Betty White: The Eternal ‘Golden Girl’

Betty White: The Eternal ‘Golden Girl’

For American TV — and pretty much, the world’s — she’ll always be the “Golden Girl”.

With a television career of more than 80 years that endeared her as a geriatric sweetheart on sitcoms such as “The Golden Girls” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, White’s life was indeed the stuff of gold.

And it was a long life, really — almost a century long. 

Her death came on New Year’s eve 2022, just three weeks shy of her 100th birthday, with no immediate cause cited. “Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever,” her agent Jeff Witjas told People magazine.

White won five Primetime Emmys and one competitive Daytime Emmy — as well as a lifetime achievement Daytime Emmy in 2015 and a Los Angeles regional Emmy in 1952 — in a television career that spanned seven decades, and that the 2014 edition of “Guinness World Records” certified as the longest ever for a female entertainer. But her breakthrough came relatively late in life, with her work on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” from 1973 to 1977, for which she won two of her Emmys.

In a youth-driven entertainment industry where an actress over 40 faces career twilight, White was an elderly anomaly who was a star in her 60s and a pop culture phenomenon in her 80s and 90s.

“I’ve been working steady for 63 years,” she said in an interview for the ABC News program “Nightline” in 2010. “But everybody says, ‘Oh, it’s such a renaissance.’ Maybe I went away and didn’t know it.”

Playing on her imminent likability, White was still starring in a TV sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland,” at age 92 until it was canceled in late 2014.

White said her longevity was a result of good health, good fortune and loving her work.

“It’s incredible that I’m still in this business and that you are still putting up with me,” White said in an appearance at the 2018 Emmy Awards ceremony, where she was honored for her long career. “It’s incredible that you can stay in a career this long and still have people put up with you. I wish they did that at home.”

White was not afraid to mock herself and throw out a joke about her sex life or a snarky crack that one would not expect from a sweet-smiling, white-haired elderly woman. She was frequently asked if, after such a long career, there was anything she still wanted to do and the standard response was: “Robert Redford.”

“Old age hasn’t diminished her,” the New York Times wrote in 2013. “It has given her a second wind.”

Minutes after news emerged of her death, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters: “That’s a shame. She was a lovely lady.” His wife Jill Biden said: “Who didn’t love Betty White? We’re so sad about her death.’

Betty Marion White was born on Jan. 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, and her family moved to Los Angeles during the Great Depression, where she attended Beverly Hills High School.

White started her entertainment career in radio in the late 1930s and by 1939 had made her TV debut singing on an experimental channel in Los Angeles. After serving in the American Women’s Voluntary Service, which helped the U.S. effort during World War Two, she was a regular on “Hollywood on Television,” a daily five-hour live variety show, in 1949.

A few years later she became a pioneering woman in television by co-founding a production company and serving as a co-creator, producer and star of the 1950s sitcom “Life With Elizabeth.”

Through the 1960s and early ’70s White was seen regularly on television, hosting coverage of the annual Tournament of Rose Parade and appearing on game shows such as “Match Game” and “Password.”

Mary Tyler Moore and Betty White in a scene from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1975. (Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

White reached a new level of success on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” playing the host of a home-making television show, the snide, lusty Sue Ann Nivens, whose credo was “a woman who does a good job in the kitchen is sure to reap her rewards in other parts of the house.” White won best-supporting actress Emmys for the role in 1975 and 1976.

She won another Emmy in 1986 for “The Golden Girls,” a sitcom about four older women living together in Miami that featured an age demographic rarely highlighted on American television. White also was nominated for an Emmy six other times for her portrayal of the widowed Rose Nylund, a sweet, naive and ditzy Midwesterner, on the show, which ran from 1985 to 1992 and was one of the top-rated series of its time. 

From left, Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Ms. Betty White (far right) in a 1989 episode of “The Golden Girls. (Photo: NBC, via Everett Collection)

After a less successful sequel to “The Golden Girls” came a series of small movie parts, talk-show appearances and one-off television roles, including one that won her an Emmy for a guest appearance on “The John Larroquette Show.”

By 2009 she was becoming ubiquitous with more frequent television appearances and a role in the Sandra Bullock film “The Proposal.” She starred in a popular Snickers candy commercial that aired during the Super Bowl, taking a brutal hit in a mud puddle in a football game.

A young fan started a Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) campaign to have White host “Saturday Night Live” and she ended up appearing in every sketch on the show and winning still another Emmy for it.

The Associated Press voted her entertainer of the year in 2010 and a 2011 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that White, then 89, was the most popular and trusted celebrity in America with an 86 percent favorability rating.

White’s witty and brassy demeanor came in handy as host of “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers,” a hidden-camera show in which elderly actors pulled pranks on younger people.

“Who would ever dream that I would not only be this healthy, but still be invited to work?” White said in a 2015 interview with Oprah Winfrey. “That’s the privilege … to still have jobs to do is such a privilege.”

With husband Allen Ludden at a fund-raising party for the Los Angeles Zoo in 1979. Betty White had a longstanding interest in animal welfare. (Photo: NewsBase/Associated Press)

White, who had no children, was married thrice — with the third union to game show host Allen Ludden, she tied the knot with in 1963, lasting till his death in 1981. 

With no children and grandkids to care for, White turned her love to animals. And she was fiercely protective of them, so much so that she turned down a role in the 1997 comedy “As Good as It Gets” — a film which won Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively — because of a scene where a dog is thrown down a garbage chute.

* Adapted from Reuters and New York Times


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