Betsy Palmer, an actress bound to be remembered by different generations for different career incarnations — as a performer on live television, as a panelist on game shows and as one of Hollywood’s more bloodthirsty villainesses — died on Friday in hospice care near her home in Danbury, Conn. She was 88.
From left, Ms. Palmer, Garry Moore, Jonathan Winters and Bess Myerson on the game show “I’ve Got a Secret.” Ms. Palmer appeared nearly 200 times on the show from 1955 to 1967
Her death was announced by her manager, Brad Lemack.
Ms. Palmer began her career in the early 1950s and was cast frequently on anthology drama series, some of them live. Outgoing, friendly, she was known, in the parlance of the era, as a girl-next-door type.
She was also tall and shapely — Newsweek magazine described her in 1958 as a “sugar-cookie blonde” — all of which made her a natural for other types of live programming that flourished in the 1950s and ’60s. For a time she appeared regularly on the “Today” show during its first decade, alongside Dave Garroway, the host.
“Women’s news is provided by Betsy Palmer, one of television’s most photogenic and intelligent performers,” John P. Shanley wrote in 1958 in an assessment of the show in The New York Times.
Baby boomers grew familiar with Ms. Palmer for her nearly 200 appearances on “I’ve Got a Secret,” a long-running game show, hosted by Garry Moore, in which four panelists peppered guests with questions in order to determine a hidden peculiarity about them. (One pair of guests, for instance, claimed to be the world watermelon seed spitting champions.) Ms. Palmer’s colleagues often included Bess Myerson, Henry Morgan and Bill Cullen.
A later generation, however, knows Ms. Palmer better (or perhaps only) as, in her words, “queen of the slashers,” for her appearance as the insanely murderous Mrs. Voorhees, the camp cook bent on bloodily eliminating a roster of teenage counselors, in the 1980 horror film “Friday the 13th,” which has spawned myriad sequels and become one of Hollywood’s most profitable franchises. (As Mrs. Voorhees, Ms. Palmer gets her head cut off with a machete at the end of the film, though she does appear in flashback in at least one of the sequels.)
As she often told the story, Ms. Palmer took the part only because she needed $10,000 to buy a new car, a Volkswagen Scirocco.
“So the script came and I read it, and I said, ‘What a piece of ... ’ ” Ms. Palmer recalled in a 2003 documentary, “Return to Crystal Lake: Making Friday the 13th,” discreetly not finishing her sentence. “And I said, ‘Nobody is ever going to see this. It will come and it will go. And I’ll have my Scirocco.’ ”
Patricia Betsy Hrunek was born in East Chicago, Ind., on Nov. 1, 1926. Her father, Rudolph, was a chemist. Her mother, Marie, started and operated the East Chicago School of Business, which Betsy briefly attended before studying drama at DePaul University in Chicago.
She started acting in summer stock and, according to an NBC biography of her in 1957, appeared in a show outside Chicago with the actress and comedian Imogene Coca, who encouraged her to move to New York. There, in addition to her work on television dramas, she did commercials and appeared on game shows, including “Masquerade Party,” in which a panel of celebrities tried to discern the identity of another celebrity who appeared in disguise.
She had a few small parts in movies, including as a nurse in “Mister Roberts” (1955), the hit comedy-drama about life on a Navy ship during World War II with Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon (who won an Oscar). She played the female lead in a western that starred Fonda, “The Tin Star” (1957).
She also appeared on Broadway in two short-lived comedies: “The Grand Prize” (1955), with Tom Poston and June Lockhart, and “Affair of Honor” (1956), which The Times’s critic, Brooks Atkinson, described as (through no fault of the actors, he pointed out) “dull and odious.”
Ms. Palmer’s marriage to Vincent J. Merendino, an obstetrician, ended in divorce. Her survivors include their daughter, Melissa Merendino.
In 1969 Ms. Palmer replaced Virginia Graham as host of the syndicated talk show “Girl Talk.” Her later credits on television include a recurring role on the prime-time soap opera “Knots Landing” and guest appearances on “Murder, She Wrote,” “Charles in Charge,” “The Love Boat” and “Just Shoot Me!” In the 1960s and the 1970s, she also returned to Broadway as part of replacement casts in “Cactus Flower” and “Same Time, Next Year” and as a star of the Tennessee Williams drama “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale.” For many, if not most, however, it is Mrs. Voorhees and “Friday the 13th” that linger.
“I dismissed it for many, many years, and wouldn’t ’fess up to it at all,” she said in the documentary. “And then it just became such a big thing where everybody seemed to enjoy it so much. I thought, ‘Well, all right, I’m comfortable about it now.’ It’s almost like a badge of honor, in a way. It has become that.
“I’m the queen of the slashers, you know. What am I going to do?”