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Betty White, who had one of the longest careers in TV history playing ditzy blondes, was actually one of the toughest and most wised-up brunettes in showbiz. Yet such was her skill in shaping her public image – through talkshows, gameshows, sitcoms and multiple autobiographies – that from early on she was seen as something more than a mere TV personality: an actual type.
In her later years, she was held up by many as the ultimate example of how to be an older person. Amy Poehler, in her book of essays Yes, Please, recalls the time White appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2010: “I asked her what she was going to do after the show. ‘I’m going to fix myself a vodka on the rocks and eat a cold hotdog,’ she said. It confirmed for me that growing old was awesome,” Poehler writes.
By then, White had already spent almost 70 years cannily making herself into a recognisable genus. In 1973, when The Mary Tyler Moore Show was in the ascendant, an episode was written featuring a new character, Sue Ann, whom the script described as “a sickeningly sweet Betty White type”, White recalls in one of her memoirs, Here We Go Again. But, White writes, “They couldn’t find anyone sickening enough.”
And so the casting director gave the part of Sue Ann Nivens, the seemingly dopey blonde with a not-very-hidden vicious and nymphomaniac streak, to White herself. White played it to such perfection she became a regular in the show and promptly won her second and third Emmys for the role.
White worked for so long that looking back on her career is like taking a Zelig-like tour through the history of American TV, in which she pops up in each of the medium’s most seminal genres through the decades. (Her beloved third, last and late husband, TV gameshow host Allen Ludden, used to introduce her at parties with, “Meet my wife – one of the pioneers in silent television.” “And it was practically true,” she agreed.)
White, who was born in Illinois but grew up in Los Angeles, got her first job in TV in 1949 as the sidekick to Al Jarvis on his live variety show, Hollywood on Television, on which she and Jarvis would chat amiably between playing new records. However, TV viewers wrote in to complain that they were more interested in White and Jarvis’s chat than the records, so the music was promptly ditched.
Her appealing personality meant she was there in the early days of gameshows and talkshows, then throughout the 1950s and 60s worked with everyone from Jack Paar to Johnny Carson. Fans got to see her deeply in love in her many appearances on her husband gameshow, Password, which Ludden hosted from 1961 to 1967.
When the two appeared on the show shortly after their honeymoon they could hardly stop giggling and saying one another’s name in lovestruck delight. Paar, a friend of the couple and another guest on the show, stared at them in wonder: “What kind of a honeymoon did you two have?” he asked, affecting bemusement.
They never had children, although White was stepmother to Ludden’s children from an earlier relationship, and she was a noted devoted lover of animals and wrote about her long work with zoos and conservation in yet another memoir, Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo. She turned down a role in the hit 1997 film As Good as it Gets because in one scene a character dropped a puppy down a laundry chute. “I said as long as that scene was in the film, I wouldn’t do it,” she said. And she didn’t.
White was one of the first and still relatively few women to have creative control in front of and behind the camera, with her 1950s sitcom, Life With Elizabeth. While not an obvious trailblazer like Joan Rivers, White was a quiet revolutionary in her way – a gloved knife rather than a Rivers-like axe smashing down walls, whose onscreen jibes came with a sweet smile instead of a sneer.
Her two signature roles played on this contrast – the sweetness overlaying the sting – to brilliant effect. She became prominent in sitcoms in the 70s and 80s – arguably the genre’s two greatest decades. As Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she satirised her own twinkly eyed appearance, shooting the most cutting of jabs at Moore while she wafted around holding a souffle.
A new generation came to know her as Rose Nylund, the seemingly dopey Nordic blonde from St Olaf, Minnesota, on the wildly successful 80s sitcom, The Golden Girls, about a group of older women living in Florida, co-starring Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty.
They were all, as one TV critic said, “comedy black belts”, but few shows demonstrated better White’s genius at comedy: her timing, her rhythms and even just her facial expressions turned Rose from a potentially one-joke pony into a three-dimensional character, one especially beloved by children. “It tickled me whenever some very small person, tugging at mother’s sleeve, would point and say, ‘There’s Wose!’ Too young to pronounce it, they still knew the character,” White recalled.
Any arguments about how audiences don’t want to watch old people on TV are disproven by a glance at The Golden Girls’ records. The show was in the Top 10 most-watched shows in the US every week for its first five years. During those years, all four stars were nominated for Emmys every single year.
While seemingly a generic sitcom with a laugh track, the show was astonishingly bold about everything from geriatric sex to death in a way no show has been since, and it was beloved by the mainstream of all ages. White summed up the show’s appeal by saying, simply and correctly, “I think we were just truly funny.”
It could be argued that anyone who hangs around long enough in the entertainment business becomes a legend and beloved treasure. But this simply isn’t true, as a skating glance at the many forgotten legends of TV past proves (when Mary Tyler Moore died in 2016 many were surprised she was even still around). White’s longevity is undoubtedly remarkable – when her last sitcom, Hot in Cleveland, ended she was 93.
But she represented a lot more than mere good genes. She was a real trouper in the old showbiz sense, happy to go along with anything for the joke, whether it was tap dancing (brilliantly) in shorts on The Golden Girls in her 60s, or making jokes about her “salty muffin” on Saturday Night Live in her 90s.
She was, she often admitted, a workaholic, whose love for work was partly why her second marriage ended in 1949 after two years, and it was how she got herself through the grief when Ludden died in 1981. But she was also an early adopter of the concept of celebrity: she understood before many others the value of making her personality her brand, and how close it was to reality became moot. With talent like hers, reality was by the by.
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