One critic hailed her as “the most beautiful and biggest-voiced transvestite in New York.” That kind of notice might not be what former beauty queen Betty Buckley had in mind 16 years ago when she defied her strict fundamentalist father and left Texas to become an actress. But Buckley’s clarion voice and forceful acting in the title role of the smash musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood has once again made her the toast of Broadway. Playing a man in Rupert Holmes’s exuberant version of Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel wasn’t quite the stretch it would have been for most actresses. After all, she won a 1983 Tony for donning whiskers and a tail as the forlorn feline who sang Memory in Cats. Now Buckley, 38, thinks she may have had enough of cross-dressing. She enjoys playing Drood (whose murderer the audience must guess in open ballot each performance) as “a cross between Tom Sawyer and the young David Bowie.” The male impersonation, says Buckley, is part of the British music hall tradition. But Betty has set a new goal for her next show: “I dream about walking onstage as myself.”
Just who that is takes some digging. Holed up in her dressing room, Buckley fusses with a coffee machine and chats about her Drood costume. “I wear this binder thing that flattens my breasts and pushes them down. It’s real uncomfortable.” She admits she does not warm quickly to talking about herself. “I’m basically shy,” she says.
Not always. Though she played a wholesome stepmother for four years on the hit sitcom Eight Is Enough, Buckley had a reputation for being difficult. “I heard those rumors, and they hurt my feelings,” she says. To her credit, she doesn’t discount them. “I took myself far too seriously,” says Buckley, who admits to having had a drug problem at the time. “I’m sure I was not an easy person.” Making her Eight Is Enough character more than a housewifey cipher took a fight. “I had to stand firm,” says Buckley. “I didn’t just lie down and roll over.”
She never has. It took steel to leave her charmed life in Fort Worth as the daughter of an Air Force lieutenant colonel and a housewife who trained her for home and hearth. Betty (she has three younger brothers) was Texas Christian University’s head cheerleader, as well as the scholarship student dating the captain of the football team. She knew by age 11 that she had a “huge voice” she could do something with. Scoring as a runner-up in the 1966 Miss Texas contest cinched it. Going against her father’s wishes was agonizing. “My father said being an actress was bad, but my heart knew what I wanted to do.”
She moved to New York in 1969, signed with the Ashley Famous agency, and wowed Broadway as a singing Martha Jefferson in 1776. She worked steadily on the stage and in TV commercials (most often as the housewife and mother her father wanted her to be), and Brian De Palma used her to dub other actors’ voices. Still, the big roles eluded her. Finally she got De Palma to let her make her screen debut as the gym teacher in 1976’s Carrie, and then she all but refused to let director Trevor Nunn turn her down for Cats. At first Nunn felt she radiated “too much strength, health and well-being” for the role of an aging, depressive glamour cat.
If Nunn only knew. As Buckley talks about her past, tears suddenly dapple those exquisite cheekbones. “Life in the fast lane, all that glamour, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, it’s a joke,” she says. “I bought it. I have bought every myth I grew up with. I was one really naive teenage kid.” During the late 70s, Buckley sought connection with others through “the usual social drugs,” and says bitterly, “It was a nightmare. It took a toll on my body and mind and my heart. I was in terrible shape.” Living part-time at the Chateau Marmont in L.A. from 1977 to 1981, she hung out with fellow resident John Belushi. “He was my pal. It was like a dorm.” She was interviewed by Bob Woodward for Wired, his 1984 bio on Belushi, but she’s only been able to skim the book. “It made me sad to review the whole thing,” she says. “It was so very bleak.” Despite the emotional strain, Buckley insists “drugs were never a problem professionally.” She made the decision to quit in 1979. “I cold turkeyed,” she says. Two years ago she gave up alcohol as well.
The family life her father envisioned for her, however, is still nowhere in sight. “I have lots to learn before I could have kids,” she says. She divorced Peter Flood in 1979 after seven years (he is still her sometime acting coach), and though her romantic liaisons have included former pro quarterback Craig Morton, Buckley goes home alone each night to her one-bedroom Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan. Her closest companion at the moment is Bridget, a Shih Tzu who is the latest addition to her menagerie, which includes a 16-year-old Yorkshire terrier named Rags and a Persian cat named Molly. Bridget accompanies her mistress to restaurants and dressing rooms and even has a small role in Drood. Bridget’s presence has really crowded the apartment. “It looks like a graduate student’s place,” says Buckley, whose speech is still cluttered with ’60s jargon. “The need of the heart is sincere,” she says. “To discover the spirit that resides within, you need to find spiritual connection.” And what about physical connection? Betty’s idea of the right man to connect with shows a bruised heart that’s still tender. Says Buckley: “I’m looking for Henry Thomas grown up.”