LGBTQ South Florida

Not just a memory: Betty Buckley of ‘Cats’ to sing Friday, Saturday in Miami Beach

Tony-winning Broadway star Betty Buckley.
Tony-winning Broadway star Betty Buckley.

Since her Broadway debut in the 1969 musical 1776, Tony-winning entertainer Betty Buckley has accrued 46 years of show business memories.

“I’ve been so blessed to get to work with some of the great artists in the musical theater, in film and in television,” says Buckley, who became nationally famous as the stepmother on the popular ‘70s comedy-drama Eight is Enough and in 1982 won critical acclaim as Grizabella in the original Broadway cast of Cats. Friday and Saturday, Buckley performs in concert with pianist Christian Jacob at the Colony Theatre on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.

“The majority of songs I’ll be singing are from my new Ghostlight album, which was produced by T Bone Burnett,” says Texas-born Buckley, who at age 22 won the role of Martha Jefferson in 1776 her first day in New York.

After 1776, Buckley went to London and performed about a year in Promises, Promises.

Back in New York, Buckley appeared Off Broadway and returned briefly to 1776. “Then I did Pippin on Broadway for a really long time. I was in that show and got to work with Bob Fosse. I stayed in that show for a long time to pay for my acting classes and my therapy.”

She then auditioned for Brian De Palma’s film, Phantom of the Paradise. “He didn’t pick me for that, but he hired me to do voices in three of his movies after that.”

Buckley says De Palma wanted her to re-record (“loop”) dialog for other actresses who were pretty but couldn’t act.

“I said, ‘Listen, Brian, you can’t do this man. There are all these people like me who are studying acting in New York or L.A. or wherever, paying for our classes and working really hard to become better actors and any one of these parts would be great debut parts for us. I’m just telling you right now, I won’t do this anymore.’ He was like, ‘Oh.’ Six months later, he called me and he gave me the book of Carrie. He said ‘This is my next movie. I want you to be the gym teacher.’”

Playing opposite other up-and-coming stars including Sissy Spacek and John Travolta in Carrie led to the TV series, Eight is Enough. ABC programming executive Brandon Tartikoff chose Buckley to replace TV mom Diana Hyland, the 42-year-old actress who died suddenly of cancer 12 days after Eight is Enough premiered in March 1977.

“I was the stepmother. I came in as a traveling tutor to tutor the character played by Willie Aames, Tommy. Over the course of several episodes, the Bradford dad played by Dick Van Patten, we start dating and we got married.”

Buckley says working a weekly television series was an education.

“I really learned how to act there on film. It was like being in a school for big-business show business for four intense years,” she says. “We shot 29 episodes a year for four years. A lot — it’s a lot of work and it was great. I learned so many things about everything about the business of show business. About surviving in show business. About working in a turn-it-out factory-type setting. Having to be on point. It’s all consuming doing a show like that, but it was quite a wonderful learning experience. While I was there I was continuing to study at the Stella Adler Studio in Los Angeles and watching my work each day in the dailies and saying, ‘Oh yeah, this works, this doesn’t work’ and kind of learned how to be a better actor.”

After Eight is Enough ended in 1982, Buckley co-starred in the film Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall and then returned to Broadway, starring in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats and introducing American audiences to the show’s big hit song, Memory.

Television audiences were stunned to learn that “Abby Bradford” of Eight is Enough could carry a big Broadway musical.

“I had yet to do a part on Broadway that demonstrated my full potential as an actress-singer,” says Buckley, who won the 1983 Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. “That’s what Cats was for me —the doorway to that potential for people to be aware of the skills set that I had been working on for a number of years.”

Eleven years ago, Buckley moved back to Texas, where she owns a ranch west of Fort Worth and raises horses.

“It was a childhood dream that I kind of overlooked because I had been so busy studying and learning and growing and working,” Buckley says. “It’s brought a lot of balance to my life. Let me put it that way.”