Betty Lynn, the actress best known for her portrayal of Barney Fife’s sweetheart Thelma Lou on “The Andy Griffith Show”, died late Saturday night after a brief illness. She was 95 years old.
Elizabeth Ann Theresa Lynn was born in Kansas City, Missouri on August 29, 1926. The third generation from Missouri was raised by her mother, Elizabeth Lynn, a respected mezzosoprano and organist, and by her maternal grandparents Johanna and George Andrew Lynn, longtime engineer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
At the age of 5, Betty began studying dance with famous dancer Helen Burwell at the Kansas City Conservatory. By age 14, Betty was playing and singing at dinner clubs, as well as performing and commercials for local radio shows.
USO talent scouts visited Kansas City and discovered Betty. After turning 18, Betty began performing for the USO Camp Shows in the United States in 1944. Betty then performed on the USO’s Foxhole Circuit overseas during the first half of 1945. She then performed on the USO’s Foxhole Circuit overseas during the first half of 1945. She and guitarist Tommy Decker started their overseas tour with stops in Casablanca. then Iran before finally making their way to the China-Burma-India theater of war, where they visited and performed for the military throughout much of the war zone, but their main mission was to console and entertain the soldiers injured in military hospitals.
After the Allies recaptured Rangoon in May 1945, Betty was one of the first Americans to visit American prisoners of war who had been released from a Calcutta hospital after suffering horrific atrocities while in prison. She is also believed to be the only American woman to walk the dangerous road to Burma during the war.
At one point on her tour of duty, Betty, Tommy Decker, a couple of Marines and an interpreter traveled by jeep to a remote area “on the road to Mandalay” not far from the front lines. A US Marine captain gave Betty a loaded Colt revolver and said, “Take this. You might need to use it. Betty recalls, “I didn’t know if he wanted to be used against the enemy or in desperation against myself, but I took the gun and kept it close to me always.
After the war, Betty was recognized for her service “above and beyond the call of duty” with special mention from the United States Department of War. She was later appointed honorary colonel of the American Legion.
In 2009, Betty joined WWII veterans on the North Carolina Triad’s first honor flight to visit the WWII Memorial in Washington, DC “I was deeply honored to be invited to participate and to have the chance to express my gratitude to surviving veterans and those who have been remembered, ”Betty said at the time.
Betty returned to New York after the war and quickly found work. She was touring the Northeast with Park Avenue in preparation for the tour of this new Broadway show when she caught the attention of Hollywood scouts. She received offers from seven studios, but ultimately decided to do a screen test for Twentieth Century-Fox. Studio director Daryl F. Zanuck immediately took an option on Betty and eventually signed her to a multi-year contract.
Betty’s first film for Fox was Sitting Pretty from 1948 starring Clifton Webb, Robert Young, and Maureen O’Hara. Betty won a Photoplay Gold Medal for her portrayal of Ginger. Later that year, Betty was also in Apartment for Peggy with William Holden and Jeanne Crain.
Warner Bros. borrowed Betty from Fox in order to have her play the title role in June Bride, another 1948 release, starring Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery. Betty has directed several other films for Fox and others, including RKO, MGM, and Universal. Among the films were Mother Is a Freshman, Father Was a Fullback, Cheaper by the Dozen, Payment on Demand (still with Bette Davis), Many Rivers to Cross and Behind the High Wall.
When her contract with Fox expired, Betty looked for work on television, then still in her infancy. His first performances included eight months in The Egg and I, which is often regarded as television’s first comedy series and aired live from New York five days a week on CBS in 1952.
Returning to Hollywood the following year, Betty starred opposite Ray Bolger in Where’s Raymond? for one season on ABC-TV. During this time and for decades, Betty also starred in live theater productions including the lead role in Peg O ‘My Heart and roles in The Moon Is Blue, King of Hearts, Be Your Age, Come Blow Your Horn. and Love Letters.
Betty has appeared in more than two dozen episodes of Matinee Theater, NBC-TV’s popular hour-long anthology series that airs, usually live, five days a week. She also continued to work in radio, including episodes of Lux Radio Theater, Stars Over Hollywood and some episodes of Family Theater, as a leader or host.
Betty was a staple of television westerns in the 1950s and 1960s. A partial roundup includes episodes of Bronco, Wagon Train, Cheyenne, Tales of Wells Fargo and Sugarfoot, as well as being a co-star for two seasons of Disney Presents: Texas John Slaughter with Tom Tryon.
Betty was still under contract with Disney for Texas John Slaughter when The Andy Griffith Show producers contacted her to play Barney Fife’s girlfriend, Thelma Lou. Luckily for Barney, Mayberry, and generations of viewers, Disney was in the process of ending production of Texas John Slaughter and therefore agreed to release Betty to work on the Griffith show.
“I had seen Griffith’s show twice before I went to read for the role,” Betty recalls. “I remember I burst out laughing, it was so funny. I haven’t done this very often. I thought, Gee, this is really unusual.
Betty always realized that Thelma Lou’s role in Mayberry depended on Barney Fife. When Don Knotts decided to quit the show after five seasons in order to make films for Universal Studios, Betty knew that meant she would be leaving Mayberry as well.
Betty made a final appearance on the Griffith show when Don Knotts returned in season six for the first of his five guest appearances as Barney. In all, Betty appeared in 26 episodes of Griffith, which originally aired between 1961 and 1966 and covered portions of the show’s first six seasons. Of the Griffith actors still alive at the time of Betty’s death, only Ron Howard has appeared in more episodes of the series than Betty.
Fans would have to wait over 20 years, but all was well in Mayberry’s world again, when Thelma Lou and Barney finally got married in Return to Mayberry, the made-for-television movie that was an audience blockbuster for NBC. in 1986. “Once we got there to shoot the movie, it all fell into place,” Betty said. “The spark was still there.”
After the Griffith series, Betty continued to work regularly, mainly on television. She played Fred MacMurray’s secretary in My Three Sons and Brian Keith’s secretary in Family Affair. She also worked again with Andy Griffith when she played Sarah, Ben Matlock’s secretary in the first season of Matlock in 1986. She also reunited with Ron Howard in 1971 in ABC-TV’s short-lived Smith Family. , with Henry Fonda.
Betty has also appeared in productions ranging from Disney’s The Boy Who Stole the Elephant to The Mod Squad and from Little House on the Prairie to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
In 1990, Betty began attending various Andy Griffith Show cast reunion events and Mayberry festivals nationwide, but mostly in the Midwest and South. Many of these events also included performances by Betty and her fellow stars. She’s brought down the house countless times with her renditions of favorite tracks from the American songbook.
Queues often stretched in hallways and around buildings with dedicated fans eagerly awaiting their chance to visit Betty, have their picture taken with her and get an autograph. Betty was legendary for her amazing ability to recognize fans many years ago, frequently calling them by name and asking questions about other family members, often by name as well.
“The fans are so nice,” Betty said. “I really like meeting them and having the chance to visit them a bit. They come from all over the country. It’s so touching that they still remember my movies and love The Andy Griffith Show the way they do. And especially for the Griffith show, there are also a lot of young children who are fans. So, I think the popularity of the series continues through the new generations. Which makes me happy.”
After several years attending the annual Mayberry Days festival in Mount Airy, Andy Griffith’s hometown, Betty decided that the city of North Carolina would be a good place for her. She moved away from the stress of Los Angeles in 2007.
In honor of Betty and echoing Barney Fife’s description of Thelma Lou, the local Surry Arts Council presents the show “You’re the Cat’s! ”Award to recognize individuals who have made particularly outstanding contributions to the Mayberry Days Festival.
Along with other cast and crew members of The Andy Griffith Show, Betty received the TV Land Legend Award in 2004. She was inducted into the Missouri Walk of Fame in Marshfield in 2006, and received the Cherry Blossom Medal at the city’s annual Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival the following year.
In 2012, Betty also received for the first time a star on the catwalk at the entrance to the Andy Griffith Museum. On her 90th birthday in 2016, Governor Pat McCrory bestowed and Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest presented Betty with the Order of the Longleaf Pine, widely regarded as the highest civilian honor in the state of North Carolina.
Betty has not rested on her laurels. Before the pandemic, she greeted fans virtually every month at the Andy Griffith Museum. By the time of her death, Betty had completed revisions to her autobiography, which is expected to be published posthumously.
A lifelong devout Roman Catholic, Betty was a longtime member of St. Timothy’s Catholic Church in Los Angeles. After moving to Mount Airy, she joined the local Holy Angels Catholic Church.
Betty Lynn is survived by several cousins, many dear friends and countless adoring fans. Betty’s performances as Thelma Lou and in other roles will continue to entertain generations of grateful audiences. More than that, everyone who met Betty is forever grateful to have known such a beautiful soul.
A private funeral service is scheduled in Culver City, California. A memorial service will be announced at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Betty’s memory can be made to the Betty Lynn Scholarship Endowment (for students pursuing careers in dance or theater) or the Barbara and Emmett Forrest Endowment Fund (for the Andy Griffith Museum and Mayberry Days), both in care of the Surry Arts Council, PO Box 141, Mount Airy, NC 27030; or Holy Angels Roman Catholic Church, 1208 N Main Street, Mount Airy NC 27030, or a charity of the donor’s choice.