Longtime cultural icon passes just two and a half weeks before she turned 100
In a week filled with devasting deaths, here’s another one: Betty White – a beloved television icon and wonderful all-around person, died Friday, December 31 at the age of 99 – just two and a half weeks before she was to turn 100 on January 17. White was already talking about reaching the milestone in interviews and was featured on this week’s cover of People magazine.
White was born in west suburban Oak Park in 1922, but moved to Hollywood when she was only two. White was a key figure in the early years of television, appearing as much as six hours a day, six days a week on live TV – much of it improvised. White was one of Los Angeles’ first local TV stars, appearing in Al Jarvis’s Make-Believe Ballroom (later renamed Hollywood on Television after Jarvis left) from 1949 to 1952 on KLAC-TV Channel 13 (now known, of course as KCOP-TV). She appeared on another show on the station – a live sitcom called Life With Elizabeth in 1951, spun-off from one of the comedy sketches on Hollywood. Elizabeth launched nationally in syndication in 1953 and lasted for 65 episodes.
White shifted from KLAC to KTLA in 1952 to headline her own talk/variety show with Eddie Albert, later known for Green Acres and Switch. After he left for a film career, White hosted the talk show solo – becoming the first female to do so, retitled The Betty White Show. She used the same title to headline another daily talk/variety show, this time for NBC in 1954. Her program became the first to feature a Black performer, experienced tap dancer Arthur Duncan. This didn’t sit well with some affiliates – especially in the South, but White shrugged off their concerns. NBC changed the show’s time slot quite frequently, and was canceled at the end of the year.
In the 1970s, White appeared as Sue Ann Nivens in the Emmy-winning The Mary Tyler Moore Show, playing a memorable character known as the “Happy Homemaker”. After the show wrapped in 1977, White appeared in her self-titled sitcom, lasting one season. In the 1980s, White returned to prime-time television with a recurring role-playing Thelma’s snobbish daughter Ellen on Mama’s Family.
In 1985, White was cast with Beatrice Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty in NBC’s The Golden Girls, a sitcom about four older women living in a Miami apartment complex – premiering at a time when attracting youth was a key element in prime-time television. The show defied the odds and became one of the top-rated sitcoms, even among younger audiences and on Saturday at a time viewers began deserting the night in favor of cable and home video choices. White would continue in her role of Rose in The Golden Palace, a Golden Girls sequel that appeared on CBS during the 1992-93 season. The following season, White joined the cast of Bob Newhart’s sitcom Bob as his boss at a greeting card company.
In 2008, White was casted in TV Land’s sitcom Hot in Cleveland, an underrated show that ran for six seasons and was a modest hit. The show entered off-network broadcast syndication in 2014.
Other shows White made an appearance of include The Millionaire, Petticoat Junction, The Odd Couple, The Love Boat, St. Elsewhere, Boston Legal, The Simpsons, King of the Hill and many more.
White was also known to appear as a panelist on numerous game shows including Match Game, To Tell The Truth, Hollywood Squares, and Password, who her then-husband Allen Ludden hosted. In 1983, she became the first woman to host a game show in over 30 years and just the second in television history with Just Men!, a short-lived NBC daytime program and became the first woman to win an Outstanding Game Show Host Emmy. She even had a nickname: “The First Lady of Game Shows” since she appeared on so many of them.
In 2010, a Facebook campaign to get White to host Saturday Night Live clocked in at over 500,000 signatures and was made a reality in May 2010. The episode was a ratings success, scoring the highest rating for the show in years and earned her an Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. White has this to say about Facebook when she appeared on SNL:
“When I first heard about the campaign, I didn’t know what Facebook was, and now that I do know what it is, I have to say it sounds like a huge waste of time.”
Oddly enough, many people finally got the message years later.
In 2012, White appeared in a 90th birthday special on NBC and was also a ratings success drawing 12.4 million viewers. The same year on NBC, she hosted a short-lived show called Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, a Candid Camera/Punk’d-type show. The show moved to Lifetime in 2014 where it ran for twenty more episodes.
In total, Betty White has won eight Emmy Awards, three American Comedy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and even a Grammy. White was also inducted in the Television Hall of Fame, the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame, and the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Even though she has left us, the contributions she made to the medium of television will never be forgotten.