A fresh-faced blonde in the Doris Day mold who found unlikely fame as the mother of psycho killer Jason Voorhees in Friday The 13th and its first sequel, Palmer died Friday of natural causes, her manager Brad Lemack said. She was living in hospice care in Danbury, Connecticut.
Although she had a long career in television and films beginning in the 1950s, Palmer considered herself first and foremost a stage actress whose notable appearances included Ensign Nellie Forbush in a 1965 revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic South Pacific at New York City Center and, in 1976, the central role of Alma Winemiller in Tennessee Williams’ The Eccentricities Of A Nightingale.
The play was a complete revision of Williams’ sultry drama Summer And Smoke, about the sexual awakening of a frustrated woman in the South living with her minister father. The show was a commercial failure but Clive Barnes, then the chief drama critic of the New York Times, praised the play and its star. “Betsy Palmer is hardly the wallflower type, and this makes her initial task rather difficult,” Barnes wrote. “But her frantic gaucheness and her frenetic fears soon make sense and she is magnificent in her untidy passion and painful sincerity.” The play closed after 24 performances.
Palmer was born Patricia Betsy Hrunek in East Chicago, Indiana and studied at East Chicago Business School, which her mother ran, later working as a stenographer before studying drama at De Paul University. She was a regular on the premier live-television shows of television’s Golden Age, including Playhouse 90, The U.S. Steel Hour, Kraft Theatre and The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. She also was a regular panelist on I’ve Got A Secret. She appeared in many dramatic series, including Knots Landing and Murder, She Wrote. Palmer’s noteworthy film roles include Lt. Ann Girard in Mister Roberts, the Henry Fonda vehicle that had begun on Broadway.
Among her seven Broadway appearances were stints replacing Ellen Burstyn in Same Time, Next Year and Lauren Bacall in Cactus Flower.
Palmer had a girl-next-door appeal that made her perfect for terrified-woman-in-danger roles. She took the role of Mrs. Voorhees, she told interviewers, because she didn’t expect the film to go anywhere and wanted the money to buy a new Mercedes. As far back as 1956, however, she told the New York Times that she studiously avoided being typecast, as when she rejected a screenplay she’d been sent by a studio.”I read the script and decided that television made a lot more sense to me,” she told the Times. “The movie was a Western in which I was supposed to have frightened blue eyes all the way through. That’s really what it said in the script — frightened blue eyes. It didn’t appeal to me a bit.”