Film & Television

Betty White, It’s Been A Privilege

On Friday, the last day of 2021, a very challenging year, Betty White died. She was just 18 days shy of her 100th birthday. 

According to her agent, she passed away peacefully in her sleep, which is how most of us would like to go when the time comes. If we can also say that we were an industry trailblazer, that we beat the odds in a business that hasn’t always been friendly to women, that we worked continually from the time we graduated from high school, that we had a personal renaissance of sorts and achieved superstardom in our 80s, and that we were loved by millions upon millions . . . well, I think we can agree that Ms. White’s was a life well lived.

Betty Marion White was born on January 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, but her parents, Christine and Horace, moved with her to California when she was just a year old. Although they, like most Americans, struggled during the Depression, the family was close, taking weeks-long vacations in the Sierra Nevada, where Betty developed a love of animals that would last her entire life. Her early ambition was to become a forest ranger, but that career was not available to women in the 1930s (or, indeed, until decades later). In 2010, White was made an honorary forest ranger by U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, who told her, “I am sorry you couldn’t join us before. Judging from your illustrious career, you would have made marvelous contributions to our agency and to the cause of conservation across the United States. Betty, you are a role model for little girls — for all of us — never to give up on our dreams.”

With her forest ranger dream deferred, Betty turned to entertainment. After graduating from high school, she sang on one of the first television shows, then worked as a model and in regional theater until World War II broke out. She drove a PX truck as a member of the American Women’s Voluntary Services. When the war ended, she pursued radio opportunities after being told by Hollywood studios that she wasn’t “photogenic enough” for movies. That radio work, however, led to arguably the longest and most prolific television career of all time. In fact, White was formally awarded the Guinness World Record for exactly that in 2018.

I try to keep my stories for Women’s Voices for Change to a certain word count, but you could easily fill a book with White’s accomplishments. I’ll try to stick to the “tops of the waves,” noting only the most exceptional examples of White’s illustrious career. Even so, apologies in advance if this story runs a little long.

In 1949, after a few years of radio work, White was invited to cohost Al Jarvis’s Hollywood on Television, an early variety show in Los Angeles. They broadcast live five and a half hours a day, six days a week. Jarvis was eventually replaced by Eddie Albert, who lasted less than a year thanks to the grueling schedule. At that point, White hosted alone and is widely recognized as television’s first female talk show host. She also launched a production company with two associates, becoming television’s first female producer. (A pattern is emerging here.)

Building off of a sketch format from Hollywood on Television, White produced a serial comedy called Life with Elizabeth. Chronicling the travails of a fairly helpless housewife, it received a Los Angeles Emmy Award and was nationally syndicated for three years (making it the first national show to star and be produced by a woman). This led to The Betty White Show on NBC, where White broke more ground. She hired a woman director and featured a Black entertainer named Arthur Duncan. When stations in the South threatened to cancel the show, her response was swift. “Live with it,” she said and increased Duncan’s airtime. 

By the 1960s, White had become a staple on celebrity gameshows, which she genuinely enjoyed. She met her future husband, Allen Ludden, when she appeared on Password. She made her film debut as Senator Elizabeth Ames Adams in 1962’s Advise & Consent and turned down a morning anchor slot with NBC’s Today show, which went to Barbara Walters instead.

In 1973, White joined the cast of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (already in its fourth season) in the first of what would become her signature television roles. As Sue Ann Nivens, “the Happy Homemaker,” White displayed her comic genius every week as she brilliantly balanced Sue Ann’s saccharine-sweet TV personality with her snide and predatory offscreen persona. (When hosting a party, Mary could count on Sue Ann noticing any housekeeping faux pas — right before hitting on Mary’s date.) White earned two Emmy Awards for the work.

In the 80s, White created the other role for which modern audiences know her best: Rose on The Golden Girls. Along with costars Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty, White depicted the humorous and human side of senior living for eight seasons. The show remains in syndication and has inspired merchandise from mugs and t-shirts to magnets, socks, and Funko! Pop figures.

Once Golden Girls ran its (first-run) course, White appeared in the spin-off The Golden Palace and the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, and guest-starred in series The Practice, Nurses, Suddenly Susan, and others. She won yet another Emmy Award for her role in a Sunset Boulevard parody on The John Larroquette Show. She was also featured in multiple movies, often stealing scenes from her younger costars as she did in 2009’s The Proposal. That same year, she was the punchline (and by far the funniest part) of a Snickers Super Bowl ad.

In January of 2010, a Facebook campaign emerged called “Betty White to Host SNL (Please).” A half million people had joined by the time NBC announced that, yes, White would host their Mother’s Day episode. Saturday Night Live is a strenuous and exhausting exercise for hosts half (or a third) White’s age; the 90 minutes on-air is preceded by a week of 24/7 development and rehearsal. But, at 89, she was determined, and her episode still stands up — and stands out as one of the series’ best. And, as you may have guessed, it earned her another Emmy. 

The following month, White began her six-year journey as landlady Elka Ostrovsky in TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland. She appeared in a Hallmark Hall of Fame special, The Lost Valentine, earned a Grammy for the recording of her memoir bestseller If You Ask Me, and hosted her own gameshow, Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, in which she punked younger celebrities. She also continued to raise funds for a number of animal charities.

In a PBS documentary, Betty White: First Lady of Television, White, already in her late 90s, reflected on her life. “People have been stuck with me for so long — and bless their hearts, they’ve been so supportive — but I am amazed I’m still on television, they still let me come back. And I’m not saying that coyly. I mean it. It’s such a privilege to still be able to work in this business.”

No, Betty. The privilege was ours.

 

Here’s where you can still enjoy the incomparable Betty White:

The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls are available to stream on Hulu or to rent on Amazon.

Hot in Cleveland is available to stream on Paramount+ or to rent on Amazon.

Saturday Night Live, Season 35 Episode 21 is available to stream on Hulu.

Betty White: First Lady of Television is available to stream on Netflix.

Life with Elizabeth is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Betty White’s Pet Set is available to stream on Roku.

 

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