Betty Lynn Interview
(Thelma Lou on the Andy Griffith show)
Betty Lynn is probably best known for her portrayal of “Thelma Lou” Barney Fife’s (Don Knotts) girlfriend on the Andy Griffith show.
We spoke with Betty Lynn recently about her life as an actress and what she’s doing these days.
Q - When you go to the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy North Carolina, you’re doing what? Are you posing for photos with fans? Are you signing autographs?
A - Well, I only go there on the third Friday of the month. Occasionally something will come up or an interview that maybe I should be there, but usually I go only on the third Friday of the month. People are already there when I arrive and I start with them at 12:30 PM and go until there’s hardly anybody left and then I might go home. (Laughs).
Q - I take it a lot of people show up when you make your appearance there?
A - I’m always amazed at how many do. It’s wonderful. I feel sorry when I see how many have to stand there and wait. They have to get in line. I wish there were a simple way to do it, but, there really isn’t. They all want to talk a few minutes about the show and how long they’ve watched it and how they always will watch it and all their children will watch it and their grandchildren. They ask me about what my favorite show is and of course I don’t have one favorite. I’ve got a lot of favorites and so I just have a good time with them really. There the sweetest people you’d ever want to meet. There all so good to me. Some of them bring me little things you know. I can’t believe it but, I’ve been so lucky Gary to be able to do this. I never dreamed that I would end up here. In fact, Andy Griffith was shocked that I ended up in his hometown. He couldn’t believe I moved here. I have been so fortunate. Everybody here has been so good to me. It’s a beautiful place. They have mountains and these gorgeous trees everywhere. Although when you ask people who lived here all their lives what kind of tree is that? They’ll say, I don’t know. (Laughs).
Q - Are you aware that every night on TV Land and ME TV (Memorable TV) they are showing the Andy Griffith reruns? Do you ever watch it on those stations?
A - Well, I watch it on CBS here. I should watch it on the others because they will no doubt sustain longer. CBS has suddenly changed it from 5:30 PM when I usually watched it to 4 PM now. They call it After School Andy which kind of amazes me because there are little kids that stand in that line. (Laughs) their grown-ups of all ages plus they have little kids with them sometimes and they’re so sweet. There were about five little boys last time, not all at once, that would give me a big hug and I could kiss some on the cheek. (Laughs) the sweetest little kids. I get the biggest kick out of everybody. I never watched ME TV I didn’t know what that was. All of these things are new to me. I have watched it occasionally on TV Land. They gave us an award in fact and I have that award. It might be in my Museum collection in the Andy Griffith Museum.
Q - What else of yours is on display at the museum?
A - Well, my USO uniform in my gun that was given to me by a Marine Capt. when I got lost down in Burma and my shoulder holster because I wore it under my clothing. A lot of things from movies I’ve been in and pictures and scripts from the Andy Griffith show. and some tiles, the frames are on the tiles when they sold at Saks Fifth Avenue in the infant’s department at Robinsons. All of the big department stores of course they didn’t know. Betty Lynn meant nothing at the moment to them. My mother took them around and they sold them. So, I kept those going for quite a while in between having done television live in New York. I came back to California and it was if I had died. It’s the truth. In those days if you didn’t stay there they forgot you immediately. I don’t know what it’s like now but, it’s the way it was then. It took me a long time to get started. So, I started doing these little titles, having them fired. By the time I got through I’m sure I didn’t get enough for them to pay for the time and work in having them fired. However, it was still a thrill to go in a store and look up at the glass shelf that was all lit up and all my tiles were up there. They were so cute. A little kitty cat and dog, a horse. I had a good time doing them and the thrill of knowing that people bought them because they kept reordering. Then I got a job with Ray Bolger and I had to quit because I didn’t have time. We worked in these days all week. They’d shoot the whole thing in 18 hours. There would be dance numbers and songs.
Q - You made your way from Kansas City, Missouri to New York City, where you performed in a Broadway production. Darrell Zanuck saw you and signed you to 20th Century Fox. In your travels, did you ever cross paths with Marilyn Monroe or James Dean?
A - I knew both of them. I didn’t just go from Kansas City. The USO came to a lot of cities during the Second World War auditioning people. I was 17 but I auditioned for them and they said “when you’re 18 contact us” so, I said all right I will. So, I did. Then they brought me into New York. I was in a variety show so I’d be with different people each time, groups of people. They called me and said we want to send you overseas but as the girl next door you can sing in the hospitals and talk to the fellas and visit with them. I said all right. So that’s what I did. I was over for a long time and then came back and went home for a few months and then I went back to New York. Then I got an agent and tried to get auditions. I finally got a job in the show “Park Avenue”. I really didn’t have much to do and wasn’t really too important. But, whatever I did seem to be noticed by people and they wrote about me, different columnists did. Then the studios got interested, my agents chose Fox. All the studios had offered a test but they chose Fox thinking that I would do musicals. I had to wait six months for them to make up their minds whether they’d take me on or not. They didn’t pay me. So, I’d go into audition for some work. They were interested in me doing the lead songs in “Copacabana” and then they told Marty Prosser no, she’s been optioned by Fox. I could starve for six months and pretty much nobody cared, until the studios finally decided they’d take me. They let me go through Kansas City and pick my mother up and she had to sign all the papers so they let me bring her to California with me. She planned to go back but before she could; people don’t realize when they say a seven-year contract doesn’t mean I get seven years, it means that the studios get seven years. Every six months they could have dropped me. And here came my grandmother and grandfather that mother and I always lived with. Mother and I took care of my grandma. She was bedridden for 12 years. We came all excited and we had no home, no nothing. Mother and I went out and had to find a place empty and I took it. Nothing in it. You can’t imagine what it was like. They were shocked when they came and found what we were going to live in, this empty lower floor.
Q - Was William Morris your agent?
A - No. It was Lester Shure.
Q - I don’t believe I’ve heard of him.
A - He had a lot of famous people. He had Dan Daly, Bert Lahr, Bob Hope. He had loads of people that he represented through the years. His brother more or less ran the place in New York, Leicester Shure.
Q - Tell me about meeting Marilyn Monroe.
A - Marilyn was under contract with Fox when I arrived. However, they let her go and then they brought her back. She was a star when they brought her back. I knew her in both cases. I was with them for four years and then they let me go. She finally came back. She looked a little different. Her hair had been cut and very blonde. Before it was curly and long and natural blonde. I think it looked like that. I taught her to do a soft shoe dance at one point at that time.
Q - Did you like her?
A - I did. I liked her. I thought she was a very talented girl. I really have always liked Marilyn and I cried when she died. I felt so bad. I thought maybe I could have done something if I had maybe been able to reach her. I felt really bad. I felt very sad. And Jimmy and I felt bad about him. He had the same agents I had. Jane Deacy was with him in New York. She was the one who handled me in New York too. Jimmy came out and when I met him Dick Clayton was handling him at that time. When I first met Jimmy I was going out to dinner with Dick and he said he’d pick me up at a certain time. He came and had to me in the car. He said I’ve got Jimmy Dean in the car. I just picked him up at the airport. He isn’t going to eat with us. I went out and sat between them. (Laughs). From then on every time I saw Jimmy he was so sweet to me. So, I really felt terrible when he died. Two sad deaths the both of them. You mention two people I thought a lot of and Jimmy couldn’t have been kinder or sweeter. He had the sweetest smile I think I’d ever seen. He was such a nice boy. He really was. And a great actor.
Q - After being in films was it considered a step down to do a TV show like the Andy Griffith show? Did you think it was?
A - I didn’t think so. I always felt as long as you’re acting what difference does it make whether you’re on stage; I did theater when I was still under contract to Fox when I had time or was on hiatus. I did a lot of different theater things. I went to Phoenix Arizona and worked there. Every now and then I do a play for a week or two. It was great. I loved that. But, I don’t think it matters. If anybody else thought so I really didn’t care. I paid for everything I did. At that time when I came back originally I did “live” show in New York. CBS sent me to replace a young actress in “The Egg And I”. It was based on a book and a movie, that Claudette Colbert did with Fred McMurray. I was playing that part, Claudette Colbert’s part. So, I replaced her and from there on I worked in New York and it was not financially successful for me. That was not a smart move that way but, it was a great thing to do. They had a lot of good actors from the Broadway stage that would be on it and different ones I worked with. I thought a lot of all of them. They were wonderful to be with. Good director and I learned a lot. I really enjoyed every minute of that. When I came back I didn’t know the movie studios hated television. (Laughs). I was in New York and it was early in television so I had no idea that they hated it. It was taking people away from going to the movies. They were all staying home watching that little box. So, I didn’t know. I first started at 20th Century Fox. They had let me go. I go in and I was introduced and who should be in the room? One of the directors I first worked with. A wonderful man, and about four or five other men I’d never seen before. There in the corner was Katharine Hepburn. I was taken back a bit there. Because I’d never met her. Of course a great actress and wonderful. I always loved her. She had red hair like me so that meant a lot. (Laughs). I was in awe quite a bit. I sat there and they said what have you been doing? I said, oh, I’ve had wonderful time. I’ve been working in live television in New York. Well, the whole room just stopped and I didn’t catch on. I kept rattling on about all the people in it and how wonderful it was. I even said, oh, Miss Hepburn I think you’d like it a lot. It’s like opening night every day. I think you’d enjoy it. (Laughs). She just looked at me. The whole place just stopped except for my mouth. (Laughs). I suddenly realized something was wrong. Then it was kind of like they dismissed me. It was the end of me. I realized later the mistake I made. I should’ve I guess lied and said I had pneumonia for a year or something. (Laughs). I just didn’t know they hated it. Eventually they had to accept it. To survive they had to get into it themselves. So finally it was not considered a step down.
Q - Were you asked to read for the part of “Thelma Lou”?
A - Well, two of them had already played the part. I don’t know who they were but they were good. I came in. They asked me to read for it. I was in the other office. I looked at it and said I just saw this done a few minutes ago. They said, oh, yeah do you watch the show? I said, yes. I love the show. So, I went in and auditioned. They liked me but I was under contract to Disney at the time. I said, I’m under contract to Walt Disney at this time but maybe we can work this out. So, it turned out later Disney dropped the series I was in. But the Andy Griffith show never offered me a contract. They only paid me when I worked and that was it.
Q - You’re saying there were other actresses who played “Thelma Lou”?
A - They weren’t called Thelma Lou. They were called other names, but they played opposite Don Knotts.
To be continued….
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