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The secret life of Mayberry’s Thelma Lou

Thelma Lou turns 90

Actress Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou on 'The Andy Griffith Show', will celebrate her 90th birthday with friends and fans in Mount Airy, N.C.
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Actress Betty Lynn, who played Thelma Lou on 'The Andy Griffith Show', will celebrate her 90th birthday with friends and fans in Mount Airy, N.C.

Editor's note: This story originally ran on Aug. 26, 2016.

After Thelma Lou, Betty Lynn had a problem.

A successful actress who had played in movies opposite Hollywood heavyweights like Loretta Young and Robert Montgomery, she couldn’t find major work.

“All I got were calls for backwoods women,” she says. “I’d been typecast.”

Her role as the all-American, apple-pie-sweet girlfriend of a bumbling deputy sheriff had been seared into the national consciousness by one of the biggest TV shows of the 1960s – “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Not only did she never escape the celebrity of her role, she eventually came to retire in Mount Airy, the very town that served as the model for the mythic Mayberry, a sort of Camelot in bib overalls where homespun values were cherished and every bully got his comeuppance.

People fool themselves about Betty Lynn. Like Hollywood casting agents, they can’t shake the lovely Thelma Lou.

They don’t know about Lynn’s other Hollywood work, about her searing emotional experiences during World War II, about the violent, abusive father who menaced her in utero or about the wedding she canceled four days before it was to occur.

Behind the facade of sweet Thelma Lou, it turns out, was a woman of fortitude.

Adopted hometown

Lynn turns 90 on Monday and Mount Airy, hometown of Andy Griffith, is honoring her with a ceremony and a screening of her favorite movie, “June Bride,” in which she starred in 1948.

Lynn’s mind remains sharp. Her mobility isn’t what it once was, but she navigates with cane, walker and wheelchair just fine. She’s had two mini-strokes, her carotid artery has been unblocked once and she has diabetes, which is well-managed.

“Every doctor says come back in a year,” says Lynn with the Midwestern effervescence she never lost.

She was a redhead when she went to Hollywood nearly 70 years ago and she’s a redhead now. Take a peek at her roots if you don’t believe it.

Lynn grew up in Kansas City, the only child of Elizabeth Lynn, an accomplished mezzo-soprano. Her mother taught her to sing and dance and enrolled her in the Kansas City Conservatory of Music at age 5.

Lynn was 17, all gowned up and singing in a club called Town Royal when she spotted an item in the Kansas City Star about auditions for the USO. She signed up.

My mother made a terrible mistake in marriage.

Betty Lynn

Her mother didn’t want her to go overseas, but Lynn was eager to join the war effort.

She was sent at 18 to the China-Burma-India theater. In a jeep on the road to Mandalay as darkness fell one evening, a Marine captain handed her a .32 automatic. “You may need this,” he said.

“I didn’t know whether it was to shoot someone else or myself,” Lynn says. “I slept with it under my head.”

She visited hospitals, chatting with patients and singing requests from a notebook of 725 tunes.

She remembers the burn victims, soldiers barely older than she. One day they’d be there and the next they’d be gone, the last day of their life memorable for the perky teenager from Missouri who asked them about their hometowns and sang to them.

She remembers meeting the first POWs from camps in Rangoon arriving in Calcutta. Some were but shuffling wraiths, others rocking rhythmically in a stuporous daze.

“Most of them,” a doctor quietly told her, “will be out of their minds in six months.”

To this day, she cannot tell the story without weeping.

Movie career

After the war, Lynn toured with the Broadway-bound production of “Park Avenue.” In 1947, 20th Century Fox signed her to a seven-year contract.

But a clause in the contract said that at six-month intervals, Fox was free to drop her. Twice a year, she feared the worst.

“I was a redhead with freckles and didn’t have a bosom,” Lynn says. “I prayed so hard they’d keep picking me up.”

She was only 20. Her mother accompanied her to Los Angeles to co-sign her contracts and wound up staying. Her grandparents from Kansas City soon joined them in the land of perpetual sunshine.

In 1948, she was in two major films, “Sitting Pretty” with Clifton Webb, Maureen O’Hara and Robert Young, and “June Bride” with Robert Montgomery and Bette Davis. Other roles followed.

In 1950, she bought a house in west Los Angeles. Built in 1928, it became the home for Lynn, her mother and her grandparents.

Lynn’s offstage family role was that of caretaker for her mother and other relatives. She served as breadwinner and nurse throughout much of her life.

From Bette Davis

Bette Davis, one of Hollywood’s most forceful – and cantankerous – stars befriended Lynn, nicknaming her “Boo.”

They were opposites in temperament. Davis thought Lynn’s family and others might be taking advantage of her sweet nature.

To be a great star, Davis told her, you must put yourself first.

“You are not No. 1 in your life,” the nation’s highest-paid woman told her. “And you will never be a star.”

Which was true, Lynn admits.

“She was No. 1 whatever happened,” Lynn says.

“But I had a good family. She ended up having to pay everyone to be around her. I’m lucky I’m me. I may not be No. 1 but I’m not afraid to be alone, either.”

Becoming Thelma Lou

In 1960, she was invited to read for a part on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

“I’d only seen it twice,” she says, “but I thought it was hilarious.”

She was quickly cast as the wholesome girlfriend of the town’s neurotic deputy, Barney Fife, played by Don Knotts.

She was in 26 episodes of the show, earning $500 per appearance. When Knotts left for movie work after the fifth season, there was no place in the script for Thelma Lou.

She found other small roles on TV, but nothing would match the indelible impression she made on popular culture in Mayberry.

Rift with Andy

In 1986, Andy Griffith found her a role as secretary in his new series “Matlock.” But she got only one line in each script, and she let Griffith know she was unhappy. She lasted only six episodes.

“They let me go as soon as they could,” Lynn says. “I was upset with him because he wouldn’t listen.”

They had little contact for more than 20 years.

In 2008, he surprised her with a call. He said he wanted to ask her opinion on a role he was considering, which would turn out to be his last, in a movie called “Play the Game.”

Lynn last talked to Griffith on June 1, 2012, when she called him on his birthday. He sounded good on the phone. She was shocked when he died a month later.

Volatile father

Her mother and grandparents made a loving home for her in Kansas City. She rarely speaks of her biological father.

“My mother made a terrible mistake in marriage,” Lynn says.

What she knows of her father was told to her by her mother.

Her father was volatile and violent. When her mother was pregnant with Lynn, her father put a rifle against her abdomen and threatened to shoot.

Once, Lynn as an infant and her mother huddled in a locked closet to escape his rage as he cast matches under the door.

She left him when Lynn was 10 months old, and the divorce was finalized when she was 5.

“He was nuts,” she says. “And it worries me – that blood is in me.”

Fear of stalking

Her father wrote years later offering to reconcile with her mother. No dice.

Her mother trembled whenever speaking of him and Lynn inherited that fear, one that continued even when they lived in Los Angeles.

“I was scared to death,” she says, “that one day he’d walk up to me on the street.”

She had no memory of him, didn’t know what he looked like. Still, she had a gnawing anxiety about him somehow stalking her.

And he did – in death.

She did not read the obituaries as a habit, but remembers one morning being strangely drawn to them. She handed her mother the paper. “Is that him?” she asked.

It was. Before he died in Kansas City, he arranged for his obituary to appear in the Los Angeles Times.

Grandfather took role

Her mother fretted that Lynn would grow up without a father, but her grandfather took that role. She still refers to him as her Daddy.

He was an engineer on the Missouri Pacific Railroad, driving the Missouri River Eagle passenger route between Kansas City and Omaha, Neb.

In small towns, people knew the engineers in those days, and even the kids knew George Andrew Lynn. He was the one who would toss candy to them as he passed in the sleek diesel.

Lynn became the first woman believed to ever ride a route in the cab of a Missouri Pacific locomotive when he let her come along on his last run before retirement.

“He had slow orders all the way,” Lynn says. “People lined the tracks to say goodbye.”

Engaged thrice

Lynn dated several men in Hollywood, but only clicked with one.

He was a widower, an attorney who dabbled in fine art and a man who couldn’t make up his mind about romance.

They were engaged three times.

He had another woman in his life, a domineering friend named Marilyn, and he would wobble between them.

Every time he broke up with her, Lynn returned a gold chain he’d given her as a present. When they got engaged for the third time, he told her that if something happened this time, she should keep it.

“I guess I should have realized right then something was going to happen,” she says.

Four days before their wedding date, he came to her house and asked her to bring her mother into the living room. He just wanted to let them know the way things were.

“Marilyn came down last night,” she recalls him saying, “and I want you to know I have deep affection for her.”

Lynn picked up the phone, called the bishop at St. Timothy’s and told him the wedding was off.

“I’m sorry,” said the bishop.

“I’m not,” she replied.

She told her fiance that she couldn’t marry him under those circumstances. A devout Catholic, Lynn believed in marriage for life.

He slammed the door so hard when he left that a chip of wood broke off. She never had it replaced.

And she kept the gold necklace.

Crime in L.A.

Lynn continued living in the Los Angeles house after her mother’s death in 1984. She became less active and often found herself the target of unscrupulous repairmen and others preying on her good nature.

“People took advantage of me all the time,” she says. “I have been taken advantage of left and right all my life.”

In 2006, she was invited once again to Mount Airy for one of the annual Mayberry Days celebrations. By this time she was staying in a hotel in Los Angeles.

Her house had been burglarized for a second time. Her drawers had been emptied in a search for valuables, her belongings were strewn throughout the home.

She was afraid to live there.

Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council and organizer of Mayberry Days, arranged for Lynn to spend some time in a Mount Airy retirement home after the festival.

Lynn found Mount Airy and its people as warm as those in the fictional Mayberry. People stopped her in the grocery store to chat. In Los Angeles, she was obscure. In Mount Airy, she was royalty. She never left again.

Jones arranged for movers to pack up the trashed Los Angeles house as is – to pick up the belongings where they lay and to ship them to the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Four offers came in on the first day the house went on the market.

Every third Friday of the month, Lynn signs autographs for three hours at the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy. She always draws a crowd – people drive for hours to meet her, Jones says.

Magic remains

It has been 48 years since “The Andy Griffith Show” went out of production. It lives on in repeats and on cable, one of the most durable shows in television history.

Even millennials show up on autograph day to meet Betty Lynn, having watched reruns of the show with their parents.

Transcendent themes of love, family and home have endured through the decades.

“People get so emotional when they come,” says Lynn. “They have an emotional reaction to that show. When they cry, so do I.”

Griffith once told her that he couldn’t believe she wound up moving to his hometown. She said it was one of the best things she’d ever done.

“I am surrounded by so much love now.”

Celebration in Mount Airy

On Monday, Mount Airy will honor actress Betty Lynn on her 90th birthday.

12:30-3:30 p.m.: Lynn will sign autographs at the Andy Griffith Museum, 218 Rockford St.

4 p.m.: New Betty Lynn exhibit and the Mayberry-Mount Airy Exhibit will be unveiled on the lower level of the Andy Griffith Playhouse.

5 p.m.: Dinner with Betty Lynn at The Loaded Goat restaurant 247 City Hall St.

6:45 p.m.: Comments at the Historic Earle Theatre.

7 p.m.: Screening of “June Bride.”

What happened to ...

Betty Lynn, who turns 90 on Monday, is one of the last surviving cast members of “The Andy Griffth Show,” which ran for eight years on CBS in the 1960s.

Other living cast members:

Ron Howard, 62, who played Andy’s son Opie, is a highly successful film director in Hollywood.

Clint Howard, 57, Ron Howard’s brother who appeared in five episodes as a little boy who loved peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, continues acting in Hollywood, including parts in the “Austin Powers” movies.

Jim Nabors, 86, who played mechanic Gomer Pyle, lives in Hawaii.

Elinor Donahue, 79, who played Andy Griffith’s romantic interest in the first season, is retired in Palm Desert, Calif.

Maggie Peterson, 75, who played Charlene Darling, lives in Las Vegas where she worked as a location scout.

Jack Burns, 82, who played Deputy Warren Ferguson for 11 episodes and was dropped after the character didn’t catch on, is retired in Los Angeles.

Bernard Fox, 89, remembered by diehard fans as Mr. Malcolm Merriwether who appeared in three episodes, is retired and lives in Los Angeles.

Cast members who have died:

Andy Griffith, who played Sheriff Andy Taylor, died in 2012 in Manteo at age 86.

Don Knotts, who played deputy Barney Fife, died in 2006 in Los Angeles at 81.

Frances Bavier, who played Aunt Bee, died in 1989 in Siler City at 86.

Aneta Corsaut, who played schoolteacher Helen Crump, died in 1995 in Los Angeles at 62.

Howard McNear, who played Floyd the barber, died in 1969 in San Fernando, Calif., at 63.

Hal Smith, who played Otis the drunk, died in 1994 in Santa Monica, Calif., at 77.

George Lindsey, who played Goober Pyle, died in 2012 in Nashville, Tenn., at 83.

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