By Barbara Anne Kirshner
We thought Betty White would live forever. Long after the other Golden Girls left planet Earth, White, with that mischievous glint in her eyes accompanied by clever quips, was ever present and breaking new ground.
Like the Energizer Bunny, Betty White kept going and we expected her to always be there. White passed away in her sleep on Dec. 31. She was 99.
This month People Magazine had planned a celebration of White’s 100th birthday which was to happen on January 17. We were certain she would make it to centenarian status, but White probably felt it was time to join her husband, Allen Ludden, and all of her animals who had passed before her. She had even said in an interview that when she arrives in Heaven, Ludden would have to stand in line while she reunited with her much loved pets.
Born on January 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, Betty Marion White was the only child of Horace Logan White and Christine Tess. The family moved to Alhambra, California in 1923 and later to Los Angeles during the Great Depression. White graduated from Beverly Hill High School in 1939. As a child, she wanted to be an opera singer and took voice lessons. After graduating from high school, due to her love of animals, she aspired to be a forest ranger, but that path was not open to women in the early 1940s. Instead, she discovered acting and the rest is history.
In the 1940s, she went on to land roles in the first two plays she auditioned for, Spring Dance and Dear Ruth, before performing on radio in The Great Gildersleeve, Blondie, This Is Your FBI and became the sidekick to popular local DJ, Al Jarvis, on his daily radio show Make Believe Ballroom. White’s television career took off when that radio show moved to television under the title Hollywood on Television. Next came Life with Elizabeth for two seasons from 1953 to 1955 followed by The Betty White Show on NBC in 1954.
White went on to become the first lady of game shows in the 60s, appearing on Password, What’s My Line?, Match Game and Pyramid. She met her third husband, Allen Ludden, on Password and has been quoted as saying he was “the love of my life.” They were married from 1963 until 1981 when Ludden died following a battle with stomach cancer. It is poignant to note White’s assistant told longtime friend and fellow colleague, Vicki Lawrence, that the last word White uttered was “Allen.”
She was a staple of late night talk shows with decades long appearances on The Tonight Show.
In 1973, White appeared as the “man-hungry” Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the role became a favorite winning White the Emmy for Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 1975 and again in 1976.
The Golden Girls launched in 1985 through 1992 and White won the Emmy in 1986 for her role as the ditzy but good-hearted Rose Nylund. It is interesting to note that White was first offered the role of Blanche but director Jay Sandrich felt that character was too close to the role of Nivens, so he decided that White should play Rose instead.
White was celebrated with more awards in 1995 when she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame and in 1996 she won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for The John Larroquette Show.
2010 was big for Betty White. It started on Jan. 23 with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. On Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7, White appeared in a Snickers commercial that skyrocketed in popularity. After a successful fan campaign on Facebook, White hosted Saturday Night Live‘s Mother’s Day episode at 88 ½ years of age, becoming the oldest person to host SNL.
At the start of her monologue White marveled, “I can’t believe I’m hosting Saturday Night Live! I’m 88 ½ years old, so it’s great to be here for a number of reasons.” She went on to thank Facebook for the campaign that brought her to the show then wisecracked, “I didn’t know what Facebook was and now that I know, it sounds like a huge waste of time.”
Musical guest Jay-Z dedicated his performance of “Forever Young” to “the most incredible Betty White.” After her death, Seth Myers tweeted “The only SNL host I ever saw get a standing ovation at the after party. A party at which she ordered a vodka and a hotdog and stayed ’til the bitter end.” That hosting gig was awarded on August 21, 2010, with a Creative Arts Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her guest host spot.
On January 1, 2022, as a special tribute, SNL re-aired her hosting episode. White went on to the role of Elka Ostrovsky in Hot in Cleveland (2010-2015). She was in her 90s by the time that series ended.
In 2012, White won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t). She was recognized by the Guinness World Records for longest TV career for a female entertainer. (74 years)
In 2015 White won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 42nd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards and in 2018 she was honored at the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards for her more than 80 years in show business.
White enjoyed a highly accomplished and celebrated career, but her passion was animals. She has said that they have made a huge difference in her life. She was devoted to animal welfare and supported numerous animal-related nonprofits throughout her career, from donations and volunteering to fundraising and recording public service announcements.
A documentary paying tribute to Betty White’s life and career will be screened at select theaters nationwide on Jan. 17 which would have marked her centennial birthday.
Titled Betty White: A Celebration, the film will feature White’s final interview and a behind-the-scenes look at some of her most iconic sitcom roles. It also includes interviews with dozens of celebrity friends.
Rest In Peace dear Betty White. Thank you for all the laughs and for being there for us. You are a national treasure. This crazy world shone brighter with you in it and you are truly missed.
Miller Place resident Barbara Anne Kirshner is a freelance journalist, playwright and author of “Madison Weatherbee —The Different Dachshund.”