On Sunday, October 17, our friend Joanne Spotts, sent me a message— Betty Lynn, the actress who portrayed Thelma Lou on the Andy Griffith Show, had passed away. Miss Lynn was 95. Interestingly, she died in Andy Griffith’s hometown, Mt. Airy, North Carolina.
Miss Lynn appeared in twenty-six episodes of the Andy Griffith Show, and in those appearances she quickly became Deputy Barney Fife’s girlfriend.
Somehow, someway Thelma Lou survived all of Barney’s miscues during their relationship. This included his phone call flirtations with the invisible waitress at the diner, Juanita, and the “fun girls” who occasionally disrupted the work and social lives of both Barney and Sheriff Taylor.
From Kansas City, Missouri, Miss Lynn by age five was already singing. Her mother’s gifts as a singer and musician were a steady influence, and public performances in a variety of settings gave Miss Lynn early experience and confidence.
By eighteen, Miss Lynn was part of USO shows entertaining and visiting troops overseas during World War II. After this obligation, she returned home and worked in radio. Those radio script experiences in Kansas City eventually nudged her to Broadway. There she had assorted roles in a variety of productions including Oklahoma.
By chance in those Broadway settings, she caught the eye of a studio executive and was signed to a contract with 20th Century Fox. Miss Lynn appeared in movies, but she gradually found her most steady work with the emergence of television shows.
She was a skilled actress whose television assignments showcased Miss Lynn’s range of versatility in portraying the characters she was cast to play. But, it was her work on the Andy Griffith Show that put her in the spotlight.
As a longtime fan of the Andy Griffith Show, I have always admired the work of Ruth Burch, the casting director. It seems that Miss Burch and the production staff for the show were very skilled at finding the right actors and actresses. Betty Lynn was ideally cast as Thelma Lou.
No matter the scripts developed by the writers, or the coaching of the directors, Miss Lynn always delivered the right Thelma Lou for an episode or scene.
And perhaps that is an overlooked part of the chemistry of the show’s success—the actresses. These very gifted women in their own unique way really made Andy, Barney, and Opie look good.
Thelma Lou in particular had lots of emotional territory to cover in her relationship with Barney. She could be sweet and kind, but when needed, Thelma Lou could keep him in line, and don’t you think Barney didn’t know it.
When Barney purchases his first used car, he takes Andy, Aunt Bee, Opie, Gomer, and Thelma Lou for a Sunday afternoon drive. The camera shot shows the cast scrunched in the car talking and taking in the local scenery. They are a happy bunch, until the car starts to reveal its flaws.
At one point, the center part of the steering column starts to protrude out of the steering wheel. As it moves toward Barney, his eyes are about to pop of his head, and then Thelma Lou, who is sitting beside him sees what is happening.
Her reaction is priceless. She shouts “Barneee!” and recoils in fear. Betty Lynn’s facial expressions for these few seconds are flawless. No doubt she knew the character she portrayed, and no doubt Miss Lynn knew her craft.
Curious as to whether he could advance his career beyond a weekly television show, Don Knotts, who portrayed Barney, left his role as Deputy Fife to pursue acting in movies. That departure never allowed Thelma Lou and Barney to marry. Although years after Knotts left the show, a reunion special was written and produced. In that production, Barney and Thelma Lou are finally married. However, in real life, Miss Lynn, never married.
Back in 2006, Miss Lynn retired from her work in Hollywood. She made a bold move and relocated to Mt. Airy, North Carolina. This is the town where the show’s star, Andy Griffith, was born and raised.
It appears that Miss Lynn’s personality was a good fit for the town. Over the years, Mt. Airy has capitalized on Griffith’s fame. To her credit, Miss Lynn wasn’t reclusive with this change in scenery. She opted to immerse herself and Thelma Lou into the local events honoring the show. Fans, knowing they might have a chance to meet Miss Lynn, didn’t shy from making the trek to Mt. Airy.
Ron Howard, who played Sheriff Taylor’s son, Opie, on The Andy Griffith Show said this about Betty Lynn: “She brightened every scene she was in and every shooting day she was on set. I saw her last a few years ago where she still lit up the room with her positivity. It was great to have known and worked with her. She truly was 95 years young.”
For many years, I have developed a great deal of respect for all of the talented people who were responsible for creating and developing The Andy Griffith Show. Without question, the show was a unique mixture of comedy with the capacity to teach good lessons for children while reminding adults how we ‘ought to behave.’
Ron Howard wrote about Betty Lynn’s positivity, and how she lit up a room. I believe the attributes of the The Andy Griffith Show lit up many hearts with its positivity. Lord knows, in the shambles of our divided America, our hearts could use a dose of the show’s gentle positive wisdom.
Thanks Betty Lynn for making us laugh.
Despite his shortcomings, Barney was lucky that you stood by him.
Clearly, your positive attitude enhanced your skills as an actress, but your positivity also impacted the strangers you encountered along the way. You brightened their lives, and for your patience, I know they will never forget you.
When you see Barney up in heaven, make him drive you over to Mt. Pilot for a Chinese dinner.
Articles from Wikipedia and the New York Times were researched for this piece.