When someone has been appearing on television for a hundred years, as I have, it is only to be expected that people may recognize you.
– Betty White, Betty White in Person, 1987, p12
Betty Marion White Ludden (17 January, 1922 – 31 December, 2021) was such a remarkably popular woman that when she died on New Year's Eve in 2021, thousands expressed disappointment. They were looking forward to celebrating her 100th birthday with her. As an entertainer, writer, and animal welfare activist, Betty White's career spanned eight decades and involved almost the entire history of commercial television in the United States. She has been listed in the Guinness Book of Records as having the longest television career of any female entertainer. Not bad for someone the movie studios found 'unphotogenic'.
Betty White's real name was Betty, not Elizabeth: her parents were clear on that. The family had its own take on things. They moved from Illinois to Southern California when Betty was a year old. She grew up there during the Great Depression, attending Beverly Hills High School while her father, who worked for a lighting company, repaired radios on the side to help the family get by. They took in a lot of stray animals and made weekend trips to the mountains.
A nature lover, Betty wanted to become a forest ranger. Too bad: they didn't let girls be forest rangers. All right, she thought, I'll be a writer. She wrote her school play and performed in it – and got the acting bug. But first, there was a war. Betty joined the American Women's Voluntary Services (AWVS). She drove a PX (Post Exchange) delivery truck. Like many young people caught up in that war, Betty fell in love, but the romance didn't last. She and her first husband, Dick Barker, broke up after less than a year. An Ohio chicken farm wasn't Betty's idea of the future she wanted. There was another brief marriage in 1947, to Hollywood talent agent Lane Allen. They divorced when they discovered that they, too, had different goals in life.
After the war, Betty did a lot of radio: you didn't need glamorous looks for radio. She did voices, commercials, even crowd noises, often for $5 a show. She started in television in 1949. In those early days, performers needed to be able to improvise and even do their own commercials. The job required stamina, wit, and acting skills.
It's impossible to imagine filling five hours on television, but it would go by so quickly... We did interviews and commercials by the score. They'd come in and the ink wasn't dry on the copy.
- Betty White interview in David Reed, 'TV's Grand Old Gal?', The Lexington Herald, 31 July, 1977, p84
In addition to hosting variety shows, Betty ventured into situation comedies (sitcoms). One, called Life with Elizabeth, won her a local Los Angeles Emmy award. Unlike a lot of the early suburban-couple-type sitcoms, it was funny. Once the show became nationally syndicated in 1953, Betty not only won a new audience, but also defied industry norms. She co-owned and co-produced the show – not bad for a 28-year-old woman who still lived with her parents. At the same time, the indefatigable performer was hosting her own half-hour daytime show, The Betty White Show1.
Starting in 1955, Betty became a semi-regular on nationally-televised game shows such as What's My Line? In 1957, she starred in a new sitcom, A Date with the Angels. The series had low ratings and was cancelled, but Betty was contractually obligated to fill the remaining weeks of airtime. So another version of The Betty White Show appeared.
Frustrated by the ups and downs of variety shows and sitcoms, Betty turned to guest work, appearing on late-night television, such as the Jack Paar Show. She also performed in a number of game shows, including the popular new game, Password, in which players tried to guess a word based on one-word hints from their partners. The host, Allen Ludden, was recently widowed. He and Betty married in 1963, after Ludden and his teenage kids courted her assiduously for more than a year. The marriage was a happy one and lasted until Ludden's death in 1981.
In addition to raising the kids and appearing on Password, Betty hosted the televised versions of the Tournament of Roses Parade and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 1971, she hosted The Pet Set, a programme featuring celebrities and their pets along with pet-care tips. Betty White had a fulfilling life – but she still had new ground to break, although she didn't know it.
From Sue Ann to Rose
In the 1970s, television continued to be an industry whose business and production echelons were dominated by men, in spite of powerhouse women such as Lucille Ball. Another exception was television comedienne Mary Tyler Moore, who with her husband Grant Tinker headed the production company MTM Enterprises. The couple were long-time friends with Betty White and her husband Allen Ludden, and there was amusement when the script for the new MTM project, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, included a part for 'an icky sweet Betty White type.' When no one auditioned who was 'icky' enough, they called Betty.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show featured Mary as an independent young working woman at a television studio. This was a departure from the old sitcom model of 'working husband + housewife', and a welcome one to a generation of young career women. Betty White's role was subversive on several levels: her 'icky sweet' character, Sue Ann Nivens, was a parody of the way her pleasant persona was often perceived. But Sue Ann, who gushed as 'The Happy Homemaker', sharing her household hints, was really a cynical, selfish person – the opposite of Betty White, who, while by no means naïve, could never have been accused of meanness. Betty's ability to sell this character and make her funny delighted co-workers and audience members alike.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran for seven seasons, inspired three spinoffs, and won numerous awards and honours. It also made Betty White a household name to a new generation of television watchers. In the early 1980s, she marked another milestone achievement, becoming the first female game show host to win an Emmy award (for Just Men!). Her next sitcom, beginning in 1985, turned into the biggest hit of a long career.
Golden Girls was another groundbreaking series – this time involving women over 40 sharing a house. The ensemble cast included Bea Arthur as a sharp-witted New Yorker, Estelle Getty as her irrepressible mother, Rue McClanahan as a sassy Southern belle, and Betty White as Rose, the innocent and clueless woman from small-town Minnesota.
Betty White won the first Emmy for the series, but claimed it was for the whole ensemble. A critic compared these seasoned performers to the Marx Brothers, pointing out that they knew how to 'squeeze the juice' out of every line. The series ran for seven years.
After Golden Girls
After Golden Girls ended, Betty White continued to appear on television shows (even a soap opera). She also wrote, publishing seven books between 1987 and 2011. Three are about pets. The others are memoirs or loose collections of essays and observations. All are popular with the reading public.
In the 21st Century, Betty White received many honours for her work – including the thanks of dancer Arthur Duncan, who recalled that Betty had faced opposition in the 1950s for her inclusion of Duncan, an African American dancer, on her variety show. Betty had stuck to her guns. She won a Grammy Award for her spoken-word recording If You Ask Me. She appeared on Saturday Night Live. In all, she won five Primetime Emmy Awards and two Daytime Emmy Awards – over a span of 60 years.
Betty didn't stop working. In 2010, her commercial for Snickers candy bars aired at the Super Bowl2 – and won the top spot on the Superbowl Ad Meter. From 2012 to 2014, she hosted Off Their Rockers, a hidden camera-type comedy series in which Betty and her team of seniors played practical jokes on unwitting younger people.
As she neared her 100th birthday, Betty White was a household name in the United States. A documentary of her life was scheduled for her birthday. On the morning of 31 December, 2021, Betty died in her sleep. There was great sadness, but there were also many tributes to Betty from all quarters. She left behind an outstanding body of work as well as a legacy of integrity and kindness.