Betty White launched her TV career in daytime talk shows when the medium was still in its infancy and endured well into the age of cable and streaming.
Betty White, whose saucy, up-for-anything charm made her a television mainstay for more than 60 years, whether as a man-crazy TV hostess on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or the loopy housemate on “The Golden Girls,” has died. She was 99.
She launched her TV career in daytime talk shows when the medium was still in its infancy and endured well into the age of cable and streaming. Her combination of sweetness and edginess gave life to a roster of quirky characters in shows from the sitcom “Life With Elizabeth” in the early 1950s to oddball Rose Nylund in “The Golden Girls” in the ’80s to “Boston Legal,” which ran from 2004 to 2008.
But it was in 2010 that White’s stardom erupted as never before.
In a Snickers commercial that premiered during that year’s Super Bowl telecast, she impersonated an energy-sapped dude getting tackled during a backlot football game.
“Mike, you’re playing like Betty White out there,” jeered one of his chums. White, flat on the ground and covered in mud, fired back, “That’s not what your girlfriend said!” The instantly-viral video helped spark a Facebook campaign called “Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!,” whose half-million fans led to her co-hosting “Saturday Night Live” in a much-watched, watch-hailed edition that Mother’s Day weekend. The appearance won her a seventh Emmy award.
A month later, cable’s TV Land premiered “Hot In Cleveland,” the network’s first original scripted series, which starred Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick as three past-their-prime show-biz veterans who move to Cleveland to escape the youth obsession of Hollywood. They move into a home being looked after by an elderly Polish widow — a character, played by White, who was meant to appear only in the pilot episode.
But White stole the show, and the salty Elka Ostrovsky became a key part of the series, an immediate hit. She was voted the Entertainer of the Year by members of The Associated Press.
“It’s ridiculous,” White said of the honour. “They haven’t caught on to me, and I hope they never do.” By then, White had not only become the hippest star around, but also a role model for how to grow old joyously.
“Don’t try to be young,” she told The AP. “Just open your mind. Stay interested in stuff. There are so many things I won’t live long enough to find out about, but I’m still curious about them.” Such was her popularity that even White’s birthday became a national event: In January 2012, NBC aired “Betty White’s 90th Birthday Party” as a star-studded prime-time special. She would later appear in such series as “Bones” and Fireside Chat With Esther” and in 2019 gave voice to one of the toys, “Bitey White,” in “Toy Story 4.” White remained youthful in part through her skill at playing bawdy or naughty while radiating niceness. The horror spoof “Lake Placid” and the comedy “The Proposal” were marked by her characters’ surprisingly salty language. And her character Catherine Piper killed a man with a skillet on “Boston Legal.” But she almost wasn’t cast as “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1973. She and her husband, Allen Ludden, were close friends of Moore and Moore’s then-husband, producer Grant Tinker. It was feared that if White failed on the show, which already was a huge hit, it would be embarrassing for all four.
But CBS casting head Ethel Winant declared White the logical choice. Originally planned as a one-shot appearance, the role of Sue Ann (which humorously foreshadowed Martha Stewart) lasted until Moore ended the series in 1977.
“While she’s icky-sweet on her cooking show, Sue is really a piranha type,” White once said. The role brought her two Emmys as supporting actress in a comedy series.
In 1985, White starred on NBC with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty in “The Golden Girls.” Its cast of mature actresses, playing single women in Miami retirement, presented a gamble in a youth-conscious industry. But it proved a solid hit and lasted until 1992.
White played Rose, a gentle, dim widow who managed to misinterpret most situations. She drove her roommates crazy with off-the-wall tales of childhood in fictional St. Olaf, Minnesota, an off-kilter version of Lake Wobegon.
The role won her another Emmy, and she reprised it in a short-lived spinoff, “The Golden Palace.” She also appeared in numerous miniseries and TV movies and made her film debut as a female U.S. senator in Otto Preminger’s 1962 Capitol Hill drama “Advise and Consent.” White, who had claimed to be “militantly single” since a 1947-1949 marriage, weakened in her resolve.
“I had always said on ‘The Tonight Show’ and everywhere else that I would never get married again,” she told a reporter in 1963. “But Allen outnumbered me. He started in and even the children got in the act. And I surrendered — willingly.” The marriage lasted from 1963 until his death from cancer in 1981.
Off-screen, White tirelessly raised money for animal causes such as the Morris Animal Foundation and the Los Angeles Zoo.
She was born Betty Marion White in Oak Park, Illinois, and the family moved to Los Angeles when she was a toddler. Her early ambition was to be a writer, and she wrote her grammar school graduation play, giving herself the leading role.
At Beverly Hills High School, her ambition turned to acting, and she appeared in several school plays. Her parents hoped she’d go to college, but instead she took roles in a small theater and played bit parts in radio dramas.
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