Born July 3, 1947, in Fort Worth, TX, daughter of Ernest (a former Air Force colonel turned engineering professor) and Betty Bob (in theater public relations, former singer and dancer) Buckley. Married Peter Flood, 1972 (divorced, 1974). Education: Journalism degree from Texas Christian University, c. 1968. Addresses: Management--Abrams Artists, 420 Madison Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10017.

Critics like to call Betty Buckley the underground diva, primarily because the most significant work of her career is unfamiliar to those who do not frequent Broadway theaters. Many consider hers the finest voice on the contemporary American stage, yet most people think of her fondly as television's favorite stepmom, Abby Bradford of the late Seventies ABC-TV hit Eight is Enough. Yet Buckley's Tony award-winning performance as Grizabella in the Broadway production of Cats made the song "Memory" an American classic, and the Texas-born actress's replacement of Glenn Close in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard had the press talking for months. With all of these accomplishments Betty Buckley is still not a household name, but much of that was her own decision.

Betty Lynn Buckley was born in Fort Worth on July 3, 1947, where her aunt began giving her dance lessons at age three. By five she was singing in the church choir, but her father, a fundamentalist Christian, strongly discouraged Buckley from a performance career. Ironically, her mother, a former singer and dancer, encouraged Betty. Although she'd initially planned to be a rodeo star--and was already quite good--at 13 Betty listened raptly to every note of Judy Garland's live Carnegie Hall album and was inspired. In college, Buckley competed in the 1966 Miss Fort Worth pageant and won. Although she was only a runner-up in the subsequent Miss Texas contest, the producers of the Miss America show were so impressed by her voice they asked her to sing during the television broadcast from Atlantic City.

At 21 Buckley graduated from Texas Christian University with a degree in journalism to please her father. After a Miss America USO tour and while working as a teen reporter for the Forth Worth paper, an agent asked her to come to New York. Within two hours of her arrival she was auditioning for her first Broadway musical. When asked how long she'd been in town by those involved in what would become the smash hit 1776, the novice just cast as Martha Washington responded, "What time is it?" From there Buckley went on to star in the London company of Promises, Promises, where she was nominated by the London critics for Best Musical Performer. She later replaced Jill Clayburgh for a two-and-a-half-year run as Catherine in Bob Fosse's Pippin, then went on to critical raves starring in Gretchen Cryer's off-Broadway feminist play I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road.

Just before leaving Texas Buckley met Peter Flood, whom she would marry in 1972. She admits now that it was mostly to ease pressure from her parents and she and Flood divorced in 1974, but the two remained friends. The time was also a period of pain and emotional confusion for Buckley. She began seeing a psychiatrist and also started what would develop into a lifelong study of world religion, eastern philosophy, and meditation.

Buckley was doing film voice replacement work for director Brian De Palma when he offered her the role of the gym teacher in Carrie, her first film. The sympathetic character attracted the attention of Lorimar Studios and they asked Buckley to replace the late Diana Hyland, an actress who recently passed away from cancer after the spring try-out of a new ABC drama called Eight is Enough. Although she had never considered television before, the offer was more money than she could refuse, so Buckley signed on as Abby Bradford. Work on television was a struggle at first: it wasn't easy for a 29-year-old actress to step into an already-established television family, and this medium's production was not like that of musical theater--to Buckley doing television seemed to have a factory-like quality to it. And besides, as she told Paul Wontorek in TheaterWeek, "They tried to lock me in the kitchen and put me in muumuus....In the beginning, it was a real struggle to make her hip. They wanted me to be like something from the '50s."

As a child of the 1960s, and as a performer, Buckley felt almost destined to have trouble with drugs and alcohol. During her time in Hollywood she lived at the famed Chateau Marmont, becoming close with another of the hotel's famous residents, actor and comedian John Belushi. They took drugs together, but it was watching Belushi's descent into hell that eventually made her realize she did not have to follow suit. After her first two years on Eight is Enough, Buckley cleaned up. When the show was canceled after four years, Buckley was simultaneously saddened and elated. Although many suggested she was doomed to play mothers all her life, she promptly proved them wrong by playing Robert Duvall's nasty country singer ex-wife in the Academy Award-winning film Tender Mercies; Buckley also performed the film's Oscar-nominated song "Over You."

In 1982 Buckley auditioned for the part of Grizabella in Cats, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical adaptation of a book of poems by T.S. Eliot. "They wanted someone who conveyed vulnerability," Buckley explained to Paul Buetel in Southwest Airlines Magazine. "They felt I conveyed health and well-being, which is funny, because that's what I've always tried to convey. But I knew I had the ability to play that part." Buckley won the role and won a Tony Award in 1983 for her performance. Her rendition of the song "Memory" is regarded by many as the quintessential version.

Buckley left Cats during the peak of its run; after a year and a half it was time to move on. She did several films for television and an Off-Broadway appearance in Juno's Swans. In 1985 Buckley took on the roles of three different characters in Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a play within a play based on an unfinished novel of Charles Dickens. "After Cats I was looking for something lighter and more joyful," she told USA Today's Richard David Story. "Grizabella is a very sad creature, and she took her toll on me. I said, 'Enough death, dying and rejection. I want to have fun....[In Drood] I play a sort of English music-hall actress who impersonates a young man who himself is actually playing an old seafaring captain." The show promptly moved on to Broadway and once again Buckley was a hit.

Taking time off from Broadway for a while, Buckley tried her hand at the cabaret/nightclub circuit. Performing an eclectic bunch of songs--including several of her own creation--Buckley wowed audiences. Praised for her exquisite voice, moving song interpretation, and general ease with an audience, one critic, in the Daily Advertiser, thought "so comfortable was the evening that when [Buckley] walked off stage at intermission, I almost expected her to ask, 'Can I get you anything while I'm up?" The accolades were unanimous.

In 1988 Buckley had what she considered the best working experience of her life thus far, but what also constituted Broadway's costliest flop ever: Carrie, a musical version of the best-selling Stephen King novel and also Buckley's first role on celluloid. It was also an eight-million-dollar disaster. Ever since the movie version, Buckley had ached to sink her teeth into the role of Carrie's unbalanced mother. As has often been the case in her career, Buckley's work was praised by all who saw it, while the play around her was trashed by critics. The play's brief run still won her a nomination for Best Actress in a Musical from the Outer Critics' Circle, however. Buckley spent the next several years honing her craft in prolonged engagements of her one-woman cabaret show, constantly delighting audiences and receiving rave reviews for both Carnegie Hall and road tour performances. She also appeared in television and several feature films including Roman Polanski's Frantic, Woody Allen's Another Woman, and Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp.

In the mid-1990s Buckley became a figure in the media hype surrounding Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage version of Sunset Boulevard. The to-and-fro involving Lloyd Webber and the leading ladies in his adaptation of the 1950 Billy Wilder film gave the press fodder for over a year. Patti LuPone originated the role of Norma Desmond, unhinged former silent movie queen first played by Gloria Swanson, in London. When she found she would not be playing the role in its American debut in Los Angeles as promised, she quit. Buckley, whom many had thought would be considered for the role in the first place, replaced LuPone in London and won rave reviews as well as a nomination for the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical.

Film star Glenn Close took over the Desmond role for Sunset Boulevard's Los Angeles debut, and moved with it to Broadway, where her stage histrionics won her acclaim and a Tony. When Close left the show, Buckley was asked to take over, and the media was ready to pounce. But the show's producers smoothed the way with critics and theatergoers for an easy transition, and the new opening night starring Buckley was an overwhelming success--the audience leapt to its feet twice during the show, and cast members actually stepped out of character to applaud her. "Buckley is, bottom line, absolutely sensational as the musicalized Norma Desmond," wrote Robert Osborne in The Hollywood Reporter, "the best yet in fact, and I've seen 'em all....she has a voice that is one of the wonders of the world. In addition, she acts the role with great style, pizzazz and, above all, intelligence." Only Vincent Canby of the New York Times, an avowed Close/Desmond fan, had trouble buying Buckley's softer, more human version of Norma. Some industry-watchers actually considered Buckley's extraordinary talent a problem, making it suddenly apparent just how mediocre a show Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard was when dimmed by the light of her performance.

Betty Buckley has spent a lifetime in the musical theater, on television, and in films. She has worked strenuously at her craft and has often purposefully chosen to take the road less likely to lead to the stardom, and it seems to have paid off. Forty-seven years old when she first took up the reigns of Norma Desmond, Buckley she felt as if she were just then getting her true chance. As she told Randall Short of New York, "I feel like this racehorse that's been dying for a big race. A really good, fast little racehorse. And finally the heavy hitters are putting their money on me."

by Joanna Rubiner

Betty Buckley's Career

Began performing in Fort Worth productions during adolescence; singing and acting debut on Broadway in 1776, 1969-70; other Broadway performances include Pippin, 1973-75, Cats, 1982-84, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1985-86, Song And Dance, c. 1987, Carrie, 1988, and Sunset Boulevard, 1995--; off-Broadway productions include I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking it on The Road, 1981, and Juno's Swans, 1985; starred in London companies of Promises, Promises, 1970-71, and Sunset Boulevard, 1994-95; made feature film debut in Carrie, 1976; other film roles include Tender Mercies, 1983, Wild Thing, 1987, Another Woman, 1988, Frantic, 1988, Rain Without Thunder, 1993, Wyatt Earp, 1994, and Ride for Your Life, 1995; television debut, Eight is Enough, ABC-TV, 1977; acting teacher, c. 1971--.

Betty Buckley's Awards

Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Cats, 1982; honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Marymount Manhattan College, 1995.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 16 years ago

Excellent, excellent biography. It could be updated, since now Betty is all over the country performing her concerts, filming a new movie, and has two new recordings coming out..and she moved from New York to Weatherford Texas several years ago and now lives on a ranch with her horses and participates in cutting horse competitions when she's not singing!