HAVERHILL, Mass. — After more than two years of research and preparation, the truth about nostalgic comic book teens Archie, Veronica, Betty and Jughead is finally coming out...sort of.
A filmmaker has released a documentary about the popular “Archie’’ comics series that creator Bob Montana based on his high school classmates in the late 1930s.
The film, titled “Archie’s Betty,’’ will be shown in Boston this weekend. It will be presented in Montana's hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, later this year.
It details Gerald Peary's 25-year search to find the real people behind the characters in “Archie’’ comics, a franchise considered one of the most successful, longest running brands in the history of the comic industry.
Jane (Donahue) Murphy, 93, who was a friend of Montana and accompanied him to his junior prom said she’s nervous about what the film has in store — especially because she’s in it.
“I’m excited, but scared to watch it,” Murphy said.
Peary, who co-produced the film with Shaun Clancy, said his obsession with the “Archie’’ comic strip began in the 1950s when he was growing up in the south and dreamed of living in the real “Riverdale,” the all-American town depicted in the comic.
“Many years later, as an adult, I discovered that my childhood fantasy was not absurd at all,” he said. “In 1988, I read a letter in a newspaper asserting that Archie’s Riverdale was modeled after the real town of Haverhill, Massachusetts. Riverdale High was actually, the letter claimed, Montana’s Haverhill High.”
Peary said he first visited the town in 1988 to meet the real people who were the inspiration for Montana’s characters.
He said he fell in love with the city and its residents, whom he found to be “unbelievably friendly” and told him many colorful stories about who they believed the “Archie’’ characters were based on.
“Now, more than 25 years later, I’ve looked back and the second time around I’m not so sure,” Peary said about his earlier research. “Everyone said that Agatha Popoff was Veronica Lodge, but since then I’ve learned that Bob Montana said he based the character on the Hollywood actress Veronica Lake.”
Peary said Veronica’s last named was based on the well-known Lodge family of Massachusetts, whom Montana once painted a mural for.
“Supposedly, Montana was fascinated with Agatha, but yet he never mentioned her in his diary,” Peary said.
The character Jughead was likely based on Richard “Skinny” Linehan, who also attended high school with Montana in the late 1930s.
“I thought so in 1988, and I still think so,” Peary said. “If you look at their images, they are astonishingly similar. And like Linehan, Jughead could eat and eat and never gain weight. And like Linehan, they are both very skinny.”
Linehan’s sons, Dick and Jeff, said they were interviewed by Clancy about a year ago and that Jeff gave Clancy photos of their father, whom he described as “tall and skinny.”
“We’ve very excited about the film and how it portrays the real Haverhill in the 1930s and ‘40s,” Jeff Linehan said.
Peary said the character Moose could have been based on Arnold Daggett, a high school football player in town in the late 1930s.
“I met Daggett in person in 1988 and he looked exactly like Moose from the comic strip,” Peary said. “He had a flat top, a big neck, and like Daggett, he was a football player.”
Murphy, who went to the prom with Montana, believes the character Archie was based on her cousin, Richard “Buddy” Heffernan.
“Heffernan was Montana’s idol. Montana was a reserved guy, while Heffernan was loved by the girls and very popular,” Murphy said. “All of the characters were from Haverhill, although now they are claiming Betty was from New Jersey. I’ve always said Betty is a composite of different girls.”
Also in the film is Ernie Greenslade, a community college public relations director who organized a showing of Montana’s art and diaries in 1989.
“I was always a big ‘Archie’ fan,” said Greenslade. “If you read Bob Montana’s high school diaries, it’s very clear that his experiences there influenced his ‘Archie’ comics.”
The character Betty Cooper is considered to be the most contested member of Archie’s gang, Peary said.
As Montana’s classmate and former journalist and photographer Barney Gallagher would often tell people who asked, “Every blonde in Haverhill thought she was Betty.”
Peary said his research into the real Betty might surprise some people.
“One thing people might not be crazy about is the story ends outside of Haverhill,” Peary said. “It seems likely that the real Betty wasn’t from Haverhill at all. But you have to see the movie to find out.”
LaBella writes for the North Andover (Mass.) Eagle Tribune.