She was often referred to as “The First Lady of Television” and the “First Lady of Game Shows.” She was best known for her comedic acting, but, in actuality, she did everything as you will see below. As columnist Johnny Oleksinski wrote in Newsday, “It is impossible to name a more beloved celebrity than Betty White. … [She exhibited] “a rare cross-generational appeal.” I would like to echo those sentiments and add that I never heard a derogatory comment or story about Betty White, which is very rare in the entertainment field.
She was one of the pioneers of television. She debuted in 1939 before there even was tv, officially, and she entertained us for more than eight decades, longer than any other performer in history. She won eight Emmys in various categories, three American Comedy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and, for good measure, a Grammy. In addition, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is in the Television Hall of Fame. Not bad for someone who was told by studio executives and talent scouts that she “was not photogenic enough” to be on tv.
Betty Marion White was born on January 17, 1922 in Oak Park, IL. Her father was a lighting company executive, and her mother was a homemaker. She had no siblings. In case you’re wondering “Betty” was her legal name. It was not short for “Elizabeth” or any other name.
The family moved to LA when Betty was a youngster. She attended Beverly Hills High School, graduating in 1939. As a youngster, she developed a strong interest in wildlife, and she determined to be a forest ranger. Alas, she was denied because no women were allowed. She then turned to the entertainment business. If not for that rejection how different things could have been.
Due to the extraordinary length and variety of Betty’s entertainment career I will only present the highlights:
- In 1939 at the age of 17 she starred in a high school graduation play that she had written, and a month out of high school she appeared in her first tv production titled The Merry Widow. This was months before tv was to be formally introduced to the public as a brand new entertainment medium at the World’s Fair in NY, and the tv industry did not even exist, officially.
- During WWII Betty volunteered with the American Women’s Voluntary Services. One of her assignments was to drive a PX truck carrying military supplies. It was during this time that she met her first husband, Dick Barker, an Army Air Force pilot. After the war ended Barker wanted to return to his native rural Ohio where he owned and managed a chicken farm. Can you imagine Betty as a small-town chicken farmer? Needless to say, she rejected that idea, they soon divorced and Betty returned to the bright lights of Hollywood.
- After being rejected for tv as not being sufficiently photogenic Betty turned to radio. Like all aspiring entertainers she took whatever she could get. Among her jobs were reading commercials, playing bit parts and even providing “crowd noises.”
- Betty’s first substantial role in 1949 was as co-host on the daytime talk show Hollywood on Television. Later, she became the host.
- In 1954, while hosting her own daily talk/variety show, which she had also produced and over which she had full creative control, she made history. Firstly, she hired a female director. Secondly, she featured an African American tap dancer, Arthur Duncan. This became problematic when the show went national. Some Southern affiliates objected to Duncan and threatened to boycott the show unless he was removed. In a lesson that could be applied to today’s “cancel culture” Betty refused to cave in to their racist demands. She famously told the affiliates: “I’m sorry. Live with it.” Furthermore, she expanded Duncan’s role on the show.
- In the 1950s Betty met Lucille Ball. They bonded over a common interest – women competing and succeeding in the male-dominated tv business of the day and became lifelong friends
- Beginning in the 1960s Betty became a staple on network game shows and talk shows. She appeared frequently on all the familiar and successful shows of the era, including, among others, The Tonight Show with both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, To Tell the Truth, What’s My Line, Match Game, and most significantly Password. It was on the latter show that she met the love of her life, Allen Ludden. They married and stayed together until his death in 1981.
- NBC offered her the anchor spot on the Today Show. She declined because she did not want to move to NY where the show was to be produced. Eventually, NBC hired Barbara Walters.
- Beginning in 1973 Betty’s career took a significant leap when she began appearing on the Mary Tyler Show as the “man-hungry” Sue Ann Nivens, a character Betty described as “icky sweet.” It became one of her signature rolls. The show was immensely popular, and it introduced Betty to a new audience. During this time she continued to guest-star on various comedy and variety shows and tv movies and miniseries.
- In 1983 Betty broke new ground once again by becoming the first female to win a Daytime Emmy in the category of Outstanding Game Show Host for the show Just Men.
- In 1985 Betty landed the second signature roll of her career starring with Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan in the Golden Girls. GG was very popular, but Betty had a rather strained relationship with Arthur. Betty lamented that Arthur “was not that fond of me” an understatement. But being professionals, the two performers worked through it.
- In 2009 Betty’s career took another turn when she began appearing in Snickers bar commercials. Pleasant, friendly Betty appeared with irascible, tough guy Abe Vigoda. The tag line was “you’re not you when you’re hungry.” Mean Vigoda would take a bite of a Snickers and morph into pleasant Betty.
- In 2010 the USDA Forest Service made Betty an honorary forest ranger. This was a nice gesture, “righting” a 70+ years’ “wrong.”
- In 2012 Betty won a Grammy not for singing but for the “spoken word” recording of her book, If You Ask Me.
- In addition to her career interests Betty was a big supporter of LGBT rights and animal welfare. She opined that “there are gay relationships that are more solid than some heterosexual ones.” Her attitude was “mind your own business, take care of your own affairs and don’t worry about other people so much.” Good advice that one can apply to today’s “woke” crowd.
Betty passed away peacefully on December 31. at her home in the Brentwood section of LA. As I write this no cause of death had been disclosed. Close friend Jeff Witjas told the media she had “no diagnosed illness.”
Tributes poured in. President Biden described her as a “lovely lady and “a cultural icon who will be sorely missed.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Former First Lady Michelle Obama added “she broke barriers, defied expectations, served her country, and pushed us all to laugh.”
A massive celebration titled “Betty White: 100 Years Young – A Birthday Celebration” had been planned in celebration of her 100th birthday on January 17. Numerous “A-Listers,” such as Ryan Reynolds, Tina Fey, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, and Jimmy Kimmel are scheduled to participate. Despite Betty’s untimely death the event’s organizers have stated the “show will go on.” I, for one, can’t wait to see it.