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Betty Lynn, Mayberry’s Thelma Lou, passes away

Betty Lynn, the actress best known for her portrayal of Thelma Lou, Barney Fife’s sweetheart on “The Andy Griffith Show,” passed away late Saturday night after a brief illness. She was 95.

Elizabeth Ann Theresa Lynn was born in Kansas City, Mo., on August 29, 1926. The third generation Missouri native was raised by her mother, Elizabeth Lynn, a respected mezzosoprano and organist, and by her maternal grandparents Johanna and George Andrew Lynn, a longtime engineer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad.

At age 5, Betty began studying dance with renowned dancer Helen Burwell at the Kansas City Conservatory. By age 14, Betty was acting and singing in supper clubs, as well as performing and doing commercial spots for local radio shows.

USO talent scouts visited Kansas City and discovered Betty. After she turned 18, Betty began performing for USO Camp Shows in the United States in 1944. Betty then performed as part of the USO’s overseas Foxhole Circuit for the first half of 1945. She and guitarist Tommy Decker began their overseas tour with stops in Casablanca and then Iran before eventually making their way to the war’s China-Burma-India Theater, where they visited and performed for servicemen throughout much of the war zone, but with their primary mission being to console and entertain wounded servicemen at military hospitals.

After the allies retook Rangoon in May 1945, Betty was one of the first Americans to visit American POWs who had been released to a Calcutta hospital after having endured horrible atrocities during their imprisonment. She is also thought to be the only American woman to have traveled the dangerous Burma Road during the war.

At one point in her tour of duty, Betty, Tommy Decker, a couple of Marines and an interpreter traveled by jeep in a remote area “on the road to Mandalay,” not far from the front lines. A U.S. Marines captain had given Betty a loaded Colt revolver and told her, “Take this. You might need to use it.” Betty recalled, “I didn’t know whether he meant for use on the enemy or in desperation on myself, but I took the gun and always kept it close.”

After the war, Betty was recognized for her service “above and beyond the call of duty” with a special commendation from the U.S. War Department. She was later named Honorary Colonel in the American Legion.

In 2009, Betty joined veterans of World War II on the North Carolina Triad’s inaugural Honor Flight to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. “I was deeply honored to be asked to participate and to have the chance to express my gratitude to the surviving veterans and those memorialized,” Betty said at the time.

Betty returned to New York City after the war and quickly found work. She was touring the Northeast with Park Avenue in preparation for that new show’s Broadway run 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 head Daryl F. Zanuck immediately took out an option on Betty and eventually signed her to a multi-year contract.

Betty’s first film for Fox was 1948’s Sitting Pretty with Clifton Webb, Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara. Betty won a Photoplay Gold Medal for her portrayal of Ginger. Later that year, Betty also was 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, with Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery. Betty made several more movies 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 (again with Bette Davis), Many Rivers to Cross and Behind the High Wall.

When her contract with Fox expired, Betty sought work in television, then still in its early days. Her early performances included eight months in The Egg and I, which is often considered to be TV’s first comedy serial and was broadcast live from New York five days a week on CBS in 1952.

Back in Hollywood the next year, Betty played the female lead opposite Ray Bolger in Where’s Raymond? for a season on ABC-TV. During this time and spanning decades, Betty also performed 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 performed in more than two dozen episodes of Matinee Theater, NBC-TV’s popular hour-long anthology series that aired, usually live, five days a week. She also continued to work in radio, including for episodes of Lux Radio Theater, Stars Over Hollywood and some installments of Family Theater, as either a lead or host.

Betty was a fixture in television Westerns during the 1950s and 1960s. A partial roundup includes episodes of Bronco, Wagon Train, Cheyenne, Tales of Wells Fargo and Sugarfoot, as well as being 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 producers for The Andy Griffith Show contacted her about playing Barney Fife’s girlfriend, Thelma Lou. Fortunately for Barney, Mayberry and generations of TV viewers, Disney was in the process of winding down its production of Texas John Slaughter and therefore agreed to release Betty to work on the Griffith show.

“I had seen the Griffith show twice before I went to read for the part,” Betty recalled. “I remember that I laughed out loud—it was so funny. I didn’t do that 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 depart the series after five seasons in order to make movies for Universal Studios, Betty knew that meant that she would be leaving Mayberry as well.

Betty made one final appearance on the Griffith show when Don Knotts returned in the sixth season for the first of his five guest appearances as Barney. In all, Betty appeared in 26 Griffith episodes, which were originally broadcast between 1961 and 1966 and spanned parts of the show’s first six seasons. Of Griffith actors still living at the time of Betty’s death, only Ron Howard appeared in more episodes of the series than Betty.

Fans would have to wait more than 20 years, but all was once again right in the world of Mayberry, when Thelma Lou and Barney finally got married in Return to Mayberry, the made-for-TV movie that was a ratings blockbuster for NBC in 1986. “Once we got there to film the movie, everything fell right into place,” Betty said. “The spark was still there.”

After the Griffith series, Betty continued to work steadily, mostly in television. She played Fred MacMurray’s secretary on My Three Sons and Brian Keith’s secretary on Family Affair. She also worked with Andy Griffith again when she played Sarah, Ben Matlock’s secretary during the first season of Matlock in 1986. She likewise reunited with Ron Howard in 1971 on ABC-TV’s short-lived Smith Family, starring Henry Fonda.

Betty also appeared in productions ranging widely 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 participating in various Andy Griffith Show cast reunion events and Mayberry festivals nationwide, but especially in the Midwest and South. Many of these events also included performances by Betty and her fellow stars. She brought the house down countless times with her renditions of favorite tunes from the American songbook.

Lines often stretched down hallways and around buildings with devoted fans eagerly waiting for their chance to visit with Betty, have their photos taken with her and get an autograph. Betty was legendary for her astounding ability to recognize fans from even many years earlier—frequently calling them by name and asking about other members of their families, also often by name.

“The fans are so sweet,” Betty said. “I really love meeting them and having the chance to visit a little bit. They come from all over the country. It’s so touching that they still remember my movies and love The Andy Griffith Show like they do. And especially for the Griffith show, there are lots of young children who are fans, too. So, I think the show’s popularity is carrying on through the new generations. That makes me happy.”

After several years of attending the annual Mayberry Days festival in Andy Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy, Betty decided that the North Carolina town would be a good place for her to live. She made the move away from the stresses of Los Angeles in 2007.

In Betty’s honor and echoing Barney Fife’s description of Thelma Lou, the local Surry Arts Council annually presents the “You’re the Cat’s!” Award to recognize individuals who have made especially noteworthy contributions to the Mayberry Days festival.

Along with other members of the cast and crew of The Andy Griffith Show, Betty was a recipient of the TV Land Legend Award in 2004. She was inducted into the Missouri Walk of Fame in Marshfield in 2006, and she was a recipient of the Cherry Blossom Medal at the town’s annual Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival the following year.

In 2012, Betty was also an inaugural recipient of a star on the walkway at the entrance of the Andy Griffith Museum. On the occasion of her 90th birthday in 2016, Gov. Pat McCrory granted and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest presented Betty with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, generally considered to be the State of North Carolina’s highest civilian honor.

Betty didn’t rest on her laurels. Prior to the pandemic, she greeted fans virtually every month at the Andy Griffith Museum. At the time of her death, Betty had been completing revisions on her autobiography, which is expected to be published posthumously.

A lifelong devout Roman Catholic, Betty was a longtime member of St. Timothy 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 cherished friends and countless adoring fans. Betty’s performances as Thelma Lou and in other roles will continue to entertain generations of appreciative audiences. More than that, all who ever encountered Betty are forever grateful to have known such a truly beautiful soul.

A private burial service is planned in Culver City, California. A memorial service will be announced at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Betty’s memory may be made to the Betty Lynn Scholarship Endowment (for students pursuing a career in dance or acting) or the Barbara and Emmett Forrest Endowment Fund (for the Andy Griffith Museum and Mayberry Days), both in care of Surry Arts Council, P.O. 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.

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