Becoming Thelma Lou—My Journey to Hollywood, Mayberry, and Beyond
By Betty Lynn
With Jim Clark and Tim McAbee
Sadly, Betty Lynn passed away on October 16, 2021, while putting the finishing touches on her autobiography. In conjunction with the posthumous publication of the book, this interview is with her cowriters.
When did you first meet Betty Lynn?
Jim: I first met Betty on location during filming of the Return to Mayberry movie in 1986. In my capacity as a founder and the Presiding Goober of The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club since 1979, I had corresponded with Betty for a few years prior to that, but we didn’t actually meet until the movie.
Tim: I first met Betty on January 19, 2000, at the ceremony when Don Knotts received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I initially met Betty on the sidewalk and we chatted briefly. Later that day, there was a luncheon in Don’s honor, and we spoke again. She invited a friend and me to join her for some iced tea and we had a nice visit.
How did this book project begin?
In the course of hosting Betty and other Griffith show cast members for several Mayberry cast reunion shows in the early 2000s, Tim spent a lot of down time visiting with Betty. In 2004, Tim had the inspiration to start recording some of Betty’s stories for a potential book, and Betty liked that idea. They invited Jim to join the project. Our recordings of Betty’s stories continued, off and on, into 2021.
What do you think will surprise readers of this book the most about Betty Lynn?
Well, we don’t want to spoil too many of the book’s surprises. It’ll be more fun for readers to discover them in the book. But in general, especially for Mayberry fans who don’t know much about Betty aside from the Griffith show, we think they’ll be surprised by all that she did before her time on the Griffith show, including her wartime adventures and her work with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
As Betty’s helpers with writing her story, what surprised you the most?
At this point, having known Betty for so long and having worked with her as she told us her stories over many years, it’s hard to remember things that surprised us. But what impressed both of us—and what we think always impressed fans who met her through the years—was her tremendous memory. Not only for details about her own life, but also details about many of the thousands of people that she met. To have that kind of memory is a gift to some degree. But it’s also an indication of genuinely caring about others.
This book has a lot of wonderful photographs. Where did you find all of these images?
The vast majority of the photos are from Betty’s personal collection, which she had donated to the Surry Arts Council in Mount Airy, N.C. Betty’s mother had saved a lot of them, and then Betty was equally attentive to preserving them. The baton has now been passed to the Surry Arts Council, which also operates the Andy Griffith Museum. All those photos are a tremendous bonus for us to be able to include in Betty’s book.
Do you think it’s accurate that Betty did, in fact, become Thelma Lou?
She certainly was Thelma Lou to countless fans! As the matriarch of the Mayberry cast for the last three decades of her life, Betty also became a de facto Aunt Bee. She kept in touch with and looked after everybody. So yes, Betty became Thelma Lou, but she was also so many other things, both to herself and to most folks who knew her well. Most of all, of course, she was a great friend to many.
Betty moved to Andy Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy, N.C., in 2007. Is Mount Airy the real Mayberry?
However much Mount Airy is the real Mayberry, it became all the more so once Betty moved there. That’s for sure. And aside from Betty’s contributions to Mount Airy’s Mayberry mystique, there are all kinds of Mount Airy landmarks and people’s names that will be familiar to folks who watch the Griffith show. It’s probably not completely accurate to say that Mayberry is based on Mount Airy, but Andy Griffith’s growing up there couldn’t help but have provided some inspiration for his creation of Mayberry on TV. Plus, Andy used a lot of Mount Airy references as a way to say hello to family and friends back in his hometown. In the last thirty years or so, Mount Airy has done a lot of things to emphasize its connection to Mayberry, including the annual Mayberry Days festival, the Andy Griffith Museum, and being home to one of the two TV Land Landmark statues of Andy and Opie. So, Mount Airy has become Mayberry in much the same way as Betty became Thelma Lou. A classic case of life inspiring art, and then art, in turn, inspiring life.
Jim, do you have a favorite memory of Betty?
I don’t know that it’s individual memories per se, so much as just enjoying hearing her tell stories and hearing her wonderful laugh. And it was touching to see how genuinely grateful Betty was about her life in general and specifically for all the people who expressed their appreciation to her through the years. There also was no better person to have a meal with in Los Angeles. She knew where all the best tables were at all the best restaurants!
How about you, Tim?
I have many great memories, but one that stands out is the night a friend and I were locked out on a balcony with Betty. She was appearing at one of our Mayberry reunion events and I had rented cabins for the cast. She wanted to step out on the balcony and have a cigarette. When we started back in, the door was locked, and I had left the key on a counter inside. It was about two o’clock in the morning and pitch black, and we were very high up on this balcony. Betty shares the story in the book, so I won’t go into all the details, but we sat on that balcony talking and laughing until daybreak, when I was finally able to see how to climb down one of the supports and then go in the front door and let them in. Betty shared some great stories that night about her life and career. Being entertained by Betty’s stories while stranded on the balcony was certainly an impetus for the book.
Do you think Betty would’ve been pleased by the book in its final, published form?
We certainly hope so! That was 100 percent our mission. We’re just sad that Betty didn’t get to see the finished product. But the manuscript was completed before she died, and Betty had chosen most of the photos in the book, most of which were hers to begin with. So, the published book wouldn’t have had any surprises to Betty. She never got to see the book’s cover, but the main photo used on the cover was her favorite, so we feel sure she would’ve approved of that selection. As long as the book pleases its audience of readers, we believe that Betty would’ve been pleased, too.