reason that she backed-out of THE HOWLING II, though initially agreed to do the sequel. But there was another reason. Friend Kristy McNichol, an actress formerly tied to a popular TV series (FAMILY, 1976-1980), had wielded some influence on HOWLING II’s failed salary negotiations.

Elisabeth said she had met Kristy while babysitting on movie sets. They actually performed together in a movie aptly titled THE FORGOTTEN ONE (1990). It was reported in the Star tabloid (Dec. 1994) that McNichol, upon learning about Brooks’ diagnosed cancer, “ran to her side.” Their relationship, while sometimes tumultuous, was very close.  After a 33-month struggle with brain cancer, Brooks died in Haven Hospice near her home in Palm Springs, California at the age of 46.

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