The Amazing Harley Jane Kozak – From “Sorority” Sister to Mystery Maven. by Brian Kirst

As a child, I worshipped my Aunts. (I still do.) They were young, beautiful, smart, down-to-earth and talented. They were teachers, writers, lawyers, head RN nurses, concert pianists and linguists. They were amazing. (Still are.) Whenever I watched Harley Jane Kozak act, as a young adult, I got the same feeling I did when I was around my aunts. It felt like I was watching someone special -someone intelligent, quirky, loving, talented-as-hell and fun. Well, I have to tell you, the following interview proves that I was correct in that assumption. Kozak amazed me, throughout my teen years, with a variety of roles on several soap operas. Around that time she, also, appeared in one of my favorite slasher movies of all time – The House on Sorority Row. (Her experiences making this classic chiller are chronicled, in depth, below.) She may have endured “Death in Van At Night” in that scream fest, but went on to become one of T.V. Guide’s “Ones to Watch” in 1989 and, proved them correct, by going on to appear in such mainstream blockbusters as Parenthood, When Harry Met Sally and Horror-Comedy, Arachnophobia. (Many a recent college grad’s “Favorite Movie!” as a child.) After a steady career in films and television – including action flick, The Taking of Beverly Hills and Sci-Fi Thriller, Dark Planet - Kozak is, now, a successful mother and award winning mystery writer. She has proven to be one of the most talented, kind and self-deprecatingly clever women that I have had the pleasure of profiling. In fact, I wanted to subtitle this article “Hookers need Greeting Cards, too” after one of the amazing lines in her zany, well-written, comical mystery novel “Dating Dead Men”. I think it might have reflected her great sense of humor, but it wouldn’t have done her justice. After reading her interview, I’m sure that you’ll agree with me when I say that not much can.

  Brian: You’ve had such a distinguished career-which we will get into, presently. To start us off, though, would you mind giving us some background information? Where did you grow up and what were your early interests? Were you always creative?

Harley: I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the most part, after short stints in Pennsylvania and North Dakota. My mother used to say I was the busiest child she knew. I always had “projects” going: the drawing of the family Christmas card, the endless painting of horses, the telling of long-winded stories, the care and feeding of a variety of pets, the playing of many musical instruments (my mom was a music teacher.)

Brian: I’ve always assumed that you studied theater in college. Is that correct? Your performances have always been so natural and grounded- it’s like your characters, no matter how extreme their situations, are living and breathing in the room right next to us.

Harley: Yes, I did study theater, first at the University of Nebraska, for three semesters, and then at NYU’s graduate acting program. I suspect that “living and breathing in the room next to us” is a Nebraska thing. No matter how much I want to be exotic, I’m a Cornhusker at heart.

Brian: One of the reasons that I enjoy House on Sorority Row so much is because I find that the actresses playing the sorority sisters interact so well together- and that their characteristics are a bit more defined than most “victims” in Drive-in Slasher flicks of the 80’s. (I particularly enjoy the drunken toast scene, the pool-practical joke scene when Mrs. Slater dies and the kitchen scene after her body has gone missing.) Did you find that you bonded well with the other actresses, off-screen, – or was it all just good acting?

Harley: We bonded like cement! We were cast in New York and L.A., but shot the film in Pikesville, Maryland, and stayed together at a strange summer camp-type place called Koinonia, which pretty much mandated close friendships. For most of us, it was our first movie and it’s hard to overstate the euphoria we felt, just being there and acting under what would now seem like pretty grungy working conditions.

Brian: Your character, Diane, gets tossed into the green slimy pool where a lot of the suspenseful action takes place. Was the pool as grimy and disgusting as it looked? Also- who/or what was rolled into the pool when the sorority sisters pushed the corpse of Mrs. Slater into it? I’m assuming that it wasn’t her portrayer, Lois Kelso Hunt.

Harley: You assume correctly. Yes, the pool was grimy and disgusting, but the natural grime was augmented, I think, by stage grime, some kind of manufactured seaweed (or maybe they imported it; I don’t recall) artfully placed on our faces and bodies. And yes, Ms. Hunt, not quite the Jump First, Ask Questions Later actress we young things were, was not the corpse in the pool. That honor, if memory serves, was given to a young and no doubt unpaid production assistant, wearing a football helmet, wrapped in . . . whatever. I think his name was Alan. He was our mascot and hero.

Brian: Was your death scene spooky at all to play – or was it just another day at the office? (In fact, it looks like some of the bloodier stuff was inserted later, when you weren’t even on the set.) Also, you and the others got to reappear as ghouls in Kathryn’s hallucination- how fun was that?

Harley: Well, Death came to me in the middle of the night, and so it had some initial spookiness to it, but the trick was to keep making it spooky for myself as the night dragged on and on and on . . . And because this was, as I said, my first feature film, I had not yet developed the “another day at the office” mentality. It was all exciting. The only really creepy part was having to shoot an underwater scene that called for us to float, facing the camera, at different levels in the water, dead. They tried to get us to agree to be weighted down to keep us from bobbing back to the surface, but by then we’d learned not to count on anyone jumping in to rescue us, if they had to choose between saving our lives and getting the shot. Especially since we’d completed most of the principle photography and were now expendable. I think they ended up revising the script to accommodate our selfish desire to survive the film.

Brian: Finally! The last question about House! You, Eileen Davidson (most famously, and currently, on Young and the Restless, along with Days of Our Lives and Santa Barbara) and Kathryn McNeil (on As The World Turns) –all went on to have successful soap opera careers. Was that something you were ever able to bond over, at industry functions, for example, after the filming of House? Also, even though it is very rare for people to keep in touch after a creative project wraps up, do you know what any of the other Sorority women are doing presently?

Harley: Believe it or not, we never met up at any industry functions—soaps don’t intermingle much, especially if they’re on different networks. We did, however, keep in touch, we soap opera three—the other sisters, I believe, went on to happy lives as civilians. Kate and I would regularly meet at auditions, for years afterwards, and Eileen ended up marrying a guy in real life that I’d been married to on Santa Barbara. We last saw each other at a funeral.

Brian: You had some amazing soap roles – and plots. On Texas you were a geologist exploring an Indian burial ground/cave called Hi-to-pah, on Guiding Light you had crazy adventures with humpy Michael Wood’s character – including jumping off of a cliff with him, disguised in a nun’s outfit, and on Santa Barbara your poor put upon character was killed on the rooftop of a hotel by a huge, crashing neon letter “C”! (Those last two events will be forever engrained in my mind as two of my favorite scenes of high school viewing.) Do you have a favorite daytime role or plotline? (In fact, if I recall correctly, you actually performed the cliff-jumping stunt!)

Harley: Yes, I did jump off that cliff, which was pretty wimpy as stunts go, but pushed the outer limits of my physical courage. Thanks for noticing! A favorite storyline of mine was when Tony Reardon on Guiding Light first fell in love with Annabelle Sims, my character, from afar, but couldn’t understand why. I’d pop up in strange places, we’d exchange fleeting glances, and then by the time he’d cross the street, I’d be gone. And every time he spotted me, they’d play someone’s version of “It Had to Be You” (there are a lot of versions of that song.) It wasn’t as dramatic as being crushed to death by the letter “C” or having a haunted house that led to me running around sugar cane fields in Barbados with a gorgeous brother-in-law, chased by assassins, but it was so subtle and romantic . . .

Brian: Was Pam Long – actress, writer and producer of Texas and Guiding Light - an inspiration to you?

Harley: Absolutely. There’s something irresistible about people reinventing themselves and for Pam, who was such a compelling actress, to turn herself into a writer and producer—that was wild. At the time, I didn’t understand why it fascinated me so much, as I was still in my full-out acting mode. But in my late 20’s, a series of events—the deaths, from AIDS, of my closest friends—woke me up to the fact that there might be more to life than the next audition. I became interested in what “regular” people did for a living and what made actors in particular turn to other things. As time went on, the path Pam took became increasingly appealing to me.

Brian: After the soaps, you went on to appear in action film The Taking of Beverly Hills and then major projects such as When Harry Met Sally and Parenthood. While, I’m assuming that the latter two were, both, good experiences, you were much more present in Parenthood. Were you ever called out for your “stress relief” monologue in public? And- were you just in actor’s heaven throughout the entire project? (I mean Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Jason Robards, Helen Shaw, and Tom Hulce!!! Wow!)

Harley: And don’t forget Keanu Reeves. Unlike the arduous audition process for When Harry Met Sally (more callbacks than lines, in my case), the audition for Parenthood was so low-key, I couldn’t believe I got the job. It was only later that I found out from my agent who my co-stars were. I remember yelling over the phone, “I’m the only nobody in the movie!” When I heard that Jason Robards would be my father, I burst into tears. It was all just too much. I spent the first two weeks on the set convinced they were saying, “which of these actors is not like the others?” and preparing to fire me. I’d call my best friend Dan back in Lincoln to talk me down off the ledge. Also, Rick Moranis took me under his wing and got me through that early period, just by being the kindest human being on the planet. But no, people don’t ask me about the blow job monologue much. I can’t imagine why.

Brian: In Arachnophobia, there is the scene where you and your family exit the house, while spiders scoot up and down the walls and floors. Were you “creeped” out about working with the spiders? You, also, have a scene, earlier in the film, where you deposit a spider in the family barn. Was it hard to get the spider in question to cooperate when its time to drop out of the towel in your hand arrived?

Harley: I’m okay with spiders. Now rodents—that’s another story. We had spider tutorials with the spider handler and learned that for the most part, spiders are our friends. Plus, a lot of those spiders were plastic or animated and the real ones were kept on a short leash, as it were, by their entourage. The problem with acting with arachnids is that they get cold very quickly (like me) and when that happens they just curl up and refuse to move, say their lines, hit their mark (unlike me.) So they had to be coaxed with blow dryers on “hot” to act at all - Very temperamental.

Brian: You share a neat two-person scene with John Goodman, at his wackiest, as the exterminator. Do you have any memories of that scene or of working with Goodman?

Harley: Just that I adored him. He’s a very funny (big surprise) guy, and one with a heart of gold.

Brian: You appeared in the comedies Necessary Roughness (which I really kind of enjoyed) and The Favor. In both, your characters lust after former high school crushes, but in The Favor, you get to perform a 91/2 Weeks style seduction, plot and plan with jealous fervor, have a nervous breakdown in bed, fall asleep on a washing machine after taking Valium and saunter across a fish gut strewn deck looking unbelievably sexy in a hot red dress – an actress’s dream role, I would think. Do you have any favorite memories from making that film?

Harley: Yes: Bill Pullman, Brad Pitt, Ken Wahl. And Elizabeth McGovern to share them with.

Brian: In Sci-Fi thriller, Dark Planet, you play a traumatized, in control commander of a space fleet. A nice change of pace for you, I would assume. (I, also, love the short sleek “do” you sport!) Any memories of shooting the intense reaction shots as Michael York’s crazed captain tortures your character? Craziness!!

Harley: Yes. My husband, bless his heart, has a fondness for all my worst screen moments, and that scene is one of his top picks (along with the reaction shot of me in a TV movie called A Friend’s Betrayal, when I discover that Sharon Lawrence is sleeping with my teenage son, Brian Austin Green.) God knows what I was thinking as I produced those tormented screams. Shooting that movie in 18 days, maybe?

Brian: What was the transition from acting to writing like? Was writing something that you always wanted to do? Would you like to return to acting someday?

Harley: The transition was gradual. I’d been writing for years, as a sort of hobby, a way to use my creative energy when I was between jobs, or when I was doing acting work that didn’t use up a lot of brain cells. Then I began to notice that my writing was becoming more interesting to me than the characters I was playing, more serious and ongoing, and then I got pregnant, and then did it again, having three children in two years, which puts a damper on acting work, and in that period I sold two books, so there you go. I do think about acting, but so far the scheduling has proved an impossible obstacle, as my book contracts and promotional activities keep me busy full-time, as does being a mom to children ages 5, 3, and 3.

Brian: Finally, another tri-fold question: Where do you get the ideas for your novels? What are you working on currently – and where can those interested fans get your books?

Harley: My ideas come from my life, from my friends’ lives, from articles in the newspaper, from things I hear on National Public Radio, from the ozone . . . I’m currently working on Book #3 in my series, working titled Dead Ex. My first two books, Dating Dead Men and Dating is Murder are available at bookstores, libraries, all the usual places, but if you can’t find them, call up my favorite local hangout, The Mystery Bookstore ( at 310 209- 0415 and they’ll happily send them to you.