Her Sunset Also Rises
At 48, Buckley is still nobody's blank slate. But after successfully replacing Patti LuPone in London last year, she has returned to Broadway and all but erased the memory of Glenn Close, who won a Tony Award for her Norma. When Buckley's succession was announced, some observers predicted that Sunset's own sun would set. Those qualms ended on July 20, the night of Buckley's critical debut. Even New York magazine critic John Simon, who often says kinder things about props than about female stars, was smitten. While Close, he wrote, played Norma as a "cross between a cigar-store Indian and a cathedral gargoyle," Buckley gives her a "girlishness" and even a little "sexiness." And, he added, alluding to the vaulting soprano commanded by the onetime stepmom on Eight Is Enough, "Miss Buckley can sing."
Ever since she can remember, Buckley has relied on the power of her voice—not to mention her mulish determination—to quiet naysayers, most notably her own father. She grew up in Fort Worth, the oldest of four children of Ernest, a former Air Force colonel turned engineering professor, and Betty Bob, who was herself once a singer and dancer. Buckley took her first dance lessons from an aunt at age 3 and was singing in church by 5. One of her first fans was her brother Norman. "Listening to my sister sing," he says, "has been one of the greatest gifts of my life."
As long as they were in church, their father felt the same way. A "Victorian fundamentalist," according to his firstborn, Ernest likened going into show business to being a whore. "My mother would sneak me out of the house for dance lessons," says Buckley, "because she and my father would have fights about it." When she was 11, her mother took her to see her first musical, The Pajama Game. "I knew the minute I saw 'Steam Heat' that was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life," says Buckley, who made her professional debut at 15 in Gypsy at a local theater. "My father was losing that battle and he didn't like it."
In 1969, a year after graduating from Texas Christian University, Buckley traveled to New York and, on her first day there, auditioned and landed the part of Martha Jefferson in the Broadway musical 1776. After that her career took off. She starred in Promises, Promises in London and Pippin on Broadway, then in 1976 made her film debut as the gym teacher in Carrie. The next year she started a five-season turn on Eight Is Enough, replacing Diana Hyland, who had died of cancer. Dick Van Patten, who played her husband, was in awe. "That had to be tough," he says, "coming into an established show, trying to fit in with me and my eight kids. But Betty is fearless."
During her Hollywood period, Buckley lived in the Chateau Marmont hotel and ran with John Belushi and the Saturday Night Live crowd. "I was burning out really fast, and I wasn't even 30," she says. "I was, like, 'I can't do this.' " Her husband, director Peter Flood—whom she married in 1972 and divorced in 1979—introduced her to yoga and helped get her off booze and marijuana. "The last two years on Eight Is Enough, I lived like a monk," says Buckley. "I got up every morning, did yoga, did my show, ran at night. I started concentrating on becoming a better actress."
It worked. Shortly after leaving the TV show, she was cast as a country singer in the movie Tender Mercies, and then in 1982 she landed the role of Grizabela in Cats and purred the show's signature number, "Memory." Another triumphant moment came two years later, when she gave her first concert in Carnegie Hall. "I flew my parents up, and my father came backstage," she recalls. "I said, 'Well, Dad, what do you think?' He said, 'World class, Betty Lynn. World class.' That was a good thing."
Since 1988, when she last appeared on Broadway in the $7 million flop Carrie, Buckley's primary residence has been a two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which she shares with two parrots and three shih tzus. "If you are in my house," she says, "it sounds like the Amazon." She keeps to a disciplined routine, punctuated by visits from her two personal trainers ("a bit Norma-esque") and trips to her analyst ("a very New Yorky thing to do"). One recent Saturday, after the show, she watched Saturday Night Live, had one and three-quarters chocolate chip cookies ("not part of my regimen") and skim milk, then curled up with Anne Rice's Memnoch the Devil. A "perfect" night, she says.
As for romance, she says that she has been "seeing the same guy for three years. He's an actor, very sweet. But I can't give you his name." There are two names she will share: Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme. Improbably enough, Buckley is nuts about kick-boxing movies. She hopes that her triumph in Sunset will inspire Seagal or Van Damme to let her play a villain in one of their chop-socky epics. "A really bad guy," she says. "I need to show them my Norma—and just how evil I can be."
ALLISON LYNN in New York City