Mayberry's Sweetheart: An Interview with Betty Lynn, Thelma Lou from The Andy Griffith Show
Written by Karen Brewer
Betty Lynn inside The Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy, North Carolina. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
Actress Betty Lynn, who portrayed Thelma Lou in the beloved television series The Andy Griffith Show, has grown to love Andy Griffith’s native Mount Airy, North Carolina, a town she has called home since 2007. “People have been so gracious to me, and I couldn’t help but love it,” Lynn told Nostalgic magazine. “Everybody is so kind, and they say that they all ‘grew up’ with me. They all grew up with the show, watching it with their aunt or grandmother or great grandmother, and they all know the lines from the show better than I do. It’s just a lovely place to be. Andy drew a lot from his hometown. The more you’re here, the more you see it. I’ve been blessed to be here. I’m very grateful.”
The Andy Griffith Show, created and produced by Sheldon Leonard, aired on CBS from October 3, 1960 until April 1, 1968 and is still watched and loved by millions of fans worldwide five decades after it first aired. The Andy Griffith Show was a spinoff from an episode of The Danny Thomas Show (Make Room for Daddy), also produced by Leonard. Gomer Pyle, USMC was a spin-off from The Andy Griffith Show and ran for five seasons, from 1964 to 1969. Mayberry R.F.D. was a continuation of The Andy Griffith Show, with several of the same cast members, and aired from 1968 to 1971.
Interior shots for The Andy Griffith Show were filmed at Desilu Studios on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood, and exterior filming was at Desilu’s 40 Acres backlot. Myers Lake, which is featured in several episodes and is also seen during each episode’s opening with Opie and Andy as the show’s theme song, “The Fishing Hole,” is whistled, is actually Franklin Canyon Lake, originally Upper Canyon Reservoir, in Beverly Hills.
In the series, the late Andy Griffith played widowed Sheriff Andy Taylor, who lives with his young son, Opie (played by Ron Howard), and Aunt Bea (played by Frances Bavier) in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina. Don Knotts portrayed Deputy Barney Fife, and Lynn played his girlfriend, Thelma Lou, who later became his wife in the 1986 Andy Griffith Show reunion movie Return to Mayberry.
The Andy Griffith Show was in the top 10 in the Nielsen ratings all eight of its seasons, from 1960 to 1968, and was ranked number one in its final season. It enjoys continued success airing in repeat episodes, and the characters and cast members are revered by viewers as much as the show itself. The Andy Griffith Show is a timeless depiction of small-town life, a show with traditional values and with a moral lesson interwoven with comedy.
As Griffith’s character, Sheriff Andy Taylor, said in the television reunion movie, Return to Mayberry, which aired 18 years after The Andy Griffith Show ceased original programming, “There’s something about Mayberry and Mayberry folk that never leaves you. No matter where life takes you, you always carry in your heart the memories of old times and old friends.”
Griffith himself once spoke of Mayberry as a “kind of state of mind” and added, “The feeling that Mayberry conjured up was quiet, peaceful, funny. Mayberry was a town filled with wonderfully colorful characters.”
One of the ‘wonderfully colorful characters’ in Mayberry was Barney Fife, Sheriff Taylor’s deputy, who was also introduced in the first episode as Sheriff Taylor’s cousin. And making Barney complete was his steady girlfriend, Thelma Lou, played by Betty Lynn.
Betty Lynn was born Elizabeth Ann Theresa Lynn on August 29, 1926 in Kansas City, Missouri.
At the age of about five, she began studying dance at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music.
As a high school student, she began acting and singing in radio in Kansas City. Her mother, a professional singer, helped her and played piano for her. At the age of 17, Lynn sang in a club in a hotel in Kansas City, and auditioned for the USO when it came through her hometown.
She was told to contact the USO when she turned 18, and in 1944, during World War II, she toured for eight months in Morocco, Iran, India, Burma, and China, singing for wounded soldiers in hospitals and wards. Twenty-year-old guitarist Tommy Decker, from Chicago, joined her. For her work for the USO, Lynn was later given a commendation from the United States Department of State and was named an honorary Colonel in the American Legion.
After the USO tour ended, Lynn went home for a few months and then returned to New York. In 1946, she appeared on Broadway, was noticed by movie studios, and was signed by 20th Century Fox. She moved to California, along with her mother, in June of 1947, as Lynn was still under the age of 21, and her mother needed to sign for her. Lynn was under contract with Fox Studios for four years and then worked at other studios, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM), Universal Studios, Columbia Pictures, and Paramount Pictures.
From 1948 to 1951, Lynn appeared in the films Sitting Pretty (with Clifton Webb, Maureen O’Hara, and Robert Young), June Bride (with Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery), Apartment for Peggy (with Jeanne Crain and William Holden), Mother Is a Freshman (with Loretta Young, Van Johnson, and Rudy Vallee), Father is a Fullback (with Fred MacMurray, Maureen O’Hara, and Natalie Wood), Cheaper By the Dozen (with Clifton Webb, Myrna Loy, Jeanne Crain), Payment on Demand (with Bette Davis and Barry Sullivan), and Take Care of My Little Girl (with Jeanne Crain, Dale Robertson, Mitzi Gaynor, and Jean Peters).
Lynn’s acting career turned toward television from 1951 to 1954, including in The Freddy Martin Show (with Merv Griffin and Roddy McDowall), The Egg and I (with Betty Blake), and Where’s Raymond? (with Ray Bolger).
The next three years, Lynn returned to movies, appearing in several feature films for both MGM and Universal Studios, and she also performed in plays, including Peg of My Heart, The Moon is Blue, and Come Blow Your Horn.
In 1957, Lynn returned again to television, appearing in The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre, Markham, Schlitz Playhouse, Calvacade of America, Matinee Theater, The Gale Storm Show, and many westerns, such as Sugarfoot, Wagon Train, and Tales of Wells Fargo. She also appeared in television movies for Walt Disney and was working for Disney in the television series Texas John Slaughter when she was called to audition for the role of Thelma Lou in The Andy Griffith Show. When Disney dropped the Texas John Slaughter series, Lynn was free to accept the role on The Andy Griffith Show. She had no contract, but, from 1961 to 1966, she appeared in 26 episodes as Barney Fife’s girlfriend, Thelma Lou. She left the series when Don Knotts left to pursue a film career and the character of Thelma Lou was written out.
After The Andy Griffith Show, Lynn appeared in episodes of several television series, including Family Affair, My Three Sons, The Smothers Brothers Show, The Smith Family (with a cast that included Ron Howard from The Andy Griffith Show), The Mod Squad, Little House on the Prairie, Police Story, Barnaby Jones, and Matlock (with Andy Griffith).
She is well known for her role as Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show, especially in the town of Mount Airy, by its citizens and also by Andy Griffith Show fans from far and wide who make the pilgrimage to their own Mayberry and The Andy Griffith Museum.
When asked what she thinks has made the television series so loved, Lynn told Nostalgic magazine, “Well, they had great writers, and Andy had great input in the show, and Don, too. And we had a wonderful cast. That really meant a lot. When you looked in their eyes, you saw something. You connected to people. They weren’t just ‘acting.’ You really felt that they felt something. It was like a family. I really loved all of them and enjoyed being with them. I couldn’t wait when I got a call to be on the show. We’d read the scripts and laugh, and then, after that, everything was serious. We weren’t laughing anymore. We worked very hard to put that show on, an episode in a few days. I am very grateful, I’m thankful that I was a part of a wonderful show like that. I was very fortunate.”
Lynn said that she has many favorite episodes from her time on The Andy Griffith Show, and she cannot single out just one. “I love so many: Barney’s first car, the choir, the ones with Opie in the beginning, where Aunt Bea wants to leave because she feels he doesn’t care about having her there, and he runs and says, ‘But she can’t leave. She needs me. She can’t do anything.’ So cute. He was a wonderful little actor. He really was fantastic. He had a wonderful family, which helped a lot. They’d be on the set, and they were actors, so they were not all giddy and impressed with show business, so that was a great thing. And they brought him and Clint up to be really great boys. And Andy and Don couldn’t have been sweeter to me. Don was very quiet, nothing like Barney. What talent – the two of them were wonderful, both of them. Don told me that they were in touch every day of their lives once the show was over. They were like brothers. No matter where they were, they were in touch, which I thought was great. It was wonderful to work with them. The whole cast was great to work with.”
Lynn appears at The Andy Griffith Museum the third Friday of each month, greeting fans and signing autographs. She is well loved by Museum staff and volunteers and everyone who enters the door. While most of the museum is devoted to the career of Andy Griffith, additional items are also on display, including Lynn’s uniform she wore when she performed in the USO during World War II. Lynn told Nostalgic magazine that she had the opportunity to go with veterans on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II Memorial. “It was wonderful,” she said. “I also was very honored when the USO Gala in Greensboro invited me as a guest, and it was a wonderful occasion. There were many young people, wounded. And they had a woman General, a beautiful woman General in the Marine Corps there. I had never met a woman General. All kinds of people connected to service at that time were there. It was a great occasion for me, and I spoke, so I had a few minutes to give them some idea, a little bit, of what I had gone through. Altogether, counting the time in the East Coast at the camps and then going overseas, I was over there eight months. It was quite an experience, a very difficult one, mostly.”
As for her own Mayberry, Lynn enjoys living in Mount Airy, which she first visited when she appeared during Mayberry Days, an annual event held the last weekend of September in Mount Airy. “I come every year to Mayberry Days,” she told Nostalgic magazine. “At first, I didn’t know what it was, so I didn’t bother with it, but Maggie Peterson, who played Charlene Darling on the show, was nice enough to say, ‘Well, Betty, you should go sometime. It’s fun.’” And now, Lynn participates in Mayberry Days not as a visitor but as a full-time resident, a citizen, of this small town with a big heart, reminiscent of Andy Taylor’s hometown on The Andy Griffith Show.
As Andy Griffith once said, “You won’t find our town of Mayberry on a map, but it has found a place in our hearts and minds and memories.”