Dr. Robin Cook Has An Rx for Success: a Brain in the Bookstores and a Beauty at Home

updated 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

'Learning to write a bestseller,' observes Cook, 'is like teaching yourself to wire a house'

Need a script doctor? Actress-model Barbara Mougin, 26, has one handy—and he's an M.D. as well. Husband Robin Cook, 40, writes best-sellers as easily as he once did prescriptions. In 1975 ophthalmologist Cook saw the light and began penning thrillers like Coma, Sphinx and the current sensation Brain (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $11.95). For the last three years he's also been on call when Barbara has needed advice, for instance when she landed the role of a physician on CBS' soap Love of Life.

Barbara, in turn, became Cook's model for the beautiful brunet radiology resident who is the heroine of Brain. Now, on the theory that two Cooks can make a fine broth of a movie, the couple aspire to collaborate on the screen version, with him directing and her as the star. That, says a friend, would be perfect casting: "He respects her desire for a career. She loves being part of his."

While Robin's new novel ("my best") is burning up the charts, a film adaptation of Sphinx starring Lesley-Anne Down as a young archeologist is playing in theaters. Alas, the curse of the pharaohs is on the box office. But Cook's reputation as a source of hot Hollywood properties is secure, thanks to the success of the screen version of Coma, which deals with a woman M.D. who discovers colleagues slicing organs out of unwitting patients for sale to transplant recipients. Cook blatantly exploits medical paranoia in a similar way in Brain. In it, unsuspecting women are given radioactive injections as scientists try to devise a computer with human intelligence.

It was the novel Coma that established Cook. At the time, he was a Boston surgeon, seeing 50 to 70 patients a week and clearing some $75,000 a year. Though the book and movie deal earned him $1 million, it was the film that really changed his life. After a sneak preview in Manhattan in 1978, the bachelor doctor met Barbara, a fledgling actress, while sharing a limo with friends. "She has this great smile," he recalls. "But in the darkness all I could really see was her teeth." Over dinner at the literati hangout Elaine's, he became smitten by the clean good looks which had made her Miss Indiana and first runner-up in the 1977 Miss America Pageant. "I never dreamed I'd meet someone who came so close to my ideal of the perfect girl," he says.

Soon the two began commuting between Cook's elegant, five-story brick townhouse on Boston's Beacon Hill and Barbara's one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's East Side. "Things went very fast," says Robin, a loner who was intrigued by Barbara's vivacity. "I like spirited women who are willing to experiment," he explains.

She was dazzled by the Renaissance man—doctor, writer, painter, skier, scuba diver, surfer and gourmet cook (he is part owner of the Landmark Inn in Quincy Market). "Robin helped me expand my horizons," Barbara observes. Early on, she dubbed him Superman.

Cook's Krypton was prosaic Leonia, N.J. His father was a commercial artist and his mother a housewife—but the driving force. At 4, he was modeling clothes and his name had been shortened from Robert Brian to Robin. He dreamed of being an archeologist. "I was fascinated by the ancient world," he recalls. He haunted the mummy rooms at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum and memorized the entire succession of pharaohs. But when he was 15, he witnessed an injury on the Leonia High gridiron and thereupon resolved to become a doctor.

He took premed at Connecticut's Wesleyan, then spent four years at Columbia's College of Physicians & Surgeons. During summers he worked in Monaco as a lab assistant to Jacques Cousteau, the underwater explorer-scientist. From early on, Cook regarded women as strictly "entertainment. The last thing I wanted was a relationship that would cause all sorts of problems." While working for Cousteau, however, he did romance a Scandinavian girl whom he eventually married in 1968. That union lasted only a few months. "It was more romantic than practical," he avers.

In 1969 Cook went to sea as a medical officer on a nuclear submarine. During his tour he discovered his knack for novel-making. In six weeks of writing on the sub he churned out The Year of the Intern, a rather sour tale of the harsh life led by doctors in training.

Though the book was a modest success—it earned him $50,000 when it appeared in 1972—Cook was disappointed. His dream was to write a commercial smash. So while practicing his specialty, he spent his spare time reading more than 200 best-sellers, simply to uncover the secrets of the mystery-thriller genre. The result was Coma, which was published in 1977 and stayed on the charts for about four months. "I can't think of anything more fearsome than hospitals," calculates Cook. "When people smell the alcohol and see the equipment, their pupils dilate. They go into a sweat. I need to evoke that atavistic fear of dying."

Cook began to write at a furious pace and tapped out Sphinx in 90 days. It stayed on the best-seller lists for seven weeks in 1979. Then came Brain, which he wrote last year in four and a half months. "Whenever possible, I write all day and into the evening," he says. To free himself to write, he has recently taken a leave of absence from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, a Harvard teaching hospital.

His literary efforts get sniped at by reviewers, who call Cook's characters woefully one-dimensional. Droned the New York Times after Brain appeared: "One looks forward with modified rapture to such possible sequels as Kidney [and] Gallbladder..." In fact, the title of Cook's next effort, due in 1982, will be Fever. The author shrugs at the criticism. He got a $1 million advance for Sphinx and Brain, another $3 million for paperback rights and yet another $1 million for the Sphinx movie rights. "I came from the back of the writing pack and won," he gloats. "It's the great American dream."

Barbara has realized a dream too. Her childhood in rural Bremen, Ind. (pop. 3,000) was "painful." When she was 12, her father walked out. "He made our life a nightmare," she says. Barbara's mother, Darlene, a 1950 state baton-twirling champion, married a local banker, John Mougin, who adopted Barbara and her three siblings. But Mougin died two years later, and that "wonderful" world collapsed.

Barbara, who calls herself "a survivor," set out "to be the best in something." But what? "I wasn't bookish," she admits. "I loved athletics, anything with movement." By 15, she had won an Indiana baton title and was starting to model. Imagining that someday she might be an entertainer like her idol Ann-Margret, she decided after graduating from Indiana University to enter the Miss America contest. She snared the Miss Indiana crown easily, triumphing in both the bathing suit and talent competitions (she choreographed a modern dance number). At Atlantic City, Barbara was just edged out by Miss Ohio.

She came away with $10,000, national exposure and a contract from CBS with the promise of a job as Phyllis George's replacement on NFL Today. That assignment never materialized, but the contract gave her the wherewithal to stay in New York and study at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio.

Then she met Robin. His career has come first since their 1979 wedding in Boston. He writes, and she reads his manuscripts. "I want people to understand the complex medical stuff," Cook says. "If she doesn't get it, the passage has to be reworked." Lately, Barbara has begun spending two days a week in New York for auditions and modeling assignments. But she insists, "There's no rivalry between us."

When the Cooks are together in Boston or at their condominium in New Hampshire, he brings her orange juice in bed; she tucks love notes in his pockets and shaving kit. Says Boston attorney Gerald McLellan: "They are a good match. Robin is a worldly person with intellectual pursuits. She has style and good Midwestern sense."

Robin describes the equation somewhat differently: "She's a social creature. I'm a recluse. We make each other do what we wouldn't otherwise, and we find we enjoy it."

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