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Betty Lynn, the actress who portrayed Thelma Lou, the wholesome girlfriend of Don Knotts’ Barney Fife, on The Andy Griffith Show, has died. She was 95.
Lynn died Saturday after a short illness in Mount Airy, North Carolina, where she lived in a retirement home. She had moved to the birthplace of Andy Griffith — now home to the Andy Griffith Museum, where she regularly signed autographs and delighted fans — in 2006. The museum announced her death.
Before her most famous role, the red-haired Lynn appeared in such films as June Bride (1948) and Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) as a contract player at 20th Century Fox. Lynn was starring as the wife of Tom Tryon’s title character on Texas John Slaughter, part of ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney, when she auditioned to play the girlfriend of the neurotic deputy.
She joined the comedy near the end of its first season in 1961 and went on to appear on 26 episodes, getting $500 per show (she never had a contract). When Knotts exited the sitcom to focus on his movie career — Barney was written out, having left Mayberry to join the police department in Raleigh, North Carolina — Lynn departed, too.
The pair returned at a Mayberry High School reunion (class of ’48) for the January 1966 episode “The Return of Barney Fife,” in which Barney hopes to rekindle his love affair with Thelma Lou but is crushed to be introduced to her husband. It would mark her final appearance on the series.
However, on the 1986 NBC telefilm Return to Mayberry, Thelma Lou (now divorced) and Barney finally do get married.
Lynn reunited with Griffith one more time to play his secretary on a handful of first-season episodes of NBC’s Matlock in 1986.
Betty Lynn was born on Aug. 29, 1926, in Kansas City, Missouri. Her mother, Elizabeth, was a singer who performed with the Chicago opera. Her mom enrolled her in the Kansas City Conservatory of Music at age 5, and she sang on the radio and in supper clubs as a teenager.
When she turned 18, Lynn was hired by the USO and sent to New York and then to China, Burma and India to perform in a variety show for the troops “as the girl next door,” where she would “sing in the hospitals and talk to the fellas and visit with them,” she said.
After eight months with the USO, she appeared in the Broadway-bound comedy Park Avenue, where she was spotted by a Fox talent scout and signed by the studio. She came to Los Angeles with her mom and made her big-screen bow in the family comedy Sitting Pretty (1948), starring Robert Young, Maureen O’Hara and Clifton Webb.
She then played the youngster sister of Barbara Bates’ character in June Bride, starring Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery, and the daughters of Loretta Young in Mother Is a Freshman (1949) and Fred MacMurray and O’Hara in Father Was a Fullback (1949).
After working again with Webb in Cheaper by the Dozen and with Davis in Payment on Demand (1951), Lynn returned to New York and performed frequently on live TV, which she said derailed her movie career.
“The studios hated television,” she noted. “When they asked me what I had been doing, I said, ‘I’ve been doing live television, it’s absolutely wonderful, it’s like doing a play!’ They’d all just freeze. I didn’t understand that they were having great difficulty because people were staying home instead of going to the movies. I was making a complete fool of myself.”
She played Ray Bolger’s sister-in-law in 1953-54 on the ABC show Where’s Raymond?, had small parts in such films as Gun for a Coward (1956) and Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956) and guest-starred on series including Wagon Train, Lawman and Tales of Wells Fargo before her gig on Texas John Slaughter.
Lynn also had recurring roles on Family Affair and My Three Sons and showed up on episodes of The Farmer’s Daughter, Mod Squad, Little House on the Prairie, Police Story and Barnaby Jones.
She said she moved to Mount Airy after her longtime home in Los Angeles was twice burglarized.
A private burial service is planned in Culver City, the Andy Griffith Museum said, and a memorial service will be announced later.
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 St., Mount Airy, NC 27030.
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