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Betty Lynn remains Thelma Lou to 'Andy Griffith Show' fans in Mayberry
By Tim Warsinskey, The Plain Dealer
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on January 29, 2016 at 11:34 AM, updated January 30, 2016 at 11:52 AM
MOUNT AIRY, N.C. - Betty Lynn lived in Mayberry before it was real. She adored Andy, dated Barney and loved little Opie.
Now she's back, as an original inhabitant in a town that blurs the lines between television fiction, tourism reality and an abstract daydream that transcends visitors to a time of innocence.
Lynn played Thelma Lou, who was Barney Fife's lovely girlfriend on "The Andy Griffith Show." It wasn't a big role - 26 episodes in five seasons - but it qualified her for permanent residence in the hearts of fans.
Now, she resides in Mount Airy, which was Andy Griffith's hometown and the partial inspiration for his 1960s comedy that is among the most revered shows in television history.
The story of how she came to live in Mount Airy and become a household name -- in the only town in America where she could be a household name -- would have been fodder for an episode if the show still was in production.
Lynn feels as though she never left a place where she only lived in fiction.
"Here I am. I'm still Thelma Lou to all these people," she said, glancing across The Loaded Goat, a Mount Airy pub. "I never dreamed this would happen. When I first got here, I'd be in the grocery store and people would say, 'Are you Thelma Lou?'
" 'Yes, I am.'
"Oh, they put their arms around me, and some of them stand and cry in front of me."
An ebullient 89-year-old with shocks of red hair that viewers could only guess at during the show's black-and-white seasons, Lynn can go on for hours recalling her career of mostly supporting and often critically praised film and television roles. She worked with the likes of Bette Davis, Robert Young, Fred MacMurray, Margaret Hamilton, Maureen O'Hara and John Ford. She entertained American troops in faraway jungles during World War II. She sang and danced on Broadway.
But Lynn is best remembered as Thelma Lou, the beautiful girl-next-door who somehow fell for Barney, the affable and goofy deputy sheriff played by Don Knotts.
Lynn is just fine with that, calling "The Andy Griffith Show" her most enjoyable job. Sitting in the middle of "Mayberry," it seems a prudent thing to say, if not rehearsed. Lynn insists the sentiment is sincere.
"The people in that show were great actors. You looked in their eyes, and you believed them. They were wonderful to work with. That doesn't happen all the time. The writing was great. They really knew what they were doing in those days," she said.
"The Andy Griffith Show" has enjoyed an afterlife unique in television, and it has transformed Mount Airy into the core of a $113 million annual tourism industry. There's a museum, a Mayberry barbershop, gas station and jail. The annual Mayberry Days festival that draws more than 40,000 visitors to the small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Once a month, Lynn appears at the Andy Griffith Museum - adjacent to the Andy Griffith Playhouse, not far from Andy Griffith Parkway. She enthusiastically greets fans who pilgrimage from around the world. Lynn signs autographs, mostly on a photo of her kissing Barney and leaving lipstick prints all over his wide-eyed face.
She is reminded constantly of the show's impact on generations of fans.
"The other day, a man came to me crying so hard, he couldn't straighten up," Lynn said. "It's just a show, for gosh sakes, but it touches their hearts. I'm amazed at how deeply they feel about the show."
Before Christmas, a couple from Alabama who met Lynn during Mayberry Days called and had their church choir sing Christmas carols to her over the phone.
She recalled being treated by a young emergency room doctor in Los Angeles who recognized her name and became emotional, saying "The Andy Griffith Show" got him though medical school because he could decompress while watching reruns each night.
"These are the kinds of stories you hear. It's amazing," Lynn said.
Bette Davis and the Wicked Witch
Lynn was raised in Kansas City, Missouri, by a single mother who was an opera singer. In one of Lynn's first breaks, she was a guest on Cleveland's WHK radio in 1940. Just 14 at the time, she sang the Bing Crosby hit "You and I" - and can still sing it with a little coaxing, her arms waving and her voice wavering just a little. She was performing in clubs at 17, and hit the road with the USO after high school, traveling to military bases as part of a variety show.
GIs reacted to her rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You,'' when she was singing at Fort Dix in New Jersey one night, with several moments of silence followed by a burst of applause.
She didn't understand the reaction.
"I walked off-stage and said, 'What happened?' The stage manager said they just got their orders, they're shipping out at midnight, and it really hit them," Lynn said, wiping away tears. "I'll cry now. I've never really gotten over that."
Late in World War II, she performed for troops in Burma, China, India and Africa, and toured hospitals filled with wounded and dying soldiers. She struggled for years with those memories and never told her mother what she saw. "I was seeing the carnage of war," she said.
Spotted performing on Broadway after the war, she was signed by 20th Century Fox to a movie contract, and Lynn appeared in a dozen films. Most often, she was cast as the wholesome, fresh-faced daughter, wife or girlfriend.
New York Times critic Bosley Crowther praised her work in two films starring Bette Davis, one a dramatic role as Davis' daughter in the divorce picture "Payment on Demand," and another in the comedy "June Bride.''
"I got to know Bette pretty well. She'd call me Boo, which was the character I played in 'June Bride,' " Lynn said. "I liked her a lot, but she could be very volatile. Not on-set - I found her to be wonderful professionally. I said to her once, 'How is your blood pressure, Bette?'
" 'My blood pressure is fine!'
"I told her she is going to have a stroke one day. She'd be screaming at somebody - for what? Nothing. She told me she would get nervous and that would happen."
In 1951, Lynn appeared in a live television comedy series called "The Egg and I" alongside Margaret Hamilton, a Cleveland native best known as the Wicked Witch of the West in "The Wizard of Oz.'' They celebrated Halloween together at Hamilton's New York City apartment.
"She fixed a nice dinner for me, then I sat on a stool next to her by a fire and she started reading ghost stories," Lynn recalled. "Then it hit me, suddenly: 'You know, Margaret, I just realized, I'm sitting here listening to the Wicked Witch of the West read ghost stories to me on Halloween.' I almost died laughing, and she did, too."
Thelma Lou and Barney
Lynn embraced the role of Thelma Lou, who patiently loved Barney despite his many quirks and missteps. While Griffith was the show's namesake, Knotts drew the most laughs. Knotts won an Emmy in each of his five seasons on the show, and she had to be on her toes in scenes with him.
"People always said, 'How could you keep a straight face and not laugh?' Because I was a good actress. I had to. They would have fired me if I had broken up and ruined a shot. We were very strict," Lynn said.
"Don was a very quiet, sweet man, nothing like Barney Fife. He wrote poetry. He is a sweet man - was - I hate to think of him gone."
Lynn said she and Griffith enjoyed playful teasing on the set.
"I loved Andy. He was a tease - he'd tease you to death. He was so funny," she said. "He gave me a picture and wrote on it, 'You were Don's girl, but you should have been mine.'
"I really loved Andy and Don."
Ron Howard played Opie - Sheriff Taylor's son - and Lynn recognized his talent right away. Howard has enjoyed a brilliant career in front of and behind the camera.
"I don't know of any child actor where you could see their brain think. You could really see him think about things and consider things," she said.
Knotts left the show in 1965 to pursue a career in movies. Lynn, who was paid $500 an episode, said she was offered a chance for Thelma Lou to stay in Mayberry and run a hair salon.
"I thought, 'No, what's Thelma Lou without Barney Fife?' I left, too," Lynn said. "My last day, I said goodbye to Don, and Andy and Aunt Bee and everybody, then I went into the ladies room and just collapsed in tears. I hated to leave."
She and Knotts returned for a class reunion episode in the show's final season that featured a contrived storyline. Thelma Lou had married another man, which crushed Barney. Lynn said she made up a different storyline in her head to get through the scenes: Thelma Lou had been hurt by Barney leaving town, and she was paying a co-worker to pretend to be her husband.
"It was all in my head. That allowed me to go up to Barney Fife and say, 'I want you to meet my husband.' I thought that was a lot better plot than what they had," she said.
Returning to Mayberry
Producers satisfied Lynn and fans in a TV movie 20 years later. In "Return to Mayberry," Thelma Lou was a widow, and the movie ended with Barney and Thelma Lou finally getting married.
Lynn never married, while Knotts and Griffith each married three times. Fans often asked her if there was something going on between her and Knotts. At first, she was offended.
"He was a married man," she said. "I finally told Don we have to look at this a different way. I finally realized it was a compliment because they believed us."
Lynn, Knotts and Griffith stayed close after the show, often having dinner together with their spouses, Knotts' and Griffith's wives. She said Knotts usually was quiet.
"Francey [Knotts] and I would laugh and talk, and he'd sit there, smiling. Finally, he'd say something, which would be important, whatever he said," Lynn recalled. "The last time, he backed out and said, 'Betty, I'm not feeling very well.' He went to the hospital and died not long after that. Andy flew all the way to L.A. [from his home in North Carolina] to be with Don in the hospital.
"Don told me after he was off the show, he and Andy were in touch every day of their lives. They were like brothers.''
Knotts died in 2006.
Lynn had fewer regular parts after "The Andy Griffith Show,'' though she did play Griffith's secretary in "Matlock" for five episodes. She became a regular at Mayberry Days.
When Lynn was close to retirement, her home in Los Angeles was robbed twice in the same year, prompting her to move. She considered returning home to Kansas City, but knew she'd be welcomed in Mount Airy and arrived in January 2007.
"Andy Griffith could not believe I came here to retire. He was shocked. I said I'm enjoying every minute of it. Everyone wants to tell me they went to school with him, or their mother did. Some connection, if they can," she said.
Griffith died in 2012. Lynn is one of three surviving regular cast members, including Howard and Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle).
Not until moving to Griffith's hometown did she begin to appreciate Mount Airy's influence on Griffith and, by extension, fictional Mayberry.
"When you're here, you see all the things Andy drew from for the show," she said. "So many funny or cute things happen here, and I'll think, 'Boy, that's Mayberry.' "
In an incident that surely would have appealed to Griffith and the show's writers, Lynn was robbed in a Mount Airy store parking lot not long after she arrived. The robber later was apprehended by local police.
It didn't alter her love for Mayberry, er, Mount Airy.
"I'm so welcomed here. People are so good to me,'' she said. "People of all ages hug me. I think God put me here, somehow. I really do.''