During the two-month spring hiatus of Eight Is Enough, Dick Van Patten has, predictably, been working on his tennis. His TV wife, Betty Buckley, has, less predictably, been working onstage—and at finding herself. Buckley has finally had it with being an All-American girl, though she’s been remarkably successful in the role for all her 32 years—college cheerleader (TCU ’68), beauty queen (Miss Fort Worth ’66), Broadway singer (1776, Pippin) and movie actress (Carrie).
Nowadays she insists she’s a lot closer to being the feminist she is portraying in the popular off-Broadway musical I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road. “This play is almost a point-by-point enactment of what I’ve been through,” Buckley finds. “Heather [her character] was packaged for the TV public, as I’ve been. And there’s a song about how she was trained to get what she wanted by smiling. I have smiled my whole life, till I feel like my little face is about to crack.”
When she joined Eight Is Enough in 1977, after Diana Hyland died of cancer, Betty had a different notion than the network about how to play Stepmother Bradford. “They kept me in the kitchen the first season,” she recalls. She was nearly canned for trying to fight the system, and much of the cast cold-shouldered her as a symbol of the loss of Hyland. “I sometimes think of Hollywood as a fraternity hazing,” she says. “If you survive all the games of psychological cruelty, you can join the club. The scars of those days are on my face,” she half-jokes. “Before I did the show, I had a flawless complexion. Now it’s lined.”
Her friend Dan Aykroyd has a theory about TV which Buckley buys. “You know how some American Indians believed anyone taking their photograph would steal their soul,” she says. “Well, Dan claims if our souls haven’t exactly been stolen, they’re scorched.”
Buckley’s protective Texas upbringing did not prepare her for such encounters. The oldest of four, Betty Lynn (as she was called) was encouraged to develop her talent by her mother, Betty Bob, a onetime singer and dancer. But Buckley’s father, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, hated show business. “He is strict—like a Victorian fundamentalist,” says Buckley. Her mother gave her dance lessons from age 3. Her father gave her a quarter horse. She began barrel racing in rodeos at 10 and in high school wrote columns on the sport (and teen thoughts) for the Fort Worth Press. By 15 Betty was earning $85 a week in summer musicals. Three years later she was second runner-up to Miss Texas. Her voice was so good that she was invited to sing on the Miss America Pageant telecast the next year.
In 1969, the year after she graduated from Texas Christian University, Buckley landed the choice role of Martha Jefferson in 1776. She was dating pro quarterback Craig Morton at the time. But when he gave her the wrong diamond—a pendant instead of a ring—she took off for London to appear in Promises, Promises. While there, she fell in love with Peter Flood, a fellow Texan who is now Jill Clayburgh’s acting coach. They married in 1972, separated two years later and divorced last June.
Betty now admits to a crush on Nels Van Patten, Dick’s 25-year-old son, but says, “I have given up on romance for the present. I would like to marry and have a child, but I think it will be later.” These days her creativity is focused on cutting a demo of two songs she has composed and writing a movie with Eight Is Enough’s Joan Prather (Janet) about girls on the rodeo circuit.
Buckley keeps one-bedroom apartments on New York’s West End Avenue and in L.A.’s Chateau Marmont hotel (Robert DeNiro bunks down the hall and Al Pacino’s in a bungalow out back). A graduate of five years of therapy and a vegetarian, she starts and ends each day with a half hour of yoga. It is all part of Betty Buckley’s self-discovery and need to become what she delights in playing off-Broadway: “a full-blown woman with a palette of emotional colors.”