Betty Bobbitt, who has died following a stroke aged 81, was an American actor and singer who moved to Australia and found worldwide fame in the cult TV soap Prisoner: Cell Block H. As the motherly lesbian Judy Bryant, she went through the gamut of experiences and emotions in the fictional Wentworth Detention Centre – being raped, surviving a murder attempt, breaking out twice and discovering she had a long-lost daughter.
The producers were originally keen to play up the character’s sexuality, but that changed when the serial caught on with viewers in the US. “In the beginning, she was allowed to be obviously in love and allowed to talk about it,” Bobbitt told Gay Times. “Then, the show was sold to America. At one point, Judy had to kiss another character, and the Americans said, ‘No way! She can talk about it, but we don’t want to see her kiss someone.’ So, from that moment on, they decided to give Judy’s gayness a low profile.”
The actor was more concerned about the soap’s violence. “One week you’d be raped and the next you’d be at someone with a bit of lead pipe,” she said.
The programme, set in the high-security wing of a detention centre in the fictional Melbourne suburb of Wentworth, was launched in Australia under the title Prisoner. For international distribution, it was retitled Prisoner: Cell Block H to avoid confusion with the surreal 1960s drama The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan, and was picked up by British TV only in 1984, five years after it had begun.
Alongside some outlandish storylines, it featured serious issues, dealing with feminism, homosexuality, social reform and how women responded to prison.
Bobbitt joined a year into the show’s seven-year run (1979-86), when Judy, a taxi driver, got herself convicted for trying to smuggle drugs into the prison to be with her lover, and left in 1985 after appearing in 430 episodes.
Other memorable characters included the matriarchal “Queen” Bea Smith (played by Val Lehman), the childlike Doreen Anderson (Colette Mann), the alcoholic Lizzie Birdsworth (Sheila Florance), the tough, uncaring Franky Doyle (Carol Burns), the corrupt officer Joan Ferguson (Maggie Kirkpatrick) and the dour deputy governor Vera Bennett (Fiona Spence). Bobbitt was turned down for the role of beastly Bea on the grounds that she was too nice, but was later invited to audition as the kind, compassionate, American-born Judy.
Such was the programme’s international success that the British fan club brought over Bobbitt and other cast members for personal appearances, although she was not among those who appeared in a 1989 Prisoner stage show touring the UK or a later West End production.
She did team up with Mann and Jane Clifton – who played Margo Gaffney in Prisoner – to form the Mini-Busettes, a singing trio that performed in Australian clubs and restaurants during the soap’s run.
Betty was born in Manhattan, New York, the daughter of Elizabeth (nee Sprout), a nurse, and Hubert Bobbitt, who worked in a steel mill when the family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She enjoyed drama while attending Norristown high school and, on leaving aged 18, moved to Los Angeles, where she showed her acting talent playing Agnes Gooch in a stage production of Auntie Mame.
A TV producer spotted Bobbitt and hired her to appear on the Australian TV show Daly at Night (1962-63), hosted by the American comedian Jonathan Daly. She had comedy spots as, in her words, “a female Victor Borge, singing off-key” and was known as “the dizzy brunette from Big Bear in Pennsylvania”.
She stayed in Australia and appeared in stage revues before acting with the Melbourne Theatre Company and teaming up with Mann and another actor, Anne Phelan, to perform 1940s songs in a tour of the 70s stage show The Glitter Sisters.
After her run in Prisoner: Cell Block H, Bobbitt returned to the theatre, writing and directing as well as acting, and popped up in the TV soaps A Country Practice in 1986 and The Flying Doctors in 1991. She also had cameo roles in all three Crocodile Dundee film sequels (1988, 2001 and 2020), alongside Paul Hogan.
Although Bobbitt semi-retired in 1998 to run a novelty shop in the Blue Mountains north of Sydney, she appeared alongside other Prisoner stars to celebrate its 40th anniversary with cameos in a 2019 episode of Neighbours.
Her 2011 memoirs were titled From the Outside.
Bobbitt’s 1963 marriage to Robin Hill, an Australian artist, ended in divorce after three years. She is survived by their son, Chris, and her son Oliver from another relationship, as well as Meg “Mig” Dann, her partner of 31 years.
• Betty Ann Bobbitt, actor, singer, writer and director, born 7 February 1939; died 30 November 2020