If life were a game show, Betty White might just be the winner. After all, the actress-turned-cultural icon has won over the hearts of fans around the world as the star of iconic shows including The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls.
And more recently, she experienced a career resurgence in 2010 after a Super Bowl commercial introduced her to a new generation. That newfound fandom led to her setting a record for being the oldest Saturday Night Live host at the age of 88, and won her an Emmy.
However, White hasn't captured the hearts of American audiences with her impressive professional resume alone. It’s also her good-hearted, fun-loving spirit and undeniable wit, demonstrated when she was asked on CNN what it’s like to be considered a legend: “I just laugh — have I got them fooled!”
Now in her late 90s, White is still on top of her game and has no plans to retire. “I’m just so lucky to have the career that I’ve had for as long as I’ve had it,” she told Parade in 2018. “I’ve loved every minute!”
But long before she was everyone’s favorite Golden Girl, she paved a path that proved she totally has game.
Her first appearance on television was an accident
Growing up as the only child of Tess and Horace White, White knew what she wanted to do early on. “My big ambition was to be a writer, until I wrote myself into the lead in our graduation play at Horace Mann Grammar School,” she wrote in her book Here We Go Again: My Life in Television. “It was then that I contracted showbiz fever, for which there is no known cure.”
Her first appearance on television came as an accident. After singing at her high school graduation, she was one of two students chosen to be part of an “experimental television transmission” in 1939 — which only transmitted through six floors of a building. But it was a start — and White was there at the forefront.
A decade later, in 1949, after honing her skills in radio, White got her first paid gig in television. She did a guest spot on The Dick Haynes Show and became a regular on the comedy show Tom, Dick and Harry. While the show was fairly short-lived, it led to another job at the same TV station, which became a major part of her early career.
A producer asked White to not disclose her salary
The station was developing a new game show called Grab Your Phone, in which four girls were on a panel, each with a phone in front of her. The host, Wes Battersea, would ask the audience a question and the girls would grab the phone as people called in.
“It must have looked like a tiny telethon,” White wrote in her book. “But we weren’t taking pledges — we were giving out five whole dollars for each correct response!”
But before the first episode, White was pulled aside and told not to disclose her salary to the other girls. “We are going to pay you 20 dollars a week because you sit on the end and ad-lib with West, but they are only getting 10 a week,” a producer said.
The ever-smart White kept her mouth shut, knowing that there was a chance the others were being told not to disclose their salaries and perhaps she was the one getting underpaid. But either way, as soon as the cameras started rolling, it was clear White had a knack for game shows.
White's love of games started early
Playing games on live television perfectly merged White’s talents — she had grown up playing games and had that instinct for witty comments that made her the perfect contestant.
“Mom and Dad and I had always played games since as far back as I can remember,” White wrote. “Some we made up as we went along — at the table, in the car, wherever — so playing on TV was a bonus. Where else can you spend a couple of hours playing games with nice people and get paid for it?”
Her dad’s response to that idea shows that quick banter ran in the family. “Just think of all you gave away before they started paying you,” she remembered of his comments, adding that “dad had a way with words.”
Phoning it in led to a lifelong obsession with the genre. “It was my first and served as the precursor to countless TV games I would be playing through the years,” White wrote. “You name it, I’ve played it. Not just because I was hired to do so, but because it was so much fun. Still is.”
Her appearance on 'Phone' opened another door
Her appearance on the Grab Your Phone caught the attention of Los Angeles disc jockey Al Jarvis, who was starting a daytime TV show called Hollywood on Television and needed a Girl Friday. But it wasn’t just a weekly gig. “Before I could recover enough to respond, Al continued, saying that not only would I be his Girl Friday, but I’d be his Girl Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as well,” White remembers. He was planning on going daily with his new show and thought she’d be perfect.
“I like the way you kid with Wes Battersea, and since we are going to be on the air for five hours every day, I thought that might come in handy,” she writes of what he said, offering her $50 a week.
She accepted: “I had had no way of knowing that my lifelong love affair with television had just begun.”
White met her husband on a game show
The Hollywood on Television job led to White co-founding Bandy Productions to start her own projects – the most groundbreaking being producing and starring on the 1953 sitcom Life with Elizabeth. She went on to also star on Date with Angels in 1957, The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1973 and The Golden Girls in 1985 — where she became known for her role as the innocently optimistic Rose Nylund.
But all along the way, she stuck to her love for game shows, appearing on more than 50 of them, including To Tell the Truth, What’s My Line? and Password. She even hosted her own game show Just Men! in 1983.
“I love games. Of course, I met my husband on Password, so that one is extra special,” she told Parade. Indeed, she took home the ultimate prize when she met Password host Allen Ludden, who she married in 1963.
“We couldn’t take a honeymoon because he was due back on [the show],” White said in an interview. “As a wedding present, Jack Paar came on as a guest — bless his heart. They had always wanted him to come on as a guest, and he wouldn’t. But as a wedding present, he [played Password] as the opposing player — that was fun!”
While her love of performing drew her to the stage, ultimately it was her passion for television — and game shows in particular — that led to pivotal moments in both her professional and personal life.
“I had no idea that I would still be around at this point for one thing, but that I’d still be privileged enough to still be in this business,” she said while accepting the Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 2015. “It is such a privilege. And the bottom line I think to the television business is that unless you’re a real bad egg, it is such fun. It really is. Thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart.”