On singing for her supper.
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Evan Smith: This summer you performed for several nights at the Blue Note jazz club, in New York. It’s easy for all of us out here in the world who’ve seen you act for so many years in TV shows and movies and plays to forget that you’re first and foremost a singer. And you’ve been one since you were a kid growing up in Fort Worth.
Betty Buckley: Oh, yeah. My two great loves are music and horses. My mother had been a singer and dancer but gave that up when she married my father. My aunt was a dance teacher, so I studied dance with her when I was three. I first started singing when I was two, in church. In elementary school I sang in the Methodist church choir and in the all-city chorus. I remember them putting me on the back row and telling me to blend in because I was so loud. And then, when I was eleven, my mom took me to Casa Mañana [the legendary Fort Worth theater]. I saw what musical theater was, and I was like, “There’s a place for me.”
ES: Was there any doubt in your mind back then that this was going to be your chosen path?
BB: When I was eleven and saw the Bob Fosse number “Steam Heat” in The Pajama Game, I had an epiphany. I didn’t know it was an epiphany at the time, but that’s what it was—a clarity of consciousness informing me that this is what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life.
ES: And your parents were supportive?
BB: My mom was. She’d take me around to these different talent shows, and she’d sneak me out of the house for my dance lessons, because my father was very opposed to it.
ES: Why’s that?
BB: He was from South Dakota. My theory is that in South Dakota, performers were like dance hall girls, you know? That was the only exposure he’d had to it, so he really thought it was not a good profession; a woman’s place was to be married and in the home and to have children. He also stressed education. My grades always had to be really good. He thought [show business] was a poor use of my mind. He felt that it was a superficial profession. He was the only person in town who didn’t want me to do it. Everybody else was supportive of my talent and wanted me to have the opportunity to go to New York. There would be great fights between my parents about this, but my mom won.
ES: Didn’t he have a point, though, about the superficiality of show business?
BB: Yeah. There is a lot of superficiality and vanity and narcissism and meanness in show business. I guess it’s like any other business. There are really wonderful people and really harsh people. But years later, while I was on a hiatus from Eight Is Enough, he came to see me in Los Angeles in a production of Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road. He came backstage afterward and was very moved by it. He said, “I was always concerned about you wasting your intelligence, and I can see now that you’re using your best intelligence in what you’re offering people.” He said, “I think you’re doing a good job.”
ES: That must have meant a lot to you.
BB: It really did. The other time he came backstage was at my first concert at Carnegie Hall, a benefit with Ray Charles and Marvin Hamlisch. He said, “World-class, Betty Lynn. World-class.” That was also a big moment in my life. He was kind of a gruff guy. I was told after he died that he was proud of me, but he had a hard time letting me know.
ES: And to think, you got there despite spending all that time as a performer at Six Flags Over Texas.
BB: At sixteen, I was in the Campus Review at Six Flags. I forget how many shows we did a week. The summer I was seventeen, I sang in the Crazy Horse Saloon at Six Flags. My job was to take a little kid up onstage with me and sing “You Make Me Feel So Young.” We did seven or eight shows a day. One day a week we’d take off, so there was another group—they did our shows when we were off, and we did their shows when they were off, meaning we’d do fourteen shows [that day]. That was insane.
ES: Let’s be honest: The roller coaster audience is not exactly a theater audience.
BB: Actually, it was fun. It was like learning to perform in a cabaret: They’re in and they’re out.
ES: Then you went off to Texas Christian University?
BB: I was at TCU by that time. I had graduated high school when I was sixteen and went to TCU when I was seventeen.
ES: What possessed you to enter the Miss Fort Worth pageant?
BB: I was recruited. It went against my grain. I was a charter subscriber to Ms. magazine, and I was very much a feminist. Especially because of my father’s take on life.
ES: He put you on the other side of the line.
BB: Yes. He was very, very strict—unnecessarily so. So of course I became a feminist, and I still am. I resented the inequity of things.
ES: And yet you were still able to enter this pageant.
BB: It was uncomfortable for me, because I never thought of myself as a pretty girl. I thought of myself as a good performer, a good singer, but I didn’t identify myself as a great beauty. I didn’t like the swimsuit competition. I loathed the idea of standing on a stage and having people compare me to other girls. It was horrible. I used to cry whenever we’d walk out the door for whatever the events were after I’d won Miss Fort Worth. And then entering the Miss Texas pageant was such a drag. My mother would literally say, “Shake it off and get out there,” so I’d shake it off. I’d paste a smile on my face and behave properly. My whole young life was about behaving as people expected me to. And it was rough. The legacy they hand you as an all-American girl is tough and rather phony.
ES: You have a lot to live up to.
BB: But it was a good experience for me, because it got me the attention of the producer of the Miss America pageant, who thought I was going to win Miss Texas and that I would be the next Miss America. That didn’t work out.
ES: Hey, you were runner-up, which is still pretty good. Obviously that fake smile was pasted on effectively.
BB: He was disappointed when I didn’t win. So the following year, he kind of threw all the rules aside and flew me to Atlantic City to meet the Miss America board of directors, because he wanted me to be a guest entertainer at the pageant that fall. I was one of the four girls who sing and dance and help tie the theme of the show together. I was the first pageant winner who hadn’t won a state title who was invited to the Miss America pageant. As a result of being on the telecast, these agents saw me and called me and asked me to fly to New York and audition for them. I did that, and they signed me immediately. That was pretty cool. So I was signed by an agent at the beginning of my senior year, and then I went back and finished college.
ES: Excellent priorities.
BB: Right after I graduated from TCU, I went with Miss America, Debra Barnes, and a group of former state pageant winners on a USO tour to Korea and Japan. We were supposed to go to Vietnam, but some performers were killed right before we went, so it became a trip to all the base hospitals in Japan where all the wounded soldiers were and then on to all of the military bases in South Korea. I was 21. Debra, who was a pianist, was also 21. We were the two oldest girls, and we were taken into all the intensive-care units to meet these young soldiers. It was an eye-opening and sobering and life-forming experience for me. My father had been an Air Force lieutenant colonel and was always an adamant hawk; he completely believed in these things. When I came back, I was a real child of the sixties. Especially after I saw the results of war firsthand, I was like, “Wait a minute. This is bullshit.” And then I didn’t want to pursue anything. I didn’t want to go to New York, because I was depressed by what I had seen.
ES: So what did you do?
BB: I had worked at the Fort Worth Press during college. I did all kinds of stuff—I was the teen editor, the rodeo reporter; I did sports; I did the women’s page; I did news. So I took a job there. Then this agent from New York called to say he had a B. F. Goodrich industrial show coming through Dallas—he invited my mother and me to see it. And they got me up onstage and had me sing kind of spontaneously. The audience went crazy, so they said, “This is great. We’re just going to hire her to pretend she’s a local girl in every city that we go to.” I did it on the weekends. They paid me a lot of money! We went to Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, and Pennsylvania.
When we got to Pennsylvania, the last stop, the agent said, “I’ve got this other industrial show in New York for six weeks. You’ll just come to New York and try it out. If things don’t go well, you can go home.” Again, they were paying me a lot of money, so I couldn’t ignore it. And the paper was like, “Yeah, we’ll hold your job for you—just go!” I got on a train to New York from Pennsylvania and checked into the Barbizon Hotel for Women, and I called the agent. And he said, “You have an audition in fifteen minutes with the American Theater Laboratory downtown. Take your music and go.” And when I got down there, it turned out to be the last day of auditions for the musical 1776. The next morning they offered me a role, and I was in a Broadway show.
ES: And from there you’re launched.
BB: I did that for seven months and then I got Promises, Promises in London. I had an incredible year away.
ES: You’re how old at this point?
BB: Twenty-two, and I was without any real survival skills because I’d been sheltered. When I returned to New York, I went back into 1776 for a while, did an Off-Broadway show after that, started studying acting pretty intensely, and then I did Pippin. I did Pippin for a really long time to pay for my acting classes and my therapy, and from that show I got the film Carrie.
ES: I like the fact that you just dropped “my therapy” right in the middle of that sentence.
BB: Yeah, well, I needed major therapy having come from the background I did. I was conflicted about my right to do what I do—you know, to go ahead and be cool with myself and want what I wanted instead of living life the way I was told I was supposed to.
ES: How did you go from Carrie to Eight Is Enough?
BB: I got a call from Brandon Tartikoff, who was the assistant to Fred Silverman—
ES: Who was running ABC at the time.
BB: —and he said that Diana Hyland, the mother on Eight Is Enough, had died. They were auditioning everyone they could think of for that part, and Tartikoff was convinced that the character I played in Carrie would be the right stepmother figure. They flew me to Hollywood twice and then hired me. Apparently my tests weren’t so hot, but they really thought I was going to be the right person for it.
ES: That’s almost thirty years ago, and yet I bet people still say, “Oh, Eight Is Enough,” when they see you on the street. That may still be one of the best things you are known for.
BB: It wasn’t my particular cup of tea. I was this wannabe serious young actress studying in New York and this serious musician and all that. When they offered it to me, I didn’t think too much about it; I’d never done a TV show, and it sounded like a lot of money to me. Once I got out there, I was in shock. The production company, Lorimar, was a rough group. I wasn’t used to being treated like that.
ES: How so?
BB: I was outspoken. I would let people know when I thought things were not cool. I confronted these guys in Hollywood who thought they were very powerful, and they didn’t like it. As a result of those confrontations, the show got better. They took care of us because I basically forced them. And they should have, because we were making them a fortune. We were a huge hit.
ES: In the end, you got the last laugh. You were really the one big star to emerge from that cast.
BB: At the end of it, someone from Lorimar literally told me, “You think you won the war, don’t you?” And I said, “I’ve helped you make a lot of money. It seems like you should be happy.” He said, “You may have won a few battles, but we will win the war.” He said, “Mark my words: Everywhere you go after this, we will be there first, and we are going to destroy your reputation.” Sure enough, for twelve years, there was this gossip that I was a difficult person.
ES: You seem very pleasant to me.
BB: I’m a good ol’ girl from Texas, and sometimes people misinterpret that Texas thing. I’ve learned to tone it down, but it’s been a drag. It’s the unfortunate aftermath of having gone to the mat with the wrong guys in Hollywood.
ES: It was an experience, right? But it didn’t put you off of Hollywood. You continued to act.
BB: Fortunately, Getting My Act Together caught the eye of Fred Roos, Francis Coppola’s producer in Hollywood, and he recommended me for Tender Mercies. That was incredible. Finally I was working with major, major film artists. And then, right after that, I got Cats.
ES: Do people pick on Cats too much?
BB: Who picks on it? David Letterman? The kind of people who think of it as a punch line are the people who didn’t experience it. Cats is a great show. And that song “Memory” is a gift.
ES: What was being on Oz like? Clearly a very different show from Eight Is Enough.
BB: Oz is my idea of serious TV.
ES: It was a lot more theatrical.
BB: It was more real. I love naturalistic drama. That’s the kind of actor I was trained to be. Oz was one of the greatest jobs I ever had.
ES: I have to tell you, as a regular viewer, that every time I would see you, I kept thinking, “This time they’re going to kill her.”
BB: Me too. I thought they were going to kill me. I’m glad they didn’t.
ES: I can’t help but notice that you have what people regard as a consequential birthday coming up next year.
BB: Oh, yeah.
ES: You often hear the phrase “woman of a certain age” in Hollywood, but you’re continuing to do a lot of important work. Do you feel like you’re being treated fairly by show business in this period of your life?
BB: I always knew that I was going to grow into myself, that my best work would be late in life. And so I feel undaunted by those notions that it’s harder to get work when you’re older, because I’ve always known that it would take my lifetime to grow into who I was, who I was meant to be. So that part is cool with me.
ES: You don’t feel anything approaching sixty.
BB: I just think, “How can this be? I still feel like I’m twelve.”