Quantcast Betsy Palmer interview

Actress Betsy Palmer
aka Mrs. Voorhees!!!
Actress Betsy Palmer has had a long & incredible career working along side such established actors as Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Anthony Perkins, Joan Crawford, and many, many more. She's worked in every medium from TV to stage to movies, but most genre fans will always recognize her as the mother of Jason Voorhees from the Friday The 13th films. We talked to Betsy Palmer about her huge body of work, her experiences on the original Friday The 13th & her recent convention experiences. - by Mike C., Robg. 5/04
Tell us how you initially got involved in acting.

Well, it all started long, long ago in a little town called East Chicago, Indiana, which is right out side of Chicago, and is next to Gary, and it’s a lot of steel mills, oil refineries, it’s a small town like that. And from the time I started school from a very young girl, the teachers were always encouraging me and sending me on stage whenever there would be a program. It seems I had an affinity for performing, for being out in front of people and I enjoyed it. I guess I was sort of a good at it too, I don’t know. That was a long time ago. Then I went through all my school years they kept giving me more parts and things to do. Then, I went to buisness college in East Chicago after I finished high school. Most of my friends went away to a university or to a college, but I couldn’t afford to do that, so I learned to be a stenographer.
My first job was with the B&O Railroad, and I was pounding typewriters. One day my parents and I were talking and they said, "Don’t you think it’s time you further your eductation". I said I don’t really know what to do, and my mother was a very pragmatic woman and she said, "Why don’t you go into Chicago and take an aptitude test". So, I sought one and went to the YWCA which gave the test for free, which was the same one Northwestern was giving for money and I took the test. About two weeks later I went back and they gave me the readings and they said that I should always be involved with people in personnell work of sorts and that I had a flair for the arts. The last thing I was supposed to be doing was what I was doing, being a stenographer for the railroad.
So my dad came home one night and brought a friend with him that he was working with who had come from New York who had been in the theater. So we got to talking about theater. He and his wife had graduated from The Goodman Theatre, which was the theatrical theater in Chicago. He said, "You should work with the man who teaches us, Dr. Itkin". So I thought it out and it was so expensive. I was going to have to work during the daytime to go to school, but Itkin taught at the university at night. So I signed up there and I sold shoes at Marshall Fields in Chicago and I pounded typewriters at WGN which gave me my first TV job, eventually. I went and I graduated after three years in 1949 and my first summer stock job came very, very easily. I went and auditioned for somebody up in Lake Geneva. I worked with Sally Burman and Tom Bosely that summer, we were all in the same company, and these two men were going to start the opera house, which was a wonderful little opera house in Woodstock, Illinois, and was going to do six months of winter stock. We’d do a new play every weekend. Paul Newman was in that group, and he married his first wife that winter, Jackie.
When did you go from theater to your first television work?

I came back from doing the winter stock and I had finished the six months and I went over to WGN where I had worked in the typing pool just to say hello to everybody. My old boss said to me there, "How would you like to do some television?". I said, "Wow, that would be great". We, of course, didn’t have a television set.

I hadn’t been around a TV set, because people didn't have that many sets in those days. He said there was going to be a show with this band leader, who was well known and I can’t remember his name. He was involved with this woman who owned a lingerie store on Michigan Ave in Chicago and she was going to sponsor a 15 minute show for him to be the kind of master of ceremonies and I was going to be his "girl Friday".
I’ve always been able to talk and love to talk, I was the one that talked about things and then there were girls who modeled lingerie on camera.

I would describe what they were wearing, and that was my first television job I ever had. I wasn’t paid any money, but I thought the experience would be good for me. Then I did some more summer stock, the first summer stock that brought in the star system, and Imogene Coca was the first person I worked with. I worked with her and she said, "You’ve got to leave Chicago. You’ve got to go to either coast, New York or California, but you mustn’t stay here. You have talent, you should go." So, I worked with Arthur Treacher, and I worked with Burgess Meredith and all of these big name people who kept saying, "You’ve got to leave Chicago." I still went on and did more summer stock, and I had a friend, Sasha, who was working for an advertising agency. She was offered a job in NYC and at that time I was doing commercials with Hugh Downes on a soap opera that came out of Chicago, we would do the commercials live. So, I went home and said to my parents, I’m going to go to NY. I saved $400 from my summer stock work and a few weeks later I went to NY with Sasha.

We went to a party at her sister Toby’s house, her sister worked on "The Molly Goldberg Show", she was the PA on the show. Her husband was Frank Sutton, remember he was on "Gomer Pyle", well, in those days he couldn’t get himself arrested. So Frank and Toby were having this little gathering and there was this man sitting in the corner with three other guys sitting around him. I heard him say, "Well, she’d be perfect for it". He motioned me to come over and he said, "Are you an actress". He said, "On Monday go up to the Ted Ashley office and go and see this guy." I went in on Monday and told this man he sent me. They asked, "Do you have a southern accent", and I said, "I sur’ enuff do, honey", and I got the job. I was on a soap opera that originated out of Philadelphia. We actors would commute on the train everday to do this live soap. It was called "Miss Susan", Susan Peters, who was the lead had been a starlet of films. She was taking so many painkillers that after a while she couldn’t function anymore and the show lasted for about three or four months.

How did you get involved in working on some of the major drama hours of the time?

I needed a job and I ran into this guy, Peter, on the street. I told him I was on the way to an audition or maybe to be hired at a resaurant. He said I’ve got this show that is a half-hour live show at CBS that the Goodson and Toddson people, who I eventually worked for were doing. Anyway, he said it’s not an acting role, but it’s job and you do it five days a week on TV.

Well...it turned out to be the first "Wheel of Fortune", and it wasn’t anything like the show it turned out to be. I was on the original one and there was another one I did with Mike Wallace. The first major nighttime drama I did was called, "Hollywood Screen Test" where they took an unknown person with a known person and you did this half-hour show live. The known person was Jackie Cooper and I was the unknown, which was very interesting because the first movie I ever saw was "Treasure Island".

When did you first break into features?

My first two movies were John Ford movies. The first one was the Long Gray Line, with Tyrone Power and Maureen o’Hara. The second one I did for Mr. Ford was Mister Roberts. That was before Ford left the picture. He shot our girl sequence in Hawaii, and Mervyn LeRoy wanted to reshoot it out in Hollywood and I wouldn’t go back and do it. I wanted Ford’s hand to be the touch of the scenes that we did. The third movie was "The Tin Star" with Henry Fonda and Tony Perkins. Then they put me under contract at Columbia Pictures before I made the first film and I was to do two films a year.
Is that when you did "Queen Bee" Joan Crawford?

I did Queen Bee with Joan, or Joanne as I called her and she and I stayed friends all of her life. I liked her and she liked me and I found her a very professional and wonderful person. I don’t know about the kids except I know for me it was great.

We know she was wonderful with her fans...

She was a top, top actress. She was a MOVIE STAR. Big pictures. When I was doing "Friday the 13th", well, you know she did "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane", when she and Bette Davis couldn’t get themselves arrested, and I kept saying to Sean Cunningham, "Are you sure this is the way Bette Davis and Joan Crawford made their comeback?" [laughs].

You also worked on a lot of game shows during the 50's and 60's, how did that come about?

Warner Bros was called one day by the "I’ve Got a Secret" people. Faye Emerson had been part of the panel and Faye was out of town, they wanted to know who was in town. The guy said, well, Betsy Palmer is, we have this big movie we want to promote. I was promoting Mister Roberts. The people fell in love with me when I became a regular and that was just before I did my first Broadway show.

So you were still doing stage at the time?

I never left it! I loved the stage. I always loved it. I don’t think film is really an actors medium, it’s a directors medium, and a producer and your cameraman and your sound man.... Everybody’s got all of this going on. You can do a wonderful thing, but your best stuff can be left on the cutting room floor. I did all kinds of musicals, Hello Dolly, The King and I, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Peter Pan. Actually, Sandy Duncan, the Peter Pan who became very big, she played my Wendy, it was her first acting role. I did Eccentricities of a Nightingale, which was the last show that Tennessee Williams had anything to do with while he was still alive, and it was beautiful working with him.

Didn’t you even do a genre play, Countess Dracula?

I did Countess Dracula, yes. It was a play that was written for me up in the Arena Theater in Buffalo. I did "A Doll’s House" for them, and "Countess Dracula". I played three different roles, I played Elizabeth Von Helsing, which is the doctor that tracks Dracula, I played Lady Alucard. Then I played the Countess. In fact, my first entrance on-stage was as Elizabeth and I had to change and I had to get to my Lady Alucard outfit. I was at the door thirty seconds later, pulling on my black gloves, and talking with a very deep voice. The audience didn’t know it was me because I changed so quickly. Pretty soon, after two, three minutes you’d hear them whispering, "It’s Betsy!".

You then went back to television in the early 70's...

Went back? I never left television. I was doing Studio One. I did the Philco Playhouse, United States Steel Hour. I did the first Playhouse 90 that was ever done where they had a show that was an hour and a half long. That was with Jackie Gleason.

What was the live television experience like?

It was like working on-stage. It was just great. That’s why I loved it so much. You rehearsed for a week and then the crew would come in on a Sunday, then of course when the red light would go on the camera you were there. Sink or swim. Speaking of swimming...I was doing this Studio One and the side curtains caught fire. The drapery was on the hot lights and we couldn’t stop the show...and oh, the water that they brought in was all over the floor, and you’re running from set to set. It was like theater, absolutely like theater. There was no stopping.

How did this all lead up to Friday the 13th?

What happened was I was on Broadway, I did the last year and half of "Same Time, Next Year" and by this time I was living in Connecticut. I was driving home to Connecticut after the performance that night and my car just clonked out on me. It was Mercedes that I had for many, many years. I could never find anybody to fix it right and it finally just pooped out. I was on my way home and I didn’t get home until five ‘o clock in the morning. So I said to the universe, or god: "Universe, or god, whatever, I need a new car". I went out and I was looking and found a Volkswagen. I decided I was going to buy that. So, my agent called me on Friday and said, "How would you like to do a movie". I said, "Great, I hadn’t done a movie since the 1960's. Is it going to be in California?" He said, "No, it’s going to be shot in New Jersey. It’s ten days work and they’ll give you a $1000 a day."

And that’s it. I said that’s great, I found this car I wanted to buy which was $9,999.99. [laughs] Then he says "There’s only one catch. It’s a horror movie". I said, "Oh no, I have enough of a hard time trying to convince people I don’t just play games on television" You know, by then I’d been the girl on "The Today Show", I’d always done other things other than being a dramatic actress, which is the only thing I wanted to be. But I had a knack for doing these other things and being myself. So I said, "Send me the script.". So he send me the script, I read it and I said, "What a piece of junk! Nobody is ever going to see this piece of crap." So I called him back said I’d do it.

So you didn’t think the film would become as successful as it has?

Oh no! And I never met any of those kids! I only worked with that last girl, that's the only one I saw. We did it at a Boy Scout camp. The night I was driving up to see Tommy Savini, it was all just beginning for him too, I remember there was a sign that said Crystal Lake. I thought that was a good omen. I used to spend my summers at a Crystal Lake in Warsaw, Indiana with my dad and brother. Then they immediately took me to Tommy Savini’s workshop and they started to make my head that night. I remember the night I finished doing all that fighting on the beach, and this of course wasn’t in the summer anymore, we were into the fall. We would have snow sometimes. We had finished that sequence and I went up to the cabin to get out of my wet clothes. I said I want to get out of this stuff, and I never knew how they did it. I know Tom was the one that wielded the machete.

Was that all you in the fighting?

That’s me. Yes.

How did you prepare for all the fighting?

I didn’t prepare for the fighting. I mean, I was acting a role. I was taught the real method of acting where you do an autobiography for the character and you make a story happen before you come on stage. These people always have a life before you portray them. My story for myself about Pamela Voorhees was that she was in high school, and she and this boy fell in love and they were going steady. And in those days gals just didn’t go to bed with guys. So I figured they did make love and she became pregnant. So she finally has to tell her parents and her father throws her out of the house. I had done a lot of work for the Salvation Army, they had a service for unwed mothers, so I figured she went there and had the baby. Of course, she had no education and didn’t know how to earn a living. Then when Tommy was showing me some Poloroid pictures of his special effects there was this one....I said, who is this? He said that’s Jason, your son. I said, "why does he look so strange". He said, "Oh, he’s a mogoloid". I said, "Well that wasn’t in the script!". So not only did I have this child out of wedlock, but I also had a child that was born with a handicap. So I got this job at a summer camp so he could be around other children, and that’s how the job came to pass. But then those kids weren't watching my boy, my Jason when they should have been! This my story, the autobiography. It’s why I killed all the kids! They let me boy drown. I tried to warn them! So there... now you’ve got the whole story about Friday the 13th.

What was it like working with Sean Cunningham?

Sean was very good. He really made this film happen. I remember, well sometimes when you’re doing something so hokey as this seemed to me, you’d kind of want to overact. Like put your arm up over your face and go "He! He! He!", and he wouldn’t let me do that. He said, no play it straight. And I did. I played her totally straight. I only saw it twice after it opened. Then I never saw it again until last year at one of those conventions.

They were going to show the movie on Friday night and asked if I would come say a few words before the movie. I told them the story like I just told you. I said to one of the men, "Why don’t you bring me back after the movie was finished. I’ll go through the audience and say "I’m sorry. I lost my head"" They brought me back but they brought me back a little early and I had to see myself in that last sequence. I watched, and I forgot that it was me, I could see this character and it’s a study of a person going insane. She comes so sweet, like she’s going to save the day, and she loses it.

Any memorable experiences on the set of "Friday the 13th"?

That one sequence where I have to haul off and hit her. I said to Adrienne that night "Why don’t we rehearse this scene, I have to slap you.", because on-stage when you slap somebody, you slap them.

You try to catch it along the side of the cheek where the jawbone is very strong so you don’t hurt them. Well, we started to practice and I hit her. She collapsed to the floor, crying, "Sean! She hit me.". I said, well, of course I hit her, we were rehearsing the scene. He said, "No, no, no Betsy, we don’t hit people in movies. We miss them." I said it’s going to look like I missed her, he said, "Oh well, we'll put in a sound effect".

Any idea why the film became so successful?

You know, I was dumb, "Friday the 13th" is an excellent film. I am now called the Queen of the Slashers, and it was the first of the slasher movies. I remember there was a girl who called in on a radio show, and finally I said, "Why do you all love Mrs. Voorhees the way you do". And she said, because we understand why you did it. So, there you go.

Did you film anything for the sequels?

I went in and they had to make a new head. I never saw the second one, I hear my head is in the refrigerator, and my head is surrounded by candles looking very ghastly. I might have done a little voice over, but that was it. If they have shown anything it’s flashbacks. I never did anything else. All I ever made on that movie was $10,000. Everybody thinks I get all these residuals, I got residuals for two years and each year it was $15, not $50. $15, and I never made any money on them since.

Have you heard about the action figure that’s coming out of you?

I love it! You know I’m going to be dead and buried and live on through these crazy movies.

You’re going to be immortalized in plastic.

Wow. Isn’t that wild? Who would have ever thought?

Was it true you were asked to reprise the role for "Freddy vs. Jason"?

Yea, actually they approached me about a couple other ones, but they never wanted to pay me, they offered me scale. I guess they’re cutting corners, saving bucks, after making billions. They said it was only two days, I said I’d work 200 days. Pay me what you pay the men! I said thank you, but no thank. Then I hear they got someone to look and sound like me. Of course all the Friday the 13th fans tell me they knew it wasn’t me. And anyway, the scenes were dumb. The first Friday the 13th was really a hunk of something I could act.

You took part in the Friday the 13th Reunion, what was that like?

I love it. I love going to these events. People are so sweet, it’s really adorable. I’m accessible, I’m not a mean, grumpy person. It’s great fun, but I like people and always have all my life. But it is the irony of it all that I should be know for two things I never really wanted to be a part of. One is a game show, because I never really liked to play games, never in my life. Of course that’s what made me known, "I’ve Got A Secret". Then to do a horror film which I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would ever want to do anything like that, and look what happened. You never know. Life is a ball, when it bounces right, it’s a happy ball.

Thank you so much for taking some time out to talk to us, Betsy. And thanks for being such a sweetheart!

Visit the Friday The 13th website at www.FridayThe13thFilms.com!!!
Original Artwork Courtesy of Steven Ciancanelli

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