Betty Lynn, Mayberry’s Thelma Lou, passes away

Dressed in green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Betty Lynn (center) smiles for a picture while meeting with some of her fans during one of her regular monthly appearances at The Andy Griffith Museum. (Photo courtesy of Hobart Jones, Surry Arts Council)

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.

Lynn was much beloved among the Andy Griffith Show family. In 1990 she began to be a regular participant in a number of show reunions and Mayberry-themed events around the country. In 2007, after attending Mayberry Days in Mount Airy, she decided to move to Andy Griffith’s hometown on a permanent basis, and she made Mount Airy her home until her passing.

She regularly held autograph sessions at The Andy Griffith Museum. On the days she was scheduled to be at the museum, fans flocked to the facility, often forming lines that stretched well down the sidewalk outside the building.

As much loved as she was by the fans, Lynn returned that affection, always spending time chatting with them, sharing Mayberry memories, and making sure she was available even on days she may have been a little under the weather.

“I feel happy when I’m with them,” the longtime actress said of her time with the fans during an interview with The Mount Airy News in September 2016. “It gives me a tremendous lift. The people are so good — they love the show so much,” the 90-year-old actress said in that interview, when talking of “The Andy Griffith Show.” “They give you a big lift, actually — even if I’m not feeling too well.”

More than simply giving time to the fans, Betty says her time there was good for her, too.

“I meet so many people,” the late actress said in 2016. She said during a Friday autograph session she might see visitors from California, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, the Carolinas and other states.

“People drive from all over to get here.”

And while the Surry Arts Council has photos on hand for autographs, Betty says she never quite knows what someone will bring in for her signature.

“Everything they bring, I try to sign it,” she said.

Reaction

Those who knew Lynn were quick to share their condolences after her death became public.

“It has been my tremendous honor and joy to work with Betty and to be her friend for many years,” said Tanya Jones, Surry Arts Council executive director. “It was clear from our first encounter that faith, family, friends and—very, very importantly—her fans are the things that meant the most to her. Betty brought so much joy and love to so many people. Betty’s performances onscreen and the memories of her by those who were fortunate to meet her and know her will enable those feelings to continue.”

He passing brought words of affection from many who knew her.

“RIP Betty Lynn,” tweeted Director Ron Howard, Betty’s fellow actor on The Andy Griffith Show. “She played Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show and brightened every scene she was in and every shooting day she was on set. I saw her last a few years ago where she still lit up the room with her positivity. It was great to have known and worked with her. She was truly 95 years young.”

“Betty was a dear and loving friend to all who knew her,” said Elinor Donahue, friend and fellow actor from The Andy Griffith Show: “Her talent will continue to bring joy to her fans via The Andy Griffith Show.”

Karen Knotts, daughter of Don Knotts, tweeted upon learning the news: “I’m so sad to hear that beloved Mayberry icon and friend Betty Lynn passed away last night. There was no one more devoted to fans than she. Such a loving and kind soul. We’ll remember and love you always, Betty.”

Early life, USO service

While she is most know for her role on The Andy Griffith Show, Lynn had a long career even before taking on the role of Thelma Lou.

Born Elizabeth Ann Theresa Lynn 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, Lynn began studying dance with renowned dancer Helen Burwell at the Kansas City Conservatory. By age 14, she 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 Lynn. After she turned 18, Lynn began performing for USO Camp Shows in the United States in 1944. She 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, she 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, Lynn, 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 Lynn a loaded Colt revolver and told her, “Take this. You might need to use it.” she 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.”

She said she kept the gun holstered on her hip during the day, and under her pillow at night.

After the war, Lynn 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, she 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,” she said at the time.

Career more than Thelma Lou

Lynn 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 Lynn and eventually signed her to a multi-year contract.

Lynn’s first film for Fox was 1948’s Sitting Pretty with Clifton Webb, Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara. She won a Photoplay Gold Medal for her portrayal of Ginger. Later that year, Lynn also was in Apartment for Peggy with William Holden and Jeanne Crain.

Warner Bros. borrowed Lynn from Fox in order to have her play the title role in June Bride, another 1948 release, with Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery. She 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, Lynn 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, she played the female lead opposite Ray Bolger in Where’s Raymond? for a season on ABC-TV. During this time and spanning decades, she 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.

Lynn 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.

She 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.

Life changing role

Lynn 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 Lynn 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.”

Her reading went well, and she was cast as Thelma Lou.

Her portrayal of the role left such an impression on viewers that years later, it seems most believe she was a regular on the series, appearing nearly as often as Barney, Andy, Aunt Bee and Opie. Truth is, she only appeared on 26 of the show’s 249 episodes, and she was absent from virtually the entire final three seasons.

That’s because, after year five Don Knotts left the show to pursue opportunities in movies, and while he made an occasional return in his famous role of Barney Fife, his departure meant the end of the run for Betty Lynn.

Lynn 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. 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,” she said. “The spark was still there.”

Of Griffith actors still living at the time of her death, only Ron Howard appeared in more episodes of the series than Lynn.

After her initial run in the Griffith series, Lynn 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.

Lynn 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.

Later recognition

Once Lynn moved to Mount Airy, Mayberry fans almost felt as if they were in the presence of royalty when visiting her. Lynn returned that affection, always looking forward to her time visiting with fans.

“The fans are so sweet,” she 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.”

In Lynn’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, Lynn 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, Lynn 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 Lynn with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, generally considered to be the State of North Carolina’s highest civilian honor.

She 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, she 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.

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 her 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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