LOS ANGELES — Underestimate Betty Buckley at your own peril. One man foolishly did while the singer and actress was starring as a mom in the TV series “Eight is Enough.”
Every six weeks or so, between shooting episodes in Los Angeles from 1977-81, Buckley would fly to New York for singing lessons, “keen on getting back and singing in musical theater again.”
Buckley remembered sharing this information with one of her series’ young producers.
“He goes, ‘Oh, Betty. You have such delusions of grandeur.’ He said, ‘You’ll be lucky if you play American mothers on American television for the rest of your life.’ And I said, ‘We’ll see… We’ll see.'”
Two years after “Eight is Enough” ended its run, Buckley won a Tony Award for her featured role in “Cats,” introducing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic “Memory” to Broadway audiences.
Some 30 years later, Buckley is defying categorization again, with her new 16th album, “Ghostlight,” produced by T Bone Burnett and released Tuesday, the songwriter-musician behind such triumphs as the Grammy-winning Alison Krauss-Robert Plant collaboration “Raising Sand.”
To the uninitiated, Buckley and Burnett may appear to be an odd couple. But they grew up together and hung out at Record Town, a Fort Worth, Texas, music shop where they heard “every conceivable kind of music,” Buckley recalled.
Though still in high school, Burnett already had his own recording studio, and taped Buckley in 1967, when she was age 19. The eclectic selections from those sessions, released 40 years later as the album “Betty Buckley 1967,” foreshadow “Ghostlight,” which serves up songs by composers as wide ranging as Tom Waits and Henry Mancini.
Buckley recounted how she and Burnett settled on the album’s title after kicking around ideas for its concept. “He said, mischievously, ‘It’s like when the theater’s dark.’ And I said, ‘Like a ghost light?’ And he goes, ‘Ghost light?’ And I said, ‘It’s the tradition in the theater where there’s a stand and a bald light bulb.’ And when the performance is done, they place the ghost light to keep the spirits of the theater company.'”
Though Buckley knows her theater history, the stage is just one corner of the entertainment world where she’s hung her hat. Seven years after playing Martha Jefferson in the original Broadway cast of “1776,” she made an indelible impression as the caring high-school teacher opposite Sissy Spacek in the horror film “Carrie.” And then there was that hit TV show.
“When I finished ‘Eight is Enough,’ I did the film ‘Tender Mercies’ and I played a country-western star who is an alcoholic,” Buckley said. “And then I played a cat on Broadway and I was a boy in ‘(The Mystery of) Edwin Drood’ and then I was an old man in ‘Edwin Drood’ and I was a diva in ‘Sunset Boulevard.'”
Every now and then, she thinks of that TV producer who questioned her versatility.
What would Buckley say to him now?
“‘I told you so,'” she said.