As performers from Fay Wray to Anthony Perkins to Mark Hamill found out, playing a memorable character in a horror or science fiction film early in your career often comes with the risk of being typecast in that role and finding your professional trajectory changed, not always for the better. For actress Betsy Palmer, who died this past weekend at 88, however, the part that brought her cult acclaim to a generation of “slasher film” fans arrived after she was already a 30-year veteran of the stage, screen and television…but it took the need to buy a new car to convince her to “take a stab” at it.
Born Patricia Betsy Hrunek in East Chicago, Indiana, in 1926, she studied theater at DePaul University and, after graduation, set out to make a name for herself on Broadway. She was only in New York for about a week when, at a party at the apartment of fellow actor (and future Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. regular) Frank Sutton, Betsy was tapped to appear in an early, 15-minute TV soap opera, Meet Susan. Along with stage roles in South Pacific and Maggie, Palmer found steady work on the small screen, appearing in such shows as Inner Sanctum, Studio One, and Playhouse 90. She was also a regular panelist on the original, prime time version of I’ve Got a Secret from 1958 until its 1967 ending, and appeared as herself on the game show in the 1959 Doris Day comedy It Happened to Jane.
Betsy’s big-screen debut came in a 1955 “B” sea thriller, Death Tide, but that same year she appeared in key roles in two movies directed (at least partly) by John Ford: as the head Army nurse who becomes a target for womanizing ensign Jack Lemmon in the classic WWII drama Mister Roberts, and as the wife (and, later, mother) of West Point cadets under the mentorship of Tyrone Power in The Long Gray Line. 1955 also saw Palmer lock horns with manipulative sister-in-law Joan Crawford in the campy melodrama Queen Bee.
The late 1950s and early ’60s would find Palmer working alongside Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins in the frontier tale The Tin Star (1957) and Paul Muni and David Wayne in the powerful social drama The Last Angry Man (1959), but over the next two decades she would devote most of her acting time to the stage, with occasional TV turns (Love, American Style, CHiPs, The Love Boat, among others), and spend her home life raising her daughter.
It was when her Mercedes died along a Connecticut highway, however, that the actress decided to take a $10,000 offer to appear in a 1980 horror film that introduced her to a new audience. As Pamela Voorhees, the vengeance-seeking mother of Camp Crystal Lake “drowning victim” Jason Voorhees, in director Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, Betsy was able to play against her “good girl” image as (35-year-old Spoiler Alert!) a deranged killer. “I was always trying to prove that I wasn’t the girl next door,” she later stated in the documentary Return to Crystal Lake.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s Palmer kept up her TV (a recurring role on Knot’s Landing, the telemovie Goddess of Love) and stage (Cactus Flower, Same Time Next Year) work, with the odd film turn here and there, the last in 2007. A chance to reprise her role as Mrs. Voorhees in the 2003 monster mash-up Freddy vs. Jason didn’t come to pass, through…either because the part as offered or the paycheck was too small (the price of cars had gone up since 1980, after all). And while she was at first cool to Friday the 13th’s overwhelming popularity (“Nobody is going to see this thing!” was her initial reaction to the low-budget shocker), Palmer later came to embrace her place in the “slasher movie” pantheon, greeting fans and signing autographs at horror/sci-fi conventions.