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‘Imaginary’ Star Betty Buckley on Embracing Playing Another ‘White-Haired Weirdo’ and Why She’s Unsure About a Return to Broadway

Talk about loyalty.

Betty Buckley has been staying at the Chateau Marmont for about 50 years. She first checked in when she was filming her big screen debut as gym teacher Miss Collins in “Carrie” and then when she landed the role of Abby Bradford, Dick Van Patten’s new wife and stepmother to his kids in ABC’s 1970s family comedy-drama “Eight Is Enough.”

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After half a century calling the Chateau her Los Angeles home — she lives full-time at a ranch outside of Fort Worth, Texas — Buckley has a lot of stories.

“Oh, there are some wild ones,” the 76-year-old actor and singer says while nibbling on a fruit and cheese plate in the hotel’s lobby restaurant on a recent weekday afternoon. She’s in town promoting her new horror movie, “Imaginary.”

Buckley quickly recalls becoming friends with John Belushi, first in New York City and then when he was one of the hotel’s most famous residents (sadly, the “Saturday Night Live” star died in bungalow 3 of a heroin overdose in 1982.) “He would call me ‘Buckley’ and I would call him ‘Belushi,’” she remembers. “One night, he called me and said, ‘Hey, Buckley, you want to go meet the Rolling Stones?’”

“We drive up Laurel Canyon to this big house,” she continues. “We went in and smoked a little pot and we were going from room to room. In one room was this Rolling Stone with his entourage, then the next room there was a pool table with another Rolling Stone and his entourage, then the next was in the kitchen with his entourage. It was an amazing surrealistic evening.”

The hotel means so much to Buckley that she insisted on burying her late Yorkshire terrier named Rags in a Chateau garden about 30 years ago.

“My brother [television director Norman Buckley] said, ‘You can’t bury her there,’” Buckley says. “I said, ‘I am going to. We lived there together for years.’”

She and a friend found a remote spot but after unsuccessfully trying to dig the grave with some rocks, Buckley asked a front desk clerk if they had a shovel. “They told me there was one in the basement,” Buckley says. “That’s how funky this place was — they didn’t ask me what it was for.”

Rags was laid to rest and they covered the small plot with rocks and flowers: “We told Rags stories and sang a couple of Methodist hymns. Isn’t that great?”

Even with the success of “Eight Is Enough,” Buckley had Broadway on her mind ever since making her Broadway debut in 1969 as Martha Jefferson in the musical “1776.” While filming the TV show, she flew back to New York every six weeks for voice lessons. One of the series’ producers was not impressed. “He said, ‘You have such delusions of grandeur. You will never sing on Broadway again,’” Buckley recalls. “He said, ‘You’d be lucky if you played American mothers for the rest of your life.’ I said, ‘We’ll see.’ When I left the ‘Eight Is Enough,’ I was so delighted to play a cat.’”

And not just any cat. Buckley’s originated the role of Grizabella in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Cats” in 1982. The work, which included her iconic performance of “Memory,” won her a Tony.

Buckley still performs concerts (she has released 18 albums), but another Broadway show may not come so easily.

“That would be very hard,” Buckley says. “It would depend on the part and the team, but the level of stamina this past year has been really challenging.” The physical tole of playing Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” in high heels led to a knee replacement following shoulder surgery. “There’s a price to be paid for doing long runs,” Buckley says.

Betty Buckley as Gloria and Taegen Burns as Taylor in Imaginary. Photo Credit: Parrish Lewis
Betty Buckley and Taegen Burns in “Imaginary.” Photo Credit: Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate

Her life on television has included prison drama “Oz,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Supergirl.” Her work in “Carrie” resulted in several more horror movies, including “Split,” and now director Jeff Wadlow’s “Imaginary,” in which she plays a kooky next door neighbor of a family (DeWanda Wise, Tom Payne, Taegen Burns and Pyper Braun) that is being haunted by a teddy bear. “It’s right up my alley in terms of white-haired weirdos,” Buckley says, laughing.

She was amazed by production designer Meghan C. Rogers’ set for the scenes that take place in another dimension because they were real and not CGI. “It could be a freakin’ theme park,” Buckley says. “Weird, wild and wonderful.”

In an unexpected career move, Buckley is now a filmmaker in her own right with “The Mayfly,” an animated short that she created, wrote and narrates. Directed by four-time Emmy-nominee Sue Perrotto with music by Grammy nominee Christian Jacob, the film was inspired by a mayfly Buckley saw flying inside New York’s Café Carlyle during a Judy Collins concert. “The Mayfly” will have its world premiere at the American Documentary and Animation Film Festival in Palm Springs on March 24.

The Mayfly Betty Buckley
A still from “The Mayfly.”

Finding backers wasn’t easy. She first hit up 13 of some of her wealthiest friends. “I only heard back from three and they all turned it down,” Buckley says. But then she found a couple who finance indie projects. “They called me in tears saying they wanted to do it,” Buckley says. “We’ve been working on it for two years and eight months. Animation takes a long time, but it was worth it. I’m so proud of the film.”

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