Cannon Films Actress Robin Sherwood Talks Cult-Stardom, Fame, And Ending Up In Yonkers
From acting, business owning, and living in Westchester, Robin “Scream Queen” Sherwood tells all.
Sherwood with Charles Bronson and his wife, Jill Ireland, in 1982.
It’s impossible to pigeonhole Yonkers resident Robin Sherwood. Over the past 40 years, she’s been a successful model, actress, restaurateur, and small business owner. But she’s perhaps best known by one title: scream queen. Between 1975 and 1982, the Miami native appeared in a series of action and horror films. During a different era, these movies might’ve been quickly forgotten. But during the early days of cable and home video, they played repeatedly on late-night TV and were rented thousands of times by teens looking for a Saturday-night scare. 1979’s Tourist Trap, in which a group of attractive young people find themselves at the mercy of a masked madman and his army of killer mannequins, proved especially popular. Stephen King, arguably America’s foremost authority on horror, even praised its “eerie, spooky power.”
When the kids who gobbled up Sherwood’s movies came of age, they made sure to pay her tribute, even though she’d been out of show business for decades. In 2009, she appeared at New Jersey’s Chiller Theatre Expo, a semiannual convention that allows fans to meet and greet their idols. Three years later, she appeared Off-Off-Broadway in Fear-Mongers, a series of live, on-stage “fireside chats” about horror films.
Sherwood with her father, Wolfie Cohen, at Cannes in 1975
The sudden interest in her early work caught Sherwood off-guard. “When Chiller Theatre asked me to appear, I told them, ‘You’re joking,’” she says. “I had no idea I even had fans. But they’re amazing—they’re incredibly friendly, and it’s cool to interact with them. Some of them knew everything about me!”
This year, Sherwood made her return to the big screen in the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, executive produced by Rush Hour director Brett Ratner. In case you’re unfamiliar with movies like American Ninja and Hot Resort, Cannon Films was to ’80s schlock what MGM was to classic musicals—although its output included the occasional prestige picture, like A Cry in the Dark with Meryl Streep.
In September, Electric Boogaloo received enthusiastic receptions at both the Toronto International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. In the documentary, Sherwood appears alongside fellow Cannon vets Molly Ringwald and Franco Zeffirelli as she discusses the role that briefly made her world-famous: Carol Kersey, Paul Kersey’s (Charles Bronson) mute, traumatized daughter in 1982’s ultraviolent Death Wish II. Says producer Veronica Fury, “Robin plays a key role in highlighting the extreme lengths Cannon went to work with key directors, like [Michael] Winner, and A-list stars like Bronson.”
By no means is Death Wish II a great movie. But Sherwood’s performance is a breath of fresh air. Even though she doesn’t have a single line of dialogue, her presence adds emotional depth to what’s otherwise a wall-to-wall bloodbath. By the time she took the part, she’d taken classes at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and studied with legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg. As a result, her mastery of the craft shows in every frame.
“I stayed in character throughout the entire shoot—in fact, I didn’t verbally communicate with anyone for weeks,” Sherwood recalls. “It took me a full month afterward to revert to my regular personality.” Looking much plainer than she does in her earlier work—she says director Michael Winner “wouldn’t let the makeup artists near me”—she relied on her dance training to convey her character’s fragility. “Dance made me a physical actor,” she says. “A great dancer can evoke any emotion by moving one little finger.”
After Death Wish II and a small role in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), Sherwood’s star was on the rise. Bronson’s massive, international fame made her a recognizable face on screens across the globe. So she took a risk: She left Hollywood and moved to France. Her ultimate goal was to work with auteurs she’d always admired, like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.
“I was in demand in Europe and wanted to expand my career,” she recalls. “I also had a brother living [in Paris] and had spent my summers there since I was 11 years old.” Unfortunately, the gamble didn’t pay off. Although a romantic relationship with the head of Paramount’s French distribution network enabled her to meet the leading lights of European cinema, she found few roles available for American actresses.
But soon, a new opportunity presented itself—albeit not in a happy way. Sherwood’s father, famed Miami restaurateur Wolfie Cohen, passed away in 1986. So she decided to head home and take over Wolfie’s Rascal House, which had been a South Florida institution for decades.
Sherwood says she felt an obligation to preserve her father’s legacy. “My father strongly helped and supported me in every aspect of my career,” Sherwood recalls. “It was time for me to repay his loyalty and love.”
“I learned how to run the restaurant at the dinner table listening to my father talk,” she says. “I had an enormous knowledge of the business, both learned and intuitive.” But even so, Sherwood found her new responsibility intimidating. “The decisions I made could affect whether or not my employees could put their kids through college,” she says.
Sherwood immersed herself in management guides like What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, and quickly became a take-charge leader. “The acting community is similar to the restaurant community—they’re both very close-knit and competitive,” she says. “I learned that the intense energy of the relationships between myself and my employees—even though they could be difficult—is the thing that makes businesses go.”
“In truth, I would have preferred to have been acting, and I was resentful at times,” she says. “But I really liked [being a restaurant owner]. Leadership is fun, and earning people’s respect through hard work is a wonderful feeling.”
Sherwood kept the Rascal House thriving until 1996, when she sold it. At that point, she says, “I’d never lived in the country, so I decided to buy an apple farm in [Pennsylvania’s] Brandywine Valley.” Because the 11-acre property looked like “a freckle on the map,” she named it Frecklefarm.
Drawing on her restaurant experience—as well as the knowledge of antiques, fine art, and jewelry she picked up during a brief stint working at Sotheby’s in Los Angeles—Sherwood started another business. Named after her farm, the Frecklefarm catalog sold one-of-a-kind home and fashion accessories. And once again, Sherwood was successful. Before she stopped producing it in 2007, it was featured in Country Living and reached more than 25 million homes.
Today, Sherwood lives a quiet life on the Yonkers riverfront. She says Westchester suits her perfectly. “I had originally relocated to New York City from Pennsylvania, but I missed living in the country because I love to ride in open fields and see the fawns jumping,” she says. “Westchester has it all: a charming countryside and an express train that goes to Grand Central station. To fit my lifestyle now, I will be buying a farmhouse and moving to the horse country of Northern Westchester in the next few years.”
Sherwood especially appreciates the generosity Westchester’s affluent residents show toward their less fortunate friends and neighbors. “I adore attending The Reformed Church of Bronxville’s Christmas pageant,” she says. “At the end, everyone brings beautifully wrapped gifts to the front of the church, [which] are then given to communities in need.”
Today, you might catch Sherwood shopping at The Westchester, buying toys for her cat at Provisions For Pets in Bronxville, or noshing at X2O. And if you’re a movie fan, you might run into her at a convention: Don’t be afraid to approach her. There is one aspect of the business she doesn’t like: the fact that she’s sometimes had to charge $20 for an autographed picture. “I’d rather talk to [fans] for free at appearances or through email,” Sherwood says, “and have them use the money to come see me perform onstage.”