Laughing with Betsy Russell about screen nudity

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – A card arrived in the mail with the inscription ‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart.’ Inside, in strong cursive were the words, ‘Dear Ray, Thank you so much for that wonderful interview. I’m so glad someone finally captured the humor of it all. Best wishes, love, Betsy Russell.’


My interview with the actress, who turns 60 today, ran in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner on March 8, 1985, with the headline ‘Queen of Schlock wants to abdicate’. She went on to have many credits including including five episodes of the ‘Saw’ film series playing Jill Tuck . In 1985, she was 21 and famous for a series of sexy teen movies – ‘Private School’ (top picture), ‘Avenging Angel’, ‘Out of Control’ and ‘Tomboy’.

Over lunch at Yamato’s in Century City, she sat with one leg tucked under the other and bit into teriyaki chicken looking every bit a California kid as she spoke airily about undressing for the camera. ‘When I did “Tomboy”, I didn’t even know I’d done an exploitation movie, you know?’ she said. ‘People started asking all these awful questions. I got bombarded: “Why did you do nudity? How could you do this to women?” I didn’t really know what I’d done. I was so young and everything that I was just delighted to get a lead in a movie.’ 

‘Private School’

She got the part, she said, only because the producers were on their last legs: ‘They said they just couldn’t find a young, innocent and sexy girl. It seems to me that every girl I meet in this town is young, innocent and sexy. Still, they tested me and I got it.’

Russell asked her ‘Private School’ co-star Phoebe Cates if she was worried about the nudity. Cates said that in  ‘Paradise’, she had done twelve nude scenes. ‘Twelve,’ she said. ‘Don’t feel inferior. When they take their clothes off in Europe, it’s art. When we do it here, it’s exploitive.’ Russell said she didn’t know the difference between nudity in ‘Private School’ and, say, ‘Silkwood’: ‘It was just something I had to do. I had no hangups and I happened to have a good body at the time.’

‘Avenging Angel’

That remark provoked giggles, making her further removed from her screen characters. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s better. I’ve taken up jogging. But, anyway, I didn’t mind the nudity. It didn’t bug me.’

That was until she saw herself onscreen.  ‘Everything is so much bigger onscreen,’ she said drily.  More giggles as she recalled a scene in ‘Private School’ that became the highlight of the picture. Russell is on horseback trying to lure Cates’s boyfriend away from her: ‘I ride up on this horse and take off my top so I’ll supposedly make this boy crazy, you know? Then a girl slaps the horse and we take off. My shirt is off, I’m bouncing up and down, and of course they show it in slow motion!’ 

She had appeared on TV shows such as ‘Family Ties’ and ‘T.J. Hooker’ and was 18 when she made her first picture. She had to wait a year for her next one. ‘I thought that I wanted to do just good movies,’ she said, ‘but unfortunately that’s a little easier said that done.’ The next movie was ‘Out of Control’: ‘More nudity! Hit me against the head. But, as I said, I wanted to work. God, you’d think I’d learn my lesson but you always think, oh, it’s just a love scene and they won’t exploit it that bad. You have it in your contract but they just screw you over. It was a pretty terrible movie.’ Then came ‘Tomboy’: ‘It’s awful. Explotive and awful. I’d like to do a romantic comedy or a period piece, if I had my way but you do what you have to do at the stage you’re at. There’s always pressure for nudity. Working in an exploitive fillm, they’ll take as much as they can get.’

What was the silliest thing she had to do as the Queen of Schlock? ‘Silly? Every word that I ever spoke in those films,’ said Russell. ‘No, probably riding half-naked on that horse in “Private School”. That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever had to do. It was a reshoot. The director said, “Betsy, you’ll have to get on the horse again.” I guess they liked my style. Originally, I was wearing a rider’s helmet and it wasn’t too attractive. I said I’d get back on the horse but the helmet had to go.’

‘Private School’


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