Betty White: TV’s golden girl who became a comedy legend

In a career spanning seven decades, White became one of the most endearing and enduring faces on television

Adam Bernstein
Sunday 09 January 2022 00:01
<p>Betty White in 2010 </p>

Betty White in 2010

Betty White, an Emmy Award-winning comic actress who was best known for playing a man-hungry TV hostess on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s and a ditsy widow on The Golden Girls in the 1980s before her late-in-life resurgence as a tough, funny and ribald old lady, has died aged 99.

In a career spanning seven decades, White became one of the most endearing and enduring faces on television. She said that her late husband, veteran game show host Allen Ludden, used to joke, “Meet my wife, one of the pioneers in silent television.”

He was not far off. She appeared on an experimental TV transmission in 1939 and later became a stalwart of the small screen. Her trademark was a disarming, dimple-cheeked wholesomeness, but her impeccable comic timing knew vast range, from genteel innocence to stiletto-like bite.

She remained an incorrigible presence on television sitcoms and talk shows, often portraying herself as a seemingly demure old woman who suddenly detours into a ribald punchline. When talk-show host David Letterman asked how she spent her time, she rambled on about her love of animals before noting that “vodka’s kind of a hobby”.

Most recently, she had a recurring role on the US sitcom Hot in Cleveland and hosted a hidden-camera, practical-joke show called Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, which featured senior citizens pranking people young enough to be their grandchildren.

Asked in 2012 about the devoted following that suddenly sprang up around her, she explained to an Australian newspaper, “I think when I turned 90, it somehow fascinated people that I was still working. I’m very grateful that they still invite me to do things, but it comes as much as a surprise to me as it does to them.”

White first made an impression on critics and audiences in her starring role on the suburban sitcom Life With Elizabeth, which aired from 1953 to 1955. New York Times television critic Jack Gould called White a talented and “immensely personable” actress with an “intuitive feel for farce”.

If the role helped propel White’s long career, she later spoke dismissively about what she considered its dated premise. Plotlines centred on “Elizabeth's biscuits not turning out”, she later told The Washington Post. “We were trying to be funny. We were more two-dimensional cartoon characters than three-dimensional real people.”

White with ‘Golden Girls’ co-stars Beatrice Arthur and Rue McClanahan in 2008

Her other sitcom work from the period was not much better, but her heart-shaped face and amiable personality won her a great deal of work elsewhere, notably such long-running quiz shows as What’s My Line? and the Ludden-hosted Password.

She said she was approached by NBC in the early 1960s to be the “new girl” on the Today morning show but declined because she did not want to live in New York City. “They had to make do with Barbara Walters,” White told NPR. “What can I tell you?”

The Mary Tyler Moore Show provided White with one of her juiciest roles. From 1973 until the show was cancelled in 1977, she portrayed Sue Ann Nivens, the outwardly sweet “Happy Homemaker” on the fictional Minneapolis station WJM-TV who had a sexually rapacious off-camera personality.

Portraying the “neighbourhood nymphomaniac”, White later said, was pivotal in reviving her acting career after years of gameshow work.

After years of playing “that nice lady,” she told TV Guide in 1974, “it was great fun for them to see that nice ladies sometimes have claws. For me, it was like being born again.”

She won two Emmy Awards for her supporting role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and was nominated for another.

The Golden Girls, which debuted in 1985 to glowing reviews and ran for seven years on NBC, sealed White’s presence on the small screen.

‘Immensely personable’: White in around 1955

She played ditsy but kindhearted Rose Nylund, a widowed grief counsellor who shares a Miami home with three other senior citizens: the oversexed Southern belle Blanche (Rue McClanahan); the abrasive octogenarian Sophia (Estelle Getty); and Sophia’s dominating daughter, Dorothy (Bea Arthur).

Rose was prone to self-doubt and misinterpreted everything said around her. Sexual innuendo often stumped her, such as Dorothy's comment that her ex-husband needed to strip naked to count to 21. Rose came from the Minnesota town of St Olaf, and her rambling reminiscences of its eccentric residents became a running joke. She won the 1986 Emmy for lead actress in a comedy series and was nominated six more times during the show's run.

Because of her memorable role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, White was initially approached to play Blanche on The Golden Girls. She said she was happy when the switch occurred, telling the publication Back Stage, “It was great fun, because we each had new territory to investigate, and Ruesie [McClanahan] took Blanche out into orbit where I never would have had the guts to go.”

Betty Marion White was born in Illinois, on 17 January 1922. She grew up in Los Angeles, where she showed early interest in theatre and won several acting jobs on radio and stage.

‘The Golden Girls’ cast in 1985, with White on the right

Her career stalled after her 1945 marriage to Dick Barker, a Second World War pilot who took her back to his family's chicken farm in Ohio. She later called the experience “a nightmare”.

A second marriage, to actor and showbusiness agent Lane Allen, also ended in divorce. She said Allen was unhappy that she wanted to work.

In 1949 and newly single, White joined a Los Angeles TV talk show as the sidekick of Al Jarvis. It was exhausting but exhilarating, White later told the Toronto Star. “It was live, five hours a day, six days a week,” she said. “We did 58 live commercials one day.”

White succeeded Jarvis as host of the show before she won her first starring role on national television with Life With Elizabeth, with Del Moore playing her husband. She later hosted The Betty White Show, a daytime talk show on NBC, and the domestic comedy Date With the Angels on ABC.

Accepting the TV Icon award at the People’s Choice Awards in 2015

Other sitcom efforts starring White fizzled, and she became a freelance celebrity panellist on game shows, through which she met Ludden, a widower, and married him in 1963. He died in 1981. They had no children. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

White said her years as a talk show panellist hurt her reputation as a serious actress. Her fortunes changed with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She initially was not considered for the complicated role of Nivens, but she said that the show's producers envisioned “a sickeningly sweet Betty White type” for the part.

White was a friend of the show's namesake star, and the producers feared a problem if she did not play the role well. Only after conducting an exhaustive search did the producers select her without an audition.

After the series ended in 1977, White starred briefly in her own self-titled series on CBS, and in 1983 she won a Daytime Emmy for moderating the game show Just Men!

Golden Girls endured in syndication, but the 1992 spinoff The Golden Palace, in which Rose, Blanche and Sophia manage a hotel, was cancelled after its first season. White became an active performer on other sitcoms and won a 1996 Emmy playing a version of herself on The John Larroquette Show.

She later earned Emmy nominations for her guest roles on the comedy series My Name Is Earl, Suddenly Susan, Yes, Dear and the drama series The Practice.

White was an animal advocate much of her life. She volunteered with animal welfare organisations, wrote a book about pet care and hosted a series in the early 1970s, The Pet Set, about celebrities and their pets.

“Actors like to throw rocks at television, but I love the medium because of its immediacy and ability to reach a vast audience in one fell swoop,” she told the Toronto Star in 1986. “On stage, you can’t communicate one-on-one with the audience. On film, you're larger than life and completely removed from the audience. Television, however, is an entity with a vitality of its own. And the beauty of this medium is that you can grow old in it. I intend to be around until I'm 102.”

Betty White, actor, born 17 January 1922, died 31 December 2021

© The Washington Post

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in