It takes a special kind of gypsy to move from a longtime New York City residence to a ranch in Texas one week, then to headline at a cabaret in SoCal the next. And no one would be more at home doing so than Betty Buckley is.
"It was a difficult move," admitted Buckley, laughing. She moved to her new ranch outside her hometown of Ft. Worth on Dec. 1 and was "literally still in boxes"—and deciding where on the property to build a new barn—when she had to board a plane for Los Angeles.
Buckley is in town performing her latest concert act, Journey, at Feinstein's at the Cinegrill, the snazzy new room located in the basement of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, through Saturday night. It was not the most convenient timing, but when Journey debuted earlier this year at noted entertainer/music preservationist Michael Feinstein's hot Manhattan nightspot, Feinstein's at the Regency, Buckley received raves and faced SRO houses. "When they asked me to do it in L.A., I immediately said yes," she said with enthusiasm, excited to be appearing at the newly created, 130-seat state-of-the-art supper club. Her new show features a mix of standards and contemporary music from Sting, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and others. This engagement also includes holiday favorites.
Buckley is, of course, a Broadway legend. She won a Tony Award for her indelible performance as Grizabella in the original New York production of Cats and was also nominated for Triumph of Love. She secured an Olivier nomination for Sunset Boulevard in London's West End. After making her film debut in the thriller Carrie, she was whisked off to Hollywood to spend several years as Abby Bradford, Dick Van Patten's replacement wife, in the series Eight Is Enough. In addition to recent concert tours and stage engagements—and acclaimed work on HBO's Oz—Buckley has spent a "bunch of years" teaching at the Terry Schreiber School in Manhattan and at various universities and performing arts conservatories. Currently she is on the faculty of the University of Texas at Arlington, teaching acting technique and song interpretation whenever she's not out doing concert work.
"I love teaching," said Buckley. "Everything I've ever learned in this business, I've learned from great teachers, and I feel a responsibility to pass that on." This does not mean, she quickly added, that her purpose is to offer career advice to young artists. "I don't ever advise. I share what I know, which has its roots in meditation and a spiritual work ethic," she said. Even while working on Eight Is Enough, she continued to teach mediation one summer. "What I most try to pass on to students is an approach to the craft, mediation as a focus of mind, and a respect for humanity all artists need to acquire." She strongly believes that actors should first strive to be "advocates of the characters they play," something she feels must be developed before "facing a court of our peers."
Her technique is based on the concept of not separating oneself from the character. "It's a philosophical approach to acting," Buckley explained, "so the actor develops a respect for presenting material in a universal way. I teach how to tell the story from that universal perspective, so that each audience member finds something in the character to personally identify with in their own life and experiences. That way, communication is instantaneous. You must create a personal resonance to be able to tell the story right. Otherwise it is an esoteric experience. I work for an immediate connection with the audience. No lecturing, no manipulation. They should be able to say, 'Wow!' when the curtain comes down."
Buckley admitted that the stage is her first love. Her mother was a singer and dancer who loved musical theatre, exposing the young Betty Lynn to it early on in Ft. Worth, at the Casa Manana. There, Buckley did her first stage performances as a teenager. "I guess what I love best about theatre is the immediate connection," she said. "Film is interesting, but you always end up in the hands of the editor. Still, I feel whatever I do, wherever I go, I'm fortunate to be able to teach and do my concert work, because I still need to work for a living."
The actor's career has been charmed from the beginning. It is also a good example of what is too often the difference between pursuing acting in New York City and doing it in Hollywood. Unlike in New York, where often each appearance is a step up the ladder, in L.A. one can work tirelessly on a project—especially a stage project—and go right back to square one.
The actor began performing in musicals at 15 and was a junior in college when she was discovered, while singing in a Miss America pageant, by a "powerful New York agent." Under his tutelage, her career began to ignite, but her priorities changed drastically after touring Korea and Japan, entertaining the troops during the Vietnam era. What she saw there—the war dead, the war wounded—made her lose all of her career incentive. "I suddenly wanted to forget all this vanity of show business," she admitted. "I was a budding hippie, but my father was in the military, very pro-war, and he was staunchly opposed to a career for me as a performer." Bowing to his wishes, she majored in journalism and minored in theatre. Returning from Asia, haunted by the horrors of what she'd observed, she gave up her theatrical ambitions and took a job at the Ft. Worth Press, where she had interned before tackling showbiz. "I had a momentary loss of dreams," she observed. "I'd seen firsthand that the world was not what I had been told it was."
Thankfully, her New York agent was persistent, refusing to let her drift too far from her path. "He finally convinced me to come back to New York," she recalled. "And hours after landing there, I was cast as Martha Jefferson in 1776." That appearance led to a starring role in Promises, Promises in London, where she earned recognition and rewards. Then Buckley returned to Broadway as Catherine in Pippin. Her on-screen introduction in Carrie led Brandon Tartikoff to champion her for Eight Is Enough, and she moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to begin four years of work on the show. After the hit series was finally canceled, she quickly fled back to New York, anxious to get back to the stage. Soon thereafter, she starred in I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, which led to her career-affirming tour de force: hitting that amazing note each night at the end of "Memory" in Cats.
Except for a lapse in offers after the quick demise of the notorious Broadway musical version of Carrie, Buckley's career has remained steady. She has never stopped teaching or earning a living onstage. "I admit it," she said, laughing. "I've been very lucky." Not to mention extraordinarily talented. She won acclaim in the film Tender Mercies, sauntered majestically down that grand staircase in Sunset Boulevard, received two honorary doctorates of fine arts from Boston Conservatory of Music and Marymount College, and even appeared in concert at Carnegie Hall. The proceeds from this appearance went to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Years after his initial resistance to her career, her father said, "I can see it now. You're doing a service here, too."
A lot changed for Buckley after 9/11. "There was an immediate shift of focus," she remembered. Suddenly everything seemed less certain. "I realized it was time to get on with fulfilling a few dreams, not just concentrate on a whole life revolving around show business, sitting around in a metropolitan area waiting for the next offer. There always is a lot of waiting in this business, and the level of grief I experienced after 9/11 made me realize the end can be any moment for any of us." She also realized that for what she had in equity on her New York City home, "I could own a really cool little ranch." She'd always missed Texas, and she decided then and there to relocate. "I moved [to Ft. Worth] because I just wanted to live a life I can structure myself."
Of course, aside from temporary concert appearances, Buckley said she is also counting on friends in New York to keep her hat in the professional ring there. "But look, New York will always be there," she said. "I still get offers and do the meetings—I'm reading one script right now." But things don't often compare to what Buckley had before what she has now. "A project would have to be really good and really solid to get me to leave Texas right now for an extended period," she said.
A lifelong dream to raise cutting horses came to life with the move. "I've been in awe of them since I was 12," she said, recalling a time when she competed in rodeo-barrel racing. "I'd sidestepped the idea of a ranch and horse training too long." She has spent the past year training one special horse in New York, stabling the animal as close as she could. "Now, with the help of a great trainer, Bill Freeman, I've been competing all this year. Cutting horses are amazing, amazing athletes. It's like a two-and-a-half-minute dance, like playing one-on-one in basketball. And it's the only equine sport where the horse must make its own decision."
This decisive spirit is reminiscent of Buckley. "I guess so," she agreed, laughing. "I guess I've always been a teacher—and I've also always considered myself a student besides. Life for me is always working, always working, always teaching, always learning, and, above all, always practicing." From someone who says she makes a point of not giving guidance, one can't get better career advice. BSW