Who Was Betty White?
Betty White began her television career in the late 1930s. She starred on Life with Elizabeth in the 1950s and maintained her popularity as a TV personality through appearances on talk, game and variety shows. Following a lengthy run on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s, White co-starred in another popular sitcom the following decade with the launch of The Golden Girls. Her success carrying into her 80s and then her 90s, White joined the cast of Hot in Cleveland in 2010 and that year also became the oldest host of Saturday Night Live, after a Facebook-fueled effort to get her on the show.
Early Life and Career
Comedic actress Betty Marion White Ludden was born on January 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois. She grew up as the only child of Horace and Tess White, an electrical engineer and a homemaker. When she was 2, she moved to Los Angeles with her family.
White got her start working as an assistant at a local television station. In the early 1950s, she launched her first television series, Life with Elizabeth, which she developed with George Tibbles. "He wrote and I produced," White explained to The Hollywood Reporter. "I was one of the first women producers in Hollywood." The show's premise came from a sketch she had done previously on local television.
Continuing to work in television, White made guest appearances on such shows as The United States Steel Hour and Petticoat Junction. She was also a favorite of talk-show host Jack Paar, who often had her on the Tonight Show, and she made regular appearances on game shows such as Password. She met her third husband, Allen Ludden, on that show in 1961.
White's career received an enormous boost from her next television series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Playing Sue Ann Nivens, White showed audiences that behind her sweet smile lay a sharp wit. Her character served as a co-worker to the show's star, Mary Tyler Moore, in a Minneapolis television newsroom. When she wasn't pursuing her male colleagues, Sue Ann could be counted on to make funny, yet poignant, quips at Moore's expense. White won two Emmy Awards for her work on the series.
In sharp contrast to her Sue Ann character, White played the sweet and naive Rose Nylund on the popular 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls, along with co-stars Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty. The show looked at the lives of four, elderly, female friends, and its success proved that there was an audience for programs featuring older characters. The series landed among the top-ranked shows during its seven seasons on the air, and it won numerous awards, including another Emmy Award for White.
After The Golden Girls went off the air in 1992, White appeared in the short-lived spin-off, Golden Palace. She had better luck as a guest star, appearing on numerous television series. She even played herself on The John Larroquette Show in 1996, which earned her another Emmy Award-win. More recently, White enjoyed recurring roles on David E. Kelley's Boston Legal and on the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. She also had a supporting role in 2009's romantic comedy The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.
While she worked steadily over the years, White's career caught fire again in 2010. She appeared in a humorous candy bar ad during that year's Super Bowl, which quickly became an audience favorite. Thanks largely to a Facebook campaign, that May White became the oldest person to host Saturday Night Live. She was initially reluctant to do the show, explaining to Newsweek that it "was the scariest thing I've ever done. It was really funny stuff, but it was a challenge."
Also in 2010, White returned to series television with a role on the sitcom Hot in Cleveland, alongside stars Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick. She first only signed on for the pilot, but she later joined the cast. "It's just a terrific show. The chemistry between the girls is so great," she told Newsweek.
In addition to her work in Hot in Cleveland, she also hosted Betty White's Off Their Rockers. This hidden camera show, which aired from 2012 into 2017, featured a mature set of merry pranksters who play jokes on younger generations. White picked an Emmy Award nomination for her work on the show in 2012.
That same year, White celebrated her 90th birthday with all-star television special. Ellen Degeneres, Mary Tyler Moore, Carl Reiner, Tina Fey and Ed Asner were among the many celebrities who helped honor White on the program.
In August 2018, PBS aired Betty White: First Lady of Television. The retrospective looked back at her 80-year career in show business, highlighted by her early variety series work, her standout roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls, and her resurgence as a sharp-tongued senior in her later years.
Not ready to be relegated to the nostalgia bin just yet, the actress joined an all-star roster of talent for 2019's Toy Story 4, voicing a tiger teething toy named Bitey White, before being tapped to headline a Lifetime holiday movie the following year.
She worked with the Los Angeles Zoo and the Morris Animal Foundation for more than four decades. "I'm actually the luckiest old broad alive. Half my life is working in a profession I love and the other half is working with animals."
She wrote several books during the 1980s and 1990s, including 1987's Betty White In Person and 1995's Here We Go Again: My Life in Television, which was re-released in 2010. In 2010, she signed a two-book deal with G. P. Putnam's Sons. White's latest set of observations on her life and career, If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't) was published in the spring of 2011. Her next work My Life at the Zoo: Betty and Her Friends came out that fall.
Thrice married, White said that her third husband, Allen Ludden, was the love of her life. The couple was married from 1963 until Ludden's death in 1981. She was previously married to WWII pilot Dick Barker and theatrical agent Lane Allen.
Betty White died on December 31, 2021 at the age of 99.
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