With her seven decades in the spotlight, few actors have had the impact and longevity of Betty White. She may have passed away on the last day of 2021 at age 99, but the legacy of television’s perennial Golden Girl lives on.
For a woman to host her own talk show on television in the 1950s was groundbreaking. For a woman to also produce said show was unheard of. And for a woman to stand her ground in the face of pressure from the Deep South to fire a Black tap dancer from the show was extraordinary.
That’s exactly what Betty White did in 1954 when racists threatened to boycott her namesake series if up-and-coming dancer Arthur Duncan continued to perform on it. “I’m sorry, but, you know, he stays. Live with it,” she said, giving Duncan even more airtime.
The Betty White Show was quietly cancelled soon after, but it was years before Duncan learnt of the controversy. During her seven decades in showbiz, White made a habit of standing on the right side of history. Her very presence chipped in to help smash the TV industry’s glass ceiling – no more so when she became the first woman to win an Emmy for hosting a game show in 1983.
Then in 1990, White’s series The Golden Girls became one of the first sitcoms to mention the AIDS crisis when her character, Rose Nylund, had to be tested for HIV after a blood transfusion. The episode helped to demystify AIDS and the stereotype that the disease affected only the queer community – at a time when less than a quarter of American doctors believed that they should be legally required to treat patients with HIV.
“She’s one of the pioneers,” admitted the late Carl Reiner in the 2018 documentary Betty White: First Lady of Television. “A lot of us are here because she was there at the beginning. She set the standard. She set the way for many people.”
Becoming a trailblazing actor was never Betty Marion White’s plan. Born in Illinois in 1922, White was the only child of Christine, a homemaker, and Horace, an electrical engineer, who turned to making crystal radios during the Great Depression after the family moved to Los Angeles when White was a toddler.
At the height of the Depression, when everyone was struggling to make ends meet, Horace traded the radios for household goods – including dogs. That’s how the family once ended up with 26 dogs, and how White first fell in love with animals. This love was solidified on the family’s holidays to the Sierra Nevada and it drove White’s desire to become a forest ranger.
There was one small problem with White’s career aspirations: women weren’t allowed to be forest rangers in the 1940s. She found a plan B in acting after writing and starring in her school graduation play and going on to appear on an experimental TV show. When the United States entered World War II in 1941, White took a break from performing and joined the American Women’s Voluntary Services, where she drove a truck delivering soap, toothpaste and sweets to soldiers manning the gun forts in Santa Monica and Hollywood.
During her service, White met, married and divorced army air forces pilot Dick Barker.
Towards the end of the war, White returned to the stage. Her first professional acting gig at the Bliss Hayden Little Theatre attracted the attention of talent agent Lane Allen in more ways than one. White married Allen in 1947 and divorced him two years later because he wanted a family, and she wanted a career.
Not having children is a decision White never regretted. She wanted a career and that’s exactly what she got. After rising through the ranks in radio, White went on to star in her own sitcoms and variety shows in the 1950s and became a regular on the game-show circuit in the early 1960s.
On the set of the game show Password, White hit it off with host Allen Ludden, who convinced her that it would be third time lucky if she married him. It wasn’t an easy persuasion; White turned down a number of Ludden’s proposals – he resorted to wearing the diamond ring on a chain around his neck to remind her of his undying love – before she accepted.
The pair married in 1963 after Ludden wooed White with “an adorable fluffy white stuffed bunny” with diamond and sapphire earrings on its ears for Easter. White joked that she finally agreed to marry her husband because of the gift – not for the earrings but for the bunny.
Sealed with a soft toy, White and Ludden’s love story became the stuff of legend. He was the love of her life, and she was the shining star of his. During their marriage, White hit the big time with her role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as the relentlessly perky (and randy) cooking-show host Sue Ann Nivens. White credited her casting in the 1970s sitcom – alongside her best friend Mary Tyler Moore – as a turning point for her career.
“Sue Ann Nivens really did change my career,” White recalled. “That sickly sweet image I’d grown up with expanded to another context. She was the Happy Homemaker who could fix anything, cook anything, clean anything, and sleep with anyone who would stand still.”
White spent four years – and won two Emmys – playing the neighbourhood nymphomaniac on The Mary Tyler Moore Show before the series came to an end in 1977. But the lasting impact of the role followed her into the next decade when director Jay Sandrich was casting for a little series called The Golden Girls.
White had been a shoo-in to play the flirtatious Blanche Devereaux, but when Sandrich pointed out how similar the character was to Sue Ann Nivens, White switched places to play the naive but oh-so lovable widow Rose Nylund.
White was 63 and at the peak of her career. But both off and on the screen, she was grieving the loss of her husband, who passed away from stomach cancer in 1981 after 18 years together. White channelled her loss into her work, admitting that she often thought about Ludden when her character, Rose, was talking about her late husband, Charlie.
In one such scene, Rose flashed back to celebrating her first birthday without her husband, sitting at the kitchen table eating a cheesecake alone, talking to an empty chair as if he were there with her. At the end of the conversation, Rose choked up as she told Charlie she loved him and missed him. It’s impossible to know where Rose ended and where Betty started in that moment.
White never remarried, saying, “Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?” She maintained that she didn’t fear death because she knew she would be reunited with Ludden.
Don’t call it a comeback. In 2010, White cheekily hit back at headlines she was having a resurgence, following her scene-stealing role as Ryan Reynold’s grandma in the rom-com The Proposal. “I’ve been working steady for 63 years. But everybody says, ‘Oh it’s such a renaissance.’ Maybe I went away and didn’t know it,” White told ABC News in 2010.
On the back of her renewed popularity, a Facebook campaign was launched to get White to host Saturday Night Live. The petition was successful; and White became the oldest person to host the show at 88, winning an Emmy for her efforts.
At the time, White quipped: “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.”
White’s tongue was just as sharp at the 2010 Screen Actors Guild Awards, where she was presented with a Life Achievement Award by her The Proposal co-star Sandra Bullock. She thanked Bullock with a compliment: “Isn’t it heartening to see how far a girl as plain as she is can go?” The crowd went wild.
After guest roles on The Bold and the Beautiful, Boston Legal and Suddenly Susan, White returned to her sitcom roots on Hot in Cleveland, playing house caretaker Elka Ostrovsky for five seasons. In her nineties, she earned a Guinness World Record for the longest TV career by a female entertainer. “I am the luckiest old broad on two feet,” she told CNN in 2017. “I’m still able to get a job, at this age. I will go to my grave saying, ‘Can I come in and read for that tomorrow?’”
White died in her sleep on December 31, 2021, following a stroke on Christmas Day. She was 17 days shy of turning 100. The outpouring of grief was immense. US President Joe Bidden declared White an “American treasure”; Michelle Obama wrote, “Betty White broke barriers, defied expectations, served her country and pushed us all to laugh”; and Ryan Reynolds lamented, “She managed to grow very old and somehow, not old enough.”
White was remembered as a gifted actress, a pioneer and ally, and – as she would have wanted – a staunch animal lover. On what would have been her 100th birthday, the viral #BettyWhiteChallenge raised millions of dollars for animal shelters around the world. In her final message to her fans, posted on Instagram after her death, White said, “I just want to thank you all for your love and support over the years. Thank you so much and … stick around.”
When asked what she hoped God would say to her should heaven exist, White didn’t hesitate. “Come on in Betty. Here’s Allen,” she replied.