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Multitasking the way to go for Broadway icon Betty Buckley

Whether she's acting on a New York stage or riding on a Texas horse farm, Betty Buckley has no trouble keeping busy.

Betty Buckley spends her busy days onstage, at her ranch, teaching ... and, soon, performing at the Bucks County Playhouse.
Betty Buckley spends her busy days onstage, at her ranch, teaching ... and, soon, performing at the Bucks County Playhouse.Read more

DURING THE course of a recent phone chat, we only half-jokingly suggested to Betty Buckley that it would take up less space to list the things she doesn't do than list those she does. After all, the latter category includes performing in film, TV, cabaret, teaching and raising horses on her Texas ranch. And, of course, still being a vital part of American theater, where the 66-year-old actress has been an icon for more than three decades.

It makes sense that Buckley - who created the role of Grizabella in "Cats" and was the matriarch of the family on the 1970s dramedy "Eight Is Enough" - would still be performing. But singing and acting comprise just a part of her exceptionally well-rounded life.

For about 40 years, Buckley has regularly conducted college acting classes and theater-sponsored workshops (she is currently a part-time instructor at the University of Oklahoma).

"I'm just a working girl like everybody else," offered Buckley, who tomorrow headlines a concert at the black-tie 75th anniversary gala at the Bucks County Playhouse.

"It is part of my livelihood, but it is also one of my great joys. Everything of value I've learned I've learned from great teachers, and they've been responsible for all of my ability to accomplish the things I have accomplished. So I feel it's my responsibility to pass that information along."

So, teaching theater is one thing - but raising horses?

"My two great loves are theater and horses," said Buckley, who owns a 35-acre ranch west of Fort Worth. "I live in the main house and my wonderful assistant . . . who's worked for me for 14 years, lives in my guest house. Between us we have 17 animals - horses, a donkey, barn cats, a rescue dog, house cats.

"That's why I need to keep working, to pay for the horses."

Buckley's formidable resume also includes a co-starring role in the 1983 Oscar Best Picture, "Tender Mercies," for which Robert Duvall was named Best Actor. And she spent two years (in London and New York) in the role of faded silent-film star Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of "Sunset Boulevard." More recently, she's had a recurring role as the grandmother of one of the main characters on the ABC Family series, "Pretty Little Liars."

But it is Grizabella that will always mean the most to her.

"I feel really blessed I got to create the role of Grizabella in 'Cats,' " she said. "I think of Grizabella as my soul mate and a great teacher. She's an amazing, wonderful character. And it was my opportunity to work with Trevor Nunn.

"The challenge of learning how to play that part and deliver that song ["Memory"] in a way that fulfilled everyone's expectations was a very intense process for me, and the opportunity to bring me through the doorway of my potential. I was very honored to do that.

"And the fact that I'm still associated with that song means a lot to me. It's a beautiful piece of material."

Although she's no stranger to New Hope ("I bought my favorite pajamas there"), tomorrow's benefit - the details of which Buckley declined to discuss because "it's supposed to be a surprise" - will mark the first time she's performed at the Playhouse, which is now run by two old friends of hers, executive producer Robyn Goodman and producing director Alex Fraser. But, she promised, it won't be her last.

"They promised me I'll be back to do a project," she said, "so I'm excited about that."

Walnut parties, too

Tonight, the Walnut Street Theatre is staging its own wing-ding as it presents its annual Edwin Forrest Award to US Airways. The bash - which is designed to raise funds for the theater's education and outreach programs - features a cast of top local talent in a musicale called "From Hollywood to Broadway." Among the musicals being saluted are "West Side Story," "Les Miserables," "Fiddler On the Roof" and "Singin' In the Rain."