Elizabeth 'Betsy' Ames MacFarland

A political moderate, the actress and voice-over artist gained fame for her Republican commercials

March 19, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Elizabeth "Betsy" Ames MacFarland, an actress and voice-over artist whose career selling products, narrating TV programs and promoting Republican candidates spanned more than 40 years, died Saturday of cancer at her Oxford home. She was 66.

Mrs. MacFarland, who was known professionally as Betsy Ames and billed herself as "The Best Damn Voice in the Business," also had appeared in several Hollywood films.

For the past 20 years, Mrs. MacFarland was the exclusive female announcer at WJLA-TV, Channel 7 in Washington, and had been the promotional voice of the Discovery Channel and public television station WETA.

She was born Elizabeth Beel in Clifton Springs, N.Y., and moved with her family to Durham, N.C., in 1954. She was a 1960 graduate of Durham High School and attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

"A radiant beauty, she won Miss Durham and was a fourth runner-up for Miss North Carolina in 1960, and won Miss High Point in 1962," said her daughter, Elizabeth Ames Lyons of Falls Church, Va.

Mrs. MacFarland's desire for a theatrical career began when she was 13. After leaving college, she moved to New York City and studied acting.

Mrs. MacFarland later worked as a model, did voice-overs for TV commercials and appeared in dinner theater productions.

After moving to Bolton Hill in the early 1980s, she began recording political ads for Republicans. A political moderate, Mrs. MacFarland explained to The Wall Street Journal in a 2000 article why she went to work for the Republican National Committee.

"I'm not a staunch anything," she said, adding that she worked for the RNC because they called her first.

Mrs. MacFarland went head to head with male competitors and won out with pitches she delivered in a "smooth, sonorous - but unmistakably female - voice," observed the newspaper.

"It was a pretty slow beginning, where a man might have 100 scripts, and I'd have one," she said. "Now they might hand most of them to me, and I try not to gloat."

Mrs. MacFarland explained in a 2004 interview with The Washington Post that while she disagreed at times with the subject matter she was asked to read - such as anti-abortion ads - she reasoned: "I'm an actress. They give me a script. That's my job."

She was the off-screen voice in a memorable 2000 ad for George W. Bush's campaign that ridiculed Vice President Al Gore's purported claim that he established the Internet. "Yeah, and I invented the remote control," Mrs. MacFarland could be heard saying.

She also had been a voice behind the political campaigns of Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Her movie and TV roles included appearances in the NBC miniseries Kennedy, and A Man Called Hawk, Wedding Crashers and Pecker, directed by John Waters.

"She played a snotty New York art dealer in Pecker, and she was great,'" Mr. Waters said. "She was cooperative, lovely and funny."

Veteran Baltimore casting agent Pat Moran often turned to Mrs. MacFarland.

"She was so consistent and had a big career outside of Los Angeles and New York," Ms. Moran said. "She was also a great actress, and when we needed a character actress, I always thought of Betsy."

Mrs. MacFarland, an Oxford resident since 1997, continued working until last month, when she retired because of failing health.

In a news release announcing her retirement, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild said, "Betsy's diverse body of work encompassing over 40 years has truly earned her the distinction as 'The best damn voice in the business!' "

Services are private.

Also surviving are her husband of 26 years, William John MacFarland; two sons, Sheppard Kellam Ames III of Raleigh, N.C., and Benjamin Hooper Ames of Washington; a stepson, Joshua MacFarland of Arlington, Va.; three brothers, William H. Beel of Tuscaloosa, Ala., James A. Beel of Charlotte, N.C., and Samuel R. Beel of San Paulo, Brazil; and six grandchildren. Her marriage to Sheppard Kellam Ames Jr. ended in divorce.

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