(Almost) A Century of Betty White

Well, Betty White (1922-2022) passed away just 2.5 weeks shy of her centennial birthday, but “close enough”, say I. To paraphrase Hamlet, let the funeral cake coldly furnish the birthday party. I had always intended to do this birthday post, now it will do double duty as a late obit.

If you were blind, you could tell someone’s age by what they celebrate about her. For example, If you know her chiefly from Hot in Cleveland (2010-15) and her Super Bowl and Saturday Night Live appearances and the like, you’re on the KID end of the spectrum. If you know her mostly from her classic character of Rose on The Golden Girls (1985-1992, and the spin-off The Golden Palace, 1992-93), you’re middle-aged but still (horrors!) younger than me.

I would have first known about Betty White from the early ’70s (when she was already about 50!) as hostess of the Rose Parade and Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, as a frequent guest on many game shows (especially Password, hosted by her husband Allen Ludden), and as a guest on shows like Circus of the Stars and The Carol Burnett Show. So I was already aware of her when she started playing Sue Ann Niven on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973-77), the hilariously arch and scheming cooking show host, who appeared so sweet and wholesome on her show, but was so nasty and grasping behind the scenes. Sue Ann was a hilariously subversive character, playing with White’s TV image (which was not unlike that of Shirley Jones or Florence Henderson) and shocking the audience by cynically puncturing it. One of the best laughs — mine and the tv audience’s — on the show that I can recall, was a line of hers. Someone was rhetorically asking why some man was interested in some female rival of hers. Her reply, “I don’t know, dear — perhaps he has a weakness for tarts!” certainly paved the way for the style of comedy on Golden Girls. After Mary left the air in ’77, MTM fixed Betty up with her own vehicle, as she had previously done for Cloris Leachman and Valerie Harper. The Betty White Show aired for just one season in 1977. It paired White with John Hillerman (Higgins of Magnum P.I.) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Georgia Engel. The show couldn’t compete in its timeslot against Monday Night Football, however, and was cancelled.

And yet The Betty White Show was NOT White’s first starring vehicle, or even the first show bearing that name! And now we get to the even OLDER layer of White’s fan base. White had been around for three decades before even MY memories! A local L.A. girl, White had started out on radio in the early 1940s, appearing on such shows as Blondie, Archie, and The Great Gildersleeve, and even had her own local program for awhile. In 1949, she became the sidekick of broadcaster Al Jarvis on his new local talk/ variety show Hollywood on Television. And this is where White first became a TV “personality”. She could sing, she could extemporize as camera were rolling. Eddie Albert briefly took over the show for Jarvis, but after his departure in 1952 it became The Betty White Show, which in its final season (1954) went national. By that time, White was also the star of her own sit-com Life with Elizabeth (1953-55), which had also spun off from Hollywood on Television. (Amusingly, the name on her birth certificate was “Betty”; she had never been an “Elizabeth”). From 1957-58, White starred in another sit-com Date with the Angels, loosely based on Clifford Odets’ Dream Girl. She married Ludden in 1961.

Anyway, if you’re observant, you’ll have noticed something interesting about her credits. White wasn’t just an actress; she was also a broadcaster, which is quite a different thing. This was less uncommon in those early days when radio transitioned to TV. A pro was someone who could fill air-time, doing WHATEVER. So she could be more than someone who showed up and played a part. She was also a content creator, a hostess, a presenter. Like a journalist or a stand-up comedian she could pad for hours in any situation if need be. She is also credited with being television’s first female producer (she produced The Betty White Show). When she died, I read all over the place that she was known as “The First Lady of Television” and was initially dubious. But in light of the career I’ve just described, and the fact that she started in TV in 1949, the title seems pretty apt. (White’s friend, Lucille Ball, who launched I Love Lucy in 1951, has also been called “The First Lady of Television” — that thunder you hear rumbling is probably them fighting about in heaven.)

So White was First, and a Lady, and (primarily) on Television. But she was also in a handful of movies, mostly in the post-Golden Girls era when she was already in her 70s. (An exception is 1962’s Advise and Consent, in which she played a female Senator, back at a time when only a couple of women had served longer than a year in that office). You can see her in Hard Rain (1998), Dennis the Menace Strikes Again (1998), Lake Placid (1999), The Story of Us (1999), Breaking Down the House (2003), The Proposal (2009), and others, and her doing voice-overs in numerous animated family films. She was still making public appearances within months of her death. Only the fact that she wasn’t an out and out comedian (but something more), keeps me from adding her to this honor roll of 90+ comics. White left us just three weeks after fellow golden age sit-com star Cara Williams of Pete and Gladys who died on December 9. Here’s a pic of the pair of them together:

To learn more about variety history (including TV variety) consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous