‘The Old Friends’ actress Betty Buckley recalls career

In Houston for Alley Theatre’s production of a Horton Foote play, Betty Buckley reveals that intuition played a big part in her career

By Everett Evans, Houston Chronicle
September 1, 2014

Actress Betty Buckley was barely a teen when she had an epiphany about her career.

“I’d stand on the balcony of my family’s house, looking over the Texas plains and singing. I knew what my voice would sound like someday and how it would affect people. It wasn’t an ambition, it was just knowing that I would be singing in musicals on Broadway.”

The Texas native’s intuition proved correct. Born in Big Spring and raised in Fort Worth, Buckley, currently starring in the Alley Theatre’s “The Old Friends,” was deemed “the voice of Broadway” by New York Magazine and inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2012.

How Buckley landed the role of Martha Jefferson in “1776” on her first day in New York in 1969 is Broadway lore; the show would turn out to be the season’s big Tony winner.

She went on to star in “Pippin,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Sunset Boulevard” and other memorable works. Most famously, she won a Tony as the original Broadway Grizabella in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1982 blockbuster “Cats,” indelibly delivering the show’s signature number, “Memory.”

Buckley’s success hasn’t been limited to Broadway. She starred as Abby in the popular TV dramedy “Eight Is Enough” from 1977 to 1981 and has appeared in films, including Brian DePalma’s “Carrie” and “Tender Mercies,” which earned Texas storyteller Horton Foote an Oscar for the screenplay of his work.

Buckley started singing as a tot, first in church choirs, then in an all-city chorus. Her mother, a former dancer, loved musical theater, so Buckley grew up listening to cast albums and such singers as Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald. But Buckley’s mother had to sneak her daughter out of the house for dance classes because her husband disapproved of show business.

“He was from South Dakota, and I guess the only actresses he knew there were dance-hall girls. So my pursuing this career became a huge focal point of dissonance in my family. I’ve spent thousands in analysis.”

Buckley entered the Miss Texas pageant when she was a junior. She didn’t win, but she so impressed the producer he hired her to sing at the following year’s Miss America pageant. That appearance got her an agent and more gigs. She was performing in Philadelphia when her agent called to tell her to take the train to New York, to audition for a new Broadway show.

“I didn’t even know what I was auditioning for,” Buckley says. “Just that the girl they’d hired hadn’t worked out and they couldn’t find what they wanted. I sang my pageant song, “Rose of Washington Square,” and they freaked out. When they heard it was my first day in New York, they said ‘Oh my God, it’s like a movie!’ ”

The next day, she was in rehearsal and getting a costume fitted for her new role as Martha Jefferson in “1776.”

It can happen.

Buckley credits the veteran cast of “1776” – including William Daniels and Howard Da Silva – with teaching her the ropes. “They took me under their wing and made things clear: ‘This is what you’re good at, and this is what you need to learn – and where to go for it.’ ”

Talents were tested

Buckley’s talents were tested 13 years later when she was preparing for the role of Grizabella, an old, shunned feline in “Cats.” Her rendition of “Memory” wasn’t landing.

“It was not stopping the show. And everyone knew it was written to stop the show, that Elaine Paige had stopped the show with it in London. I was singing with everything I’d learned from years of lessons, but it wasn’t happening,” she said.

Everyone had a suggestion, but nothing seemed to work. So she turned to Paul Gavert, her voice teacher. He threw a pillow down and told her to get on the floor and hit it.

“When I did that, I started crying, and I heard a voice in my head saying ‘I’m here, too.’ It was that voice inside, the kid that does the work. That was the only one I had not consulted in the whole process. And what that inner being told me was to become aware of the homeless.”

Buckley started watching and following homeless people around the city. When she tried “Memory” again, scant days before opening night, “I was no longer begging, I was sharing with empathy and compassion,” she said.

“And when I finished, there was this breathless silence, and then the house just went nuts.”

Reprising role

Buckley is reprising her acclaimed 2013 off-Broadway performance in “The Old Friends” for the Alley. She’s pleased to be reunited with Foote’s work and with Michael Wilson, who directed her in Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real” at the Hartford Stage.

“On the set of ‘Tender Mercies,’ I used to sit next to Horton and listen to his stories about his family and all the actors he’d worked with,” Buckley said. “And I think Michael is one of the greats of American theater.”

She plays Gertrude Ratliff, the richest woman in Harrison, Texas, a demanding alcoholic who expects to get her way in all things – including her clash with an old girlhood rival (played by Hallie Foote) over a man both covet.

“Obviously, I am the antagonist,” Buckley says. “But I don’t believe Gertrude is a monster. She feels justified. She’s loved this man all her life, and now that her husband has died and she’s finally free to be with him, this woman who was his high school sweetheart sweeps into town. At several points, she cries for help and no one will hear her.”

Buckley sees similarities between Gertrude and Norma Desmond, the faded diva of “Sunset Boulevard” – another demanding, self-centered figure. “I see the humanity in both roles,” she says. “Everyone starts as an innocent. I’ve yet to meet anybody who is wholly good or wholly bad. If I play a dark character, I emphasize the light in that person, and vice versa.”

Returned to Texas

Buckley was living in New York on 9/11. After the attacks, she took stock and returned to Texas.

“I’d had a horse as a child,” she says, “and when I started in theater, it was my dream to have enough money to have a horse and ride in competitions. After 9/11, I realized I had the career, but I’d forgotten to get the horse!”

She now lives on a 35-acre ranch near Fort Worth. She travels to performances but also rides in cutting-horse competitions. “Before I bought the ranch, the center of my life was just working. Now it’s working to pay for my ranch and ride horses.” (She owns four.)

Buckley’s new album “Ghostlight,” her 16th, will be released on Sept. 16. Mixing jazz standards like “Body and Soul” with classic theater songs like “This Nearly Was Mine” and “Come to Me, Bend to Me,” the album reunites the singer with famed record producer T Bone Burnett, a lifelong friend. She describes the interpretive style as “crime jazz” – evoking “a smoky club where dangerous men and glamorous women congregate and seek consolation.”

Buckley will return to New York cabaret, performing songs from the album in a run of live shows at Joe’s Pub at the Public, beginning Oct. 7.

“What I like about my career,” she adds, “is that it keeps generating work that I’m proud of. And that I get to work with people I really admire and love, like the company of ‘The Old Friends.’ “