There are a handful of celebrities who are universally loved. These are people who can do no wrong. The lovely Betty White sits in the same category with people like Tom Hanks and Dolly Parton. White is on many “favorite people” lists. She is, after all, a national treasure!
Many of us adored her as Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls, but White’s career was strong for decades before that and decades after. Believe it or not, the woman turned 98 this year (2020), and she’s still making appearances. Here’s everything you want to (and should) know about the one and only Betty White, who has been called America’s Golden Girl and First Lady of Television.
Betty White and a fellow Beverly Hills High graduate were asked to perform for an early TV broadcast in 1939. “I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the West Coast, in downtown Los Angeles,” White told the Guinness Book of World Records. Wearing the same dress that she wore to her high school graduation, she and her classmate “danced the Merry Widow Waltz.”
A decade later, once she had already established herself as a radio performer, Los Angeles DJ Al Jarvis asked White “to sit in as his Friday girl” on a televised talk show that he was launching called Hollywood on Television. For White, the show that aired live six days a week for five-and-a-half hours each day was an experience that proved invaluable in the emerging medium of live TV. “Whatever happened, you had to handle it,” White told NPR.
White basically “inherited” Hollywood on Television, four years after Al Jarvis’ exit. She also hosted an amateur-hour show in the evenings, where she would invite contestants to show off their talents. During that evening show, White performed brief comedy sketches that “paid off with a song as the tag line.”
One day, the station manager asked if she could stretch a sketch that featured a husband and wife into the half-hour show. “In my wisdom,” she said with a laugh, “I said, ‘It won’t work … the jokes won’t hold up that long, you can’t do a half-hour.’ That’s how much I knew.” The end product was Life with Elizabeth, an early TV sitcom, which debuted in 1953. “Nobody remembers Life with Elizabeth,” White quipped. “They weren’t born when Life with Elizabeth was on.”
White went on to star in The Betty White Show, not once but three times! There were actually three distinct versions of the show. According to her IMDb profile, the first version debuted in 1954, during Life with Elizabeth’s two-season run. It was a talk show she produced herself, and it established her as one of the first female producers and performers with full creative control in the male-dominated world of Hollywood.
She later hosted another version of The Betty White Show, which debuted in 1958 as a variety series for NBC. The third variation came about 20 years later. After her role as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended, this third version was a straight-up sitcom. White played Joyce Whitman in the series, but it was canceled after just one season.
White’s first marriage was nowhere near successful, writes author Chris Dicker in his biography of White, The First Lady. She met a chicken farmer named Dick Barker during World War II while he was serving as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. After a brief romance, she accepted his proposal for marriage in 1942, before he went overseas.
They married in 1945 and moved to his farm in Ohio, which was a “big adjustment” for the L.A.-raised actress. After just five months, the couple split, and she moved back to California. White later got hitched to Lane Allen in 1949, but they divorced two years later. When discussing her earlier marriages on Piers Morgan Live in 2012, she joked, “The first two were rehearsals.”
Her third marriage proved much more successful. She got it right when she married game show host Allen Ludden in 1963. The couple remained happily married until his death of stomach cancer in 1981, mere days before their 18th wedding anniversary.
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, White was a staple on the game show circuit. She made her first such appearance on Password in 1961, which happened to be the first time she met the show’s host and her future husband. A clip of that episode shows White and Ludden flirting. “What are your plans for the summer, Betty?” he asked her. She nervously laughed before replying, “What did you have in mind, Allen?”
Who knew that a sitcom about four women over 60 would become one of the most successful series of the 1980s? The Golden Girls, starring Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty, and Betty White, was a major hit. White’s character Rose was the polar opposite of Sue Ann Nivens, her Mary Tyler Moore Show character.
The producers of The Golden Girls originally saw McClanahan as Rose and pictured White in McClanahan’s role as Blanche Devereaux. McClanahan said in a 2006 interview that she actually auditioned for both parts. White revealed that she and the producers shared the same concerns – that viewers would think she was repeating herself if she chose the similar role. So, she switched characters, and the rest is history.
The ladies of The Golden Girls had great chemistry onscreen, which makes it hard to believe that they were anything less than best friends in real life. But decades after the show ended, candid interviews revealed the underlying tensions, even hostilities between the actresses, especially between Betty White and Bea Arthur.
It takes two to tango, of course, but even Arthur’s son, Matthew Saks, admits his mother was not the most diplomatic person.
“My mom unknowingly carried the attitude that it was fun to have somebody to be angry at,” he told Closer. White became her “nemesis,” the one she roll her eyes at. “She was not that fond of me,” White said of Arthur in 2011.
“She found me a pain in the neck sometimes. It was my positive attitude, and that made Bea mad sometimes. Sometimes if I was happy, she’d be furious!” Working such long days during the show’s seven-year run, in addition to having markedly different personalities and acting philosophies, only added fuel to the fire.
According to Jim Colucci, author of Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Biography, Bea Arthur came from the old school of [television writer] Norman Lear where sitcoms were filmed like stage plays and done with up-close reactions.” White, on the other hand, was from the Mary Tyler Moore school, “where everything is a very subtle character moment. The jokes are more gentle.”
Rue McClanahan described Arthur as a “very eccentric woman,” a complicated person with numerous quirks. She apparently hated wearing shoes so much that her contract stipulated that she could walk around the set barefoot, but only if she promised not to sue the producers if she got injured.
White had a habit of talking with the live audience between takes – something that particularly bothered Arthur, who preferred to stay in character. So, she either waited in place or stayed backstage. “Sometimes Betty would go out and smile and chat with the audience and literally go and make friends with the audience,” Saks told The Hollywood Reporter. “I think my mom didn’t dig that… it rubbed my mom the wrong way.”
There was a time, however, when White and Arthur were friends, at least according to Saks. They lived close to each other and would even commute together to the studio. McClanahan said Arthur wouldn’t have lunch with her unless White joined them. So what went wrong?
Some speculated that there was jealousy over White’s Emmy win. Eventually, though, all of the actresses won Emmy Awards and were nominated in the show’s first season. White was just the first to win in 1986. As McClanahan wrote in her 2007 memoir, My First Five Husbands…And the Ones Who Got Away, Arthur was angry that White won and reportedly called her a bad name.
Saks explained, “My mom was the real deal. I think she felt she was more of an actress than Betty. Mom came from Broadway. Betty starred on a game show at one point.” Arthur’s resentment only grew once the writers began making a habit of “Dorothy bashing.”
The insulting commentary about Rose’s lack of intelligence or Blanche’s promiscuity “could roll off White’s and McClanahan’s backs because they were not like their characters,” said Colucci. But when it came to the things said about Dorothy – that she was “big and ugly” – well, that wears on an actress after a while, Colucci explained. Once the final season began, Arthur made it clear that she was done.
For Arthur, the show’s quality was going downhill, and she wanted to go out while still on top. White is now the last surviving cast member of The Golden Girls. Before the show went off the air in 1992, Estelle Getty was already showing signs of Lewy body dementia, a disease that took her life in 2008.
Arthur died of cancer at the age of 86 in 2009. McClanahan died next, of a cerebral hemorrhage, in 2010. Although White and Arthur’s feud may have seemed dramatic from the outside, it was likely unavoidable, seeing that Arthur was naturally standoffish. “My mom wasn’t really close to anybody,” Saks said in 2015. “I’m not saying she was a loner, but she just liked to go home and read the paper.”
In 2011, White’s co-stars on Hot in Cleveland divulged her dietary tastes to Us Weekly, revealing that she eats “Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries and Diet Coke.” Wendie Malick said White “seems to exist” on a junk food diet. Hey, it seems to be working!
In 2018, White admitted that she particularly enjoys vodka and hot dogs, adding, “probably in that order.” When she was on The Late Show with David Letterman, she described how she likes to spend her free time: “I like to do most anything, play with animals mostly,” she started, before adding, “And vodka’s kind of a hobby.” Letterman then whipped out two ice-filled glasses and filled each with Grey Goose.
In a 2014 “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit, people asked White to name some of the most famous celebrities she ever met. White’s answer included three presidents — Clinton, Obama, and Bush Sr. — as well as the Queen of England. It was actually Queen Elizabeth II’s mother, the Queen Mother, who initiated the meeting.
The Queen Mother was a huge fan of The Golden Girls, which led to her putting in a special request for White and her co-stars, Beatrice Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty, to perform at the 1988 Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. “It was very exciting,” White wrote. “The Queen was lovely. We were told not to address her unless we were addressed. She was up in a box, and she came down on stage after with Princess Anne.”
If she hadn’t embarked on a career in TV, there’s a whole other profession that White would have chosen. In an interview with the Guinness Book of World Records, she was asked what career she would have chosen. Her answer: “Hands down, a zookeeper.”
Sure, the whole concept of zoos has grown controversial, but White believes they serve an important purpose. Being a longtime animal lover and trustee for the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, she views PETA’s position (of zoos being a thing of the past) as the result of a “closed” mind. The role of zoos, according to White, isn’t to keep animals in captivity, rather they help sustain endangered animals.
Speaking of loving animals, White’s passion for animals has been well documented. In fact, she even wrote a book about it in 1983, called Betty White’s Pet Love: How Pets Take Care of Us. Her affinity for animals led her to reject a role in a critically-acclaimed film – one that was nominated for seven Oscars.
The movie? 1997’s As Good As It Gets with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. White said that in one scene, “They had… this adorable puppy, that at one point they dropped down a laundry chute. It landed on a pile of laundry in the storyline, and I turned down the role.” She didn’t want people to see that scene and imitate it. “So I said as long as that scene was in the film, I wouldn’t do it.”
In 2014, then 92-year-old Betty White was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records when she set the record for the longest TV career of a female entertainer. At that point, her career on TV spanned 74 years. “I was astounded when they called to tell me. ‘Who? Me!?!’ It’s such an honor.”
During the interview with the record-holding establishment, White shared some advice for aspiring actors who may be hoping to enjoy the kind of longevity she has enjoyed. “I would advise actors to do their homework and take the time to appreciate their profession… It is a privilege to do what we do.”
Anyone who looks at footage and photos of young Betty White can see that how beautiful she is, but shockingly enough, as she told Parade in 2018, she used to get turned down for roles because she was “unphotogenic.” That criticism didn’t stop her, though. “You just keep plugging away. You don’t give up,” she said.
In 2017, she told Katie Couric how she wants to be remembered: “Oh, she’s so gorgeous and sexy,” White joked, then added more seriously, “No, I just appreciate the fact that people have been kind to me all these years. The fact that I’m still working.” While she prefers we focus on her acting skills, she also appreciates a good compliment!
Let’s take a look at her early career…
White started her career in 1939, only three months after her high school graduation, with the experimental show The Merry Widow. She then found work modeling. Her first professional acting job was at the Bliss Hayden Little Theatre. Once World War II broke out, her career was put on hold, and she volunteered for the American Women’s Voluntary Services.
She helped transport military supplies through California. Aside from that, White also participated in events for troops. After the war, she looked for work in film studios, during the period of time when she was turned down for not being photogenic enough. So, she looked for radio jobs, where looks didn’t matter.
Her first radio gig included reading commercials and playing bit parts, making roughly five dollars a show. White did just about anything, including singing on a show for free or making an appearance on a local game show. She went on shows like Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This Is Your FBI.
Eventually, she was offered her own radio show, The Betty White Show. In 1949, she started appearing as a co-host with Al Jarvis on his daily live variety show, Hollywood on Television, initially called Al Jarvis’ Make-Believe Ballroom. By the time the ‘50s rolled around, she was hosting the show on her own.
In 1951, White was nominated for her first Emmy Award for Best Actress on a television series, competing with stars like Judith Anderson, Helen Hayes, and Imogene Coca. The award, however, went to Gertrude Berg. It was actually the first award in the new Emmy category, which was designated for women in television.
In 1952, White co-founded Bandy Productions with writer George Tibbles and producer Don Fedderson. The trio created new shows using existing characters from Hollywood on Television. They came up with the comedy Life with Elizabeth, in which White portrayed the title character. She earned a Los Angeles Emmy Award in 1952 for it. It was unusual for a sitcom in the ‘50s since it was co-produced and owned by a 28-year-old woman who still lived with her parents.
According to White, they didn’t worry about relevance in those days. Usually, the situations on the series were based on real-life situations that happened to her, the writer, and the actor who played Alvin. A few years later, in 1954, she hosted and produced another show, The Betty White Show, for which she hired a female director.
Since it was the ‘50s, the show faced criticism for including Arthur Duncan, a black performer, as a regular cast member. It was a criticism that only came once NBC expanded the show nationally. Southern stations even threatened to boycott the show unless Duncan was removed from the series. In response, the almighty White simply said, “I’m sorry. Live with it,” and gave Duncan even more airtime.
Although the show was initially a ratings success, it faced repeated time slot changes and suffered lower viewership. By the end of the year, the network quietly canceled the series. White then appeared as Vicki Angel on the sitcom Date with the Angels from 1957 to 1958. The show, based on the Elmer Rice play Dream Girl, focused on Vicki’s daydreaming.
“I can honestly say that was the only time I have ever wanted to get out of a show,” White admitted later on. The sitcom was both a critical and ratings disaster. However, ABC didn’t let White out of her contractual agreement, requiring her to fill the remaining 13 weeks.
Finding herself out of work, White turned to network game shows. She made lots of appearances on Password as a celebrity guest from 1961 to 1975. She then appeared on the show’s three updated versions: Password Plus, Super Password, and Million Dollar Password.
White also appeared on What’s My Line? (beginning in 1955), To Tell the Truth (1961, 1990, and 2015), I’ve Got a Secret (1972 to 73), Match Game (1973 to 1982), and Pyramid (beginning in 1982). But the ‘60s weren’t entirely about game shows. In 1962, she made her feature film debut in Advise & Consent as Kansas Senator Elizabeth Ames Adams. It ended up being her only big-screen appearance for a number of decades.
NBC offered White an anchor job on the breakfast television show Today, but she turned it down because she didn’t want to move to New York permanently. The job went to Barbara Walters instead. Through the ‘50s and ‘60s, White began a 19-year run on the annual Rose Parade broadcast on NBC as hostess and commentator (often with Lorne Greene).
She also entered the late-night talk show circuit, including Jack Paar’s The Tonight Show. In 1973, she made appearances in the fourth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Sue Ann Nivens. The role earned her a second and third Emmy Award. She considers the role a highlight of her career, but she still described her character’s image as “icky sweet.”
In 1975, NBC replaced her on the Tournament of Roses Parade, saying she was too heavily identified with CBS’ The Mary Tyler Moore Show. White admitted that it was difficult to “watch someone else do my parade.” She went on, though, to start a 10-year run as the hostess of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for CBS.
After The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended in 1977, White was offered her fourth version of The Betty White Show. She co-starred with John Hillerman and Georgia Engel, but it was canceled after only one season in 1978.
White was on The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and guest-starred in a number of TV movies and miniseries, including With This Ring, The Best Place to Be, Before and After, and The Gossip Columnist.
In 1983, White became the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Game Show Host. It was for NBC’s Just Men! She was soon dubbed the “First Lady of Game Shows.” From 1983 to 1984, she played Ellen Harper Jackson on Mama’s Family, with Golden Girls co-star Rue McClanahan.
White originated the character in sketches on The Carol Burnett Show in the ‘70s. After Mama’s Family was canceled in 1984, she scored the biggest hit of her career as Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. White won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series in the first season. She was then nominated in the same category every year of the show’s run.
In 1992, The Golden Girls ended after Arthur announced that she was leaving the show. White, Getty, and McClanahan reprised their roles in the spin-off series, The Golden Palace. The series only lasted one season. White also reprised her role as Rose in guest appearances on the NBC shows like Empty Nest and Nurses.
White went on to guest-star on Suddenly Susan, The Practice, and Yes, Dear. She won an Emmy in 1996 for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her role on The John Larroquette Show. With the ‘90s a thing of the past, she turned her attention to soap operas in the 2000s. In 2006, White joined the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful as Ann Douglas.
In her long television career, White had appeared on a multitude of shows, yet she was never on Saturday Night Live. But, in 2010, one of her fans made a real effort to change that. A San Antonio fan by the name of Dave Matthews (not the musician) created a Facebook page solely devoted to encouraging SNL to have White on as host.
A few hundred thousand people signed on, and headlines were made, and eventually, SNL got on board and invited White to host the Mother’s Day episode of the show. Naturally, she killed it. Still, she admitted to WXII 12 News that she was full of nerves before taking the stage for the opening monologue.
During the same year that White made her SNL debut, she joined the cast of Hot in Cleveland, a sitcom about three “women of a certain age” who moved from LA to Cleveland to live together in one house. White played a hard-drinking senior citizen named Elka. The show ran for six successful seasons.
White, however, wasn’t supposed to be a regular on the show – something she always wanted. She didn’t want to commit to a series that could tie her up for several years. “I agreed to do a guest stint on a pilot,” she said. “I said ‘yes’ provided it would be only a one-shot deal.” After the pilot, producers were blown away and convinced her to sign on for more seasons.
In 2018, White reflected on her lengthy career, saying that she doesn’t have a secret. When asked if she plans to retire, she responded with a resounding, “NEVER!” According to her IMDb page, her last acting credit was a short TV series called Forky Asks a Question, as the character Bitey White.
It doesn’t seem like age will stop this star from doing what she loves. She once told TODAY in 1991: “You don’t fall off the planet once you pass a given age. You don’t lose any of your sense of humor. You don’t lose any of your zest for life, or your lust for life if you will.”