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Betty White: A True TV Genius – And A Comedy Black Belt

Betty White, who had one of the longest careers in TV history playing dumb blondes, was actually one of the toughest and wisest brunettes in showbiz. Still, her skill at shaping her public image—through talk shows, game shows, sitcoms, and multiple autobiographies—was that early on she was seen as something more than just a TV personality: a real type.

In her later years, she was held up by many as the ultimate example of how to be an older person. Amy Poehler, in her collection of essays Yes, Please, recalls the time White appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2010: “I asked her what she was going to do after the show. “I’m going to make myself a vodka on the rocks and eat a cold hot dog,” she said. It confirmed to me that getting old was great,” Poehler wrote.

‘It confirmed to me that getting old was amazing’…Amy Poehler when appearing on Saturday Night Live with White. Photo: NBC/Getty Images

By this time, White had spent nearly 70 years making herself a recognizable gender. In 1973, as The Mary Tyler Moore Show was on the rise, an episode was written featuring a new character, Sue Ann, who was described by the script as “a sickeningly sweet Betty White type,” White recalled in one of her stories. memoir, Here We Go Again. But, writes White, “They couldn’t find anyone sick enough.”

And so the casting director gave the role of Sue Ann Nivens, the apparently dope blonde with a not very hidden vicious and nymphomaniac streak, to White herself. White played it so perfectly that she became a regular on the show, promptly winning her second and third Emmys for the role.

White has worked so long that looking back on her career is like a Zelig-esque tour of American TV history, popping up over the decades in each of the medium’s most groundbreaking genres. (Her beloved third, last, and late husband, TV game show host Allen Ludden, introduced her at parties with, “Meet my wife—one of the pioneers of silent television.” “And it was practically true,” agreed. she.)

White approx. 1956.
She worked so long that her career is like taking a Zelig-esque tour through American TV history… White c.1956. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Born in Illinois but raised in Los Angeles, White landed her first television job in 1949 as a sidekick to Al Jarvis on his live variety show, Hollywood on Television, on which she and Jarvis would chat while playing new records. . . However, TV viewers wrote to complain that they were more interested in White and Jarvis’ chat than the records, so the music was promptly dropped.

Her attractive personality meant she was there in the early days of game shows and talk shows, then worked with everyone from Jack Paar to Johnny Carson through the 1950s and 60s. Fans saw her deeply enamored during her many appearances on her husband’s game show, Password, which Ludden hosted from 1961 to 1967.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Photo: CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images

When the two appeared on the show shortly after their honeymoon, they could hardly stop giggling and saying each other’s names in amorous delight. Couple, a friend of the couple and another guest on the show, stared at them in amazement: “What kind of honeymoon did you two have?” he asked, bewildered.

They never had children, although White was the stepmother to Ludden’s children from a previous relationship, and she was a noted devoted animal lover, writing of her long work with zoos and conservation in yet another memoir, Betty and Friends: My Life. at the Zoo. She turned down a role in the hit 1997 film As Good as it Gets because in one scene a character dropped a puppy into a laundry tube. “I said as long as that scene was in the movie, I wouldn’t do it,” she said. And she didn’t.

White was one of the first and still relatively few women to have creative control in front of and behind the camera, with her 1950s sitcom, Life With Elizabeth. While she wasn’t an obvious pioneer like Joan Rivers, White was a silent revolutionary in her way—a gloved knife instead of a Rivers-esque ax that smashed down walls, whose hostages hit the screen with a sweet smile instead. of a grin.

Her two signature roles played on this contrast – the sweetness covering the sting – with dazzling effect. She rose to prominence in sitcoms in the 1970s and 1980s – arguably the genre’s two greatest decades. Like Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she denounced her own twinkling appearance, shooting the most cutting jabs at Moore while floating around with a souffle.

A new generation got to know her as Rose Nylund, the seemingly dope Nordic blonde from St Olaf, Minnesota, in the hugely successful 1980s sitcom, The Golden Girls, about a group of elderly women living in Florida, starring Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty.

They were all, as one TV reviewer put it, “comedy black belts,” but few shows showcase White’s genius at comedy: Her timing, her rhythms, and even just her facial expressions turned Rose from a potentially one-joke pony. in a three-dimensional character, especially loved by children. “It tickled me every time a tiny person, tugging on Mother’s sleeve, would point and say, ‘There’s Woo!’ They were too young to pronounce it, they still knew the character,” White recalled.

Amazingly daring... The Golden Girls.
Amazingly daring… The Golden Girls. Photo: Allstar Picture Library Ltd./Alamy

All arguments about how the public doesn’t want to see old people on TV are disproved by a look at The Golden Girls records. The show was in the Top 10 most-watched shows in the US every week for the first five years. During those years, all four stars were nominated for Emmys every year.

Though it seemed like a generic sitcom with a laugh track, the show was amazingly bold about everything from geriatric sex to death in a way not seen since, and it was loved by the mainstream of all ages. White summed up the show’s appeal by simply and correctly saying, “I think we were just really funny.”

It could be argued that anyone who hangs out in the entertainment business long enough becomes a legend and beloved treasure. But this just isn’t true, as a skating look at the many forgotten legends of the TV past proves (when Mary Tyler Moore died in 2016, many were surprised that she was even still around). White’s longevity is no doubt remarkable — when her last sitcom, Hot in Cleveland, ended, she was 93.

But she represented much more than just good genes. She was a go-getter in the old showbiz sense, eager to go along for the joke, whether it was tap dancing (brilliantly) in shorts on The Golden Girls in her sixties, or making fun of her “salty muffin on Saturday Night Live in the 90’s.

She was, she often admitted, a workaholic, whose love of work was one of the reasons her second marriage ended after two years in 1949, and it was how she helped herself through the grief when Ludden died in 1981. But she was also an early adopter of the concept of celebrity: She understood for many others the value of making her personality her brand, and how close it was to reality became debatable. With talent like hers, reality was over.