Interview: Betsy Palmer

I will say right here and right now, there are very few people that I’ve met that make me feel as much as a “fanboy” as I did speaking to Betsy Palmer. After all, one of the main reasons I wanted to write a column like Time Out with Horror Legends is because of this wonderful actress. While her career spanned several decades, it is a mere twenty minutes (give of take) that made her a horror icon. This squeaky clean TV actress from the Fifties suddenly became the vengeful Mrs. Voorhees and will forever be remembered as Jason’s mom.

I spoke to her awhile ago, and I am happy to finally offer all you F13 lovers my one on one chat with an absolutely lovely and charming lady named Betsy. She told me some amazing stories about having a romance with James Dean, working with Paul Newman, and how she has only seen FRIDAY THE 13th three times since its release. I found her to be such a terrific woman as she is completely open about her life and she doesn’t seem to have a single regret. While we didn’t talk about the recent F13 remake, I personally feel that it was a huge misstep to not have her involved in it. She absolutely should be offered a role for the sequel. Seriously, let her turn you down… she deserves it. And thus, I happily present to you Betsy Palmer. And just in time for 2009's second Friday the 13th!

Now to start off I have to tell you, when we first began the Horror Legends column, you were at the very top of the list of people I wanted to interview.

Thank you. One day I said to myself, about a year or so ago, if it was good enough for Boris Karloff, what am I bitching and complaining about. Because he was a very thoughtful and beautiful actor, you know, and all that. And well, he probably did the films to make a buck or whatever. And I did it because my car had fallen apart the night before on the road or whatever. But anyway, coming home from work - because I was doing a play on Broadway at the time - but anyway, you do it and then there you are, snowballed into eternity. I guess [Laughing].

And the funny thing is, it is such a short amount of screen time, just under twenty minutes. And now you are known as this character and nobody can replace that.

Mrs. Voorhees. Jason’s mommy [Laughing]. It makes me laugh, it really does. The whole thing. I’ll tell you what, I approached that role and I have spoken about it when they have us get up and speak at these conventions. I approached this character as I always approach everything, as being an actress, and that these people have lives before they come on the screen or before they come on stage. And you make it for yourself, that doesn’t have to do anything with the writers or not. You’re given some specifics with which you can make a character happen. And that was how I justified this high school pregnancy thing that I made for myself. Because there was this shot in the script that said there was this hand with a man’s class ring on it, and I thought, oh, that’s back in my time. In the Forties you know, when we girls wore the rings with tape around them or with a string around our neck. Everybody went steady but nobody went to bed with anybody [Laughing], except one girl at school. She was the only one in class, at least she was rumored to… but we just didn’t. You did everything almost, but not quite, you know. You went as far as possible but you didn’t do possible. And she ends up getting pregnant, and this is what happened to her, with her steady guy, and she told him and he said, ‘Ahhhh, don’t brush it off on me.’ And she didn’t tell her family until she began to show her pregnancy maybe in the seventh month or the eighth month. Her father throws her out and banishes her forever. She goes to the Salvation Army, because I used to do a lot of work with the Army, and so she went to a home for unwed mothers which the Army has. She has the baby and eventually came to this camp so he could be with other children.

But when I go to the location shooting, when I was going to shoot - I was just in the last ten days of shooting - I didn’t meet anybody else but Adrienne [King] and none of the other so-called star faces. Not so-called actually, Kevin Bacon and all that jazz. Beautiful career. He’s such a good actor. Anyway, but I have never met him. And so I’m looking at some Polaroids that Tommy Savini gave me to see his special effects and all. And I came upon this one and I said, ‘And who’s this?’, and he said, ‘Oh, that’s your son Jason.’, I said, ‘WHAT?! Why does he look the way he looks?’, ‘Oh, he’s a mongoloid.’, I said, ‘What? That wasn’t in the script. For God’s sake, no wonder this woman went loony. The boy drowned in the lake for God’s sake!’ And I don’t buy into these other Jason’s. I don’t know who they are in the hockey mask. No. Not my little boy [Laughing]. I wouldn’t have done the things I did if my kid weren’t at the bottom of the lake. Oh no, I won’t buy into it. So this is what I say… is what the audiences read, because I will say to them when they come up with the autograph and all that. I say, why do you love her so much? They say, because we understand why she did it. You see? There you are. So it pays off to always be honest no matter what the role is that you’re doing.

I can buy into that absolutely.

Well sure. Especially a special child like that. A poor little kid that was born handicapped.

Honestly, and I have to say this, as I was researching your career, I was watching a couple of interviews you’d done with fans. And you are really just a sweet and wonderful person…

It’s not that I’m sweet or wonderful, I’m just interested in people. You know, I don’t want to be with them all [Laughing].

I don’t blame you on that one.

And those autograph signing conventions are really another trip unto themselves. But I basically have always enjoyed people. Ever since I was a little girl. That is just something that’s built into me. And as I say, there are some people I couldn’t give a damn less whether to be with them or not, you know. And I choose not to be with some people who just drive me mad. Some of them are just bloodsuckers. You know, you’re with some people and you’re with them like, maybe a minute or two minutes and all of a sudden you’re feeling so drained [Laughing]. Because they suck you. They don’t know they’re doing it, but they’re really vampires. You know, your energy is sucked right out of you.

Especially people who are really negative.

Oh yes. That’s too bad. I was married to a man who’s favorite word was negative. He wouldn’t say no, he’d just say ‘negative’.

Now looking back at your career, you started off in the Fifties, when television was a new media…

Television was live in those days. It was wonderful. It was like being in the theatre but you were doing it in front of a camera and reaching all those people. Oh it was a wonderful, wonderful time.

Did you always know you wanted to be an actress?

No. Not really.

How did you fall into it?

Well, what happened was that for one thing, the teachers always were pushing me on-stage, you know, in grade school, grammar school, high school. Really from kindergarten on. Evidently I was comfortable up in front of people and sort of enjoyed it. I guess I was one they could count on that wouldn’t walk off-stage crying. But I had gone to my mother’s business college after I graduated from high school in East Chicago. She said, I always want you to have something to fall back on. And then I became a stenographer and secretary for the BNO Railroad for the car foreman on the RIP track. Way back in the bowels of a railroad yard, you know, one of those dusty old railroad yards where people never throw anything away [Laughing]. And there were all these old guys that chew tobacco and stuff like that.

But anyway, after I was out of high school, about a year and a half, my folks said don’t you think you should further your education. And I said, ‘I don’t know what I want to do.’ So my mother - very pragmatic woman - said go on into Chicago and take an aptitude test. So I did, I went to the YWCA which was giving one for nothing and took the test. Then after two weeks, I went back and they gave me the reading. It showed that I had a flair for being with people, I should be in some sort of social work. And [it showed] that I had a flair for a lot of the arts. The last thing I was supposed to be doing was what I was doing, locked up in this depressing office. So I thought, well isn’t that interesting. And I thought, well, the one I’d meet the most people in would be acting. I did do some art work and stuff like that, but…

Anyway, my father brought a man home to dinner one night and took him to our house, and he and his wife had been in New York trying to make it as actors. They were from the same area that I was in. And he told me about this professor, Dr. Itkin, who taught at the Goodman Theatre during the day time, and at Saint Paul University at night, six to midnight. So I went. I had to put myself through school so I knew I’d have to work, and then I went to school from six until midnight, and then I’d go home on the train. I’d get up again at eight, or eight-thirty, catch a nine o’clock train in and sell shoes at Marshall’s Shoes or whatever. And that was how I… because I wanted to work with this particular teacher who had been with the Moscow Arts Theatre.

Anyway, I went to school there and graduated in forty-nine and immediately fell into a summer stock job and the winter stock that went six months with Paul Newman. Paul was just starting out too. There was a group of eleven of us at the little opera house in Woodstock, Illinois.


Yeah. You know… [Laughing] So life is very strange and wonderful.

The beauty of the internet nowadays, you can find anything, and I was watching an episode you did with James Dean.

We did two shows, we did “Danger” which was a half hour. And we first did, I think the “Studio One”, which was an hour, live, dramatic show.

What was it like to work with him?

Oh, we had a romance for about nine months.


Yeah [Laughing]. We were two little kids from Indiana. He was from Indiana too. And we met just working on the “Studio One” I think it was. And we sort of dated and I cooked for him and, you know, we just were playmates. His film career had not started at that point. My career was just beginning to start a little bit. So that’s what that was.

Now you took some time off… you worked constantly through the Fifties and then through the Sixties and Seventies you seemed to be a little more choosy about what you did. What were you doing throughout that time?

I don’t know darling… I don’t know what I did throughout those years. Whatever was there to do in the work what is to be done, but I haven’t kept track of that. I’m always surprised when people do.

Now just getting back to Pamela Voorhees a little, what is the most surprising thing about how people react to you when they see you?

I was surprised that there was even any acknowledgment or recognition of the movie itself. In the twenty-nine years that it has existed, I’ve seen it only three times. And twice I got forced into it. I can’t really stand to see myself, just in looking at myself in my work. So that it caught fire they way that it did, I didn’t know that for years, because I didn’t even know about these horror conventions. It all just sort of fell into place somehow. I didn’t even know they existed. And I’m a person that never saves pictures or anything, I never save any of that. So I was putting that act together and doing [conventions], and of course talk to the people… first of all people love being frightened. I think the success of number one is that so much is left to the viewers imagination. Which is really more scary than anything. You know, it’s the obvious that can be in some of these films with blood all over the place, you know, and all that shock value.

I think that the big success of FRIDAY THE 13th Part 1 is that you, the viewer, do the work, and it’s quite well done. [Alfred] Hitchcock used to do same thing, you know, when they would make those kinds of films back in those days, in the Thirties and Forties and all. You used your head. You weren’t just being swept up in the goriness of everything. So I have begun to look at it, or consider it… I don’t know what to call it [Laughing], it’s something in its own time, its genre… I think it’s a pretty good one. And I haven’t seen all the other ones out there either. I mean, even Friday the 13th‘s, I just don’t see any of that.

Now I know you hated the script when you first read it…

I thought it was a piece of crap, I never look at things like that. I mean, I never went to those kinds of things. I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have done it if my car hadn’t broken down on Tuesday night, driving home from the theatre. And they called me on Friday, about would I like to do a movie.

Life is funny that way, you need a car, you do a film and you become a legend…

[Laughing] In your own time [Laughing again]. And then being the game show girl from “I’ve Got A Secret”. I hate games. I never like to play games in my entire life. And I did eleven years of that show where they saw me consistently. Then I could go out and be in summer stock and winter stock and Broadway and all kinds of theatre things. Because they would come and see me because they knew me from “I’ve Got A Secret”. Go and figure it.

Speaking of theatre and summer stock, there seems to be a big difference from back to then up into the Seventies, as most actors were trained. Now, not so much.

Oh yes, and I say that to very young men and women coming to my table at the conventions. They want to know about… they want to be an actor, they’re going to be an actor, they say. And I try to give them the point of understanding that you have to study. You can’t learn talent, you’re born with talent, it’s given to you as a gift. But there is everything else to learn. The techniques and just the whole propriety of it, it is a career unto itself. You have to be willing to work at night like that. You have to be willing to be out on the road like a gypsy sometimes. You know, it’s a whole commitment, it really is.

5 Questions for Betsy Palmer

What’s your favorite novel horror or otherwise?

Well… you know which one I really, really like, but it’s sort of like a fairy story, that whole thing, trip to the center of the earth, but I haven’t seen any of the movies… “The Lord of the Rings”. I’ve never seen the movies, but the books I really love.

You’re stranded on an island and you can only bring 3 DVD’s, which would you bring?

I wouldn’t bring any movies.

Now, if you could play any historical figure, factual or fictional, who would it be?

Well I always wanted to play Joan of Arc, Bernard Shaw’s Joan of Arc, but it just never came to pass. So that’s my unrequited love for a role. And maybe if I did it I wouldn’t of been that happy anyway. For some strange reason I always thought I’d love to play the role. But I must say that my favorite role that I did play was Alma in “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” and Tennessee [Williams] was still alive then and came and saw me do it up on the Cape, and said that we could take it to Broadway. And we did. Unfortunately the critics raised hell with him and we only lasted two weeks which was such a crime. Because he had re-written “Summer and Smoke” and named it “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale”. But it was different than “Summer and Smoke”. But anyway, I loved that Alma. She was the forerunner of Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”.

I love Tennessee Williams’ work.

Ah, wonderful man, wonderful man. I was most honored to get to know him.

I can’t believe the people you’ve known…

I know, I can’t either.

I know you had done a lot of television, but do you watch it now?

No, I don’t. I’m a big radio freak. I love radio. I love radio. I rarely turn on T.V. anymore at all. I really don’t find any entertainment going on there. And I don’t really need to go and be lost in movies. I like books. I like to get lost in books. I love my life. I’ve loved all my life to tell you the truth. It has been a joy. And I am very, very grateful that I was chosen to be whoever Betsy Palmer is.

Now for my final question. Out of all the young filmmakers in Hollywood, who would you like to work with?

I don’t think I’m a good judge of that honey. Only because I just haven’t seen anything that’s really out there. So it wouldn’t be really wise for me to judge something I don’t really know anything about anymore. I mean, I worked with John Ford. My first two films were with him. I’ve worked with Joan Crawford and all these people that I worked with on T.V., it was… my life is filled with a lot of people. I guess the little test was correct.

Let me know what you think. Send questions and/or comments to [email protected]
Source: AITH

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