One of the most beloved television personalities in American history, Betty White also broke new ground by producing her own programs, one of the very few women to do so in the early days of TV. Nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart”, White could act, sing and host with ease. Her career has spanned five decades and she remains active in the TV business. Many of her older fans remember her work on Life With Elizabeth and Date With The Angels from the 1950’s, while a new generation has come to appreciate Betty by watching reruns of The Golden Girls and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Little wonder Betty White is a living legend.
Born on January 17th, 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois, White and her family eventually moved to Beverly Hills, where she took on leading roles in plays at Beverly Hills High School. White later took on roles in local theater, and began working on radio in the Los Angeles area.
Her first television break came in 1949, when she became the “girl Friday” for host Al Jarvis’ music and interview show on local station KLAC. When Jarvis left the show in 1952, White became the new host. That year, she and two male partners teamed up to form Bandy Productions, which would launch her first situation comedy. Entitled Life With Elizabeth, it was a half-hour series featuring White and co-star Del Moore as married couple Elizabeth and Alvin. Unlike such popular programs as I Love Lucy, each “Elizabeth” show featured three self-contained skits about the couple, mostly focusing on Alvin questioning Elizabeth’s logic in a situation. Though it aired initially in the Los Angeles area, Life With Elizabeth eventually was sold to local stations across the country. New episodes ran until 1955. White, who controlled the show, won her first Emmy in 1952.
In February 1954, White appeared on a weekday morning program for NBC. The Betty White Show (produced by Bandy) featured White as host of a show that featured music, singing, and various stunts (such as “Make A Wish Day”, where a deserving child from a Los Angeles orphanage received a batch of gifts.) It was a relaxed, pleasant half-hour that ran until 1955. White soon after began guesting on various game shows produced by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman-a relationship that would result in personal and career benefits down the road.
White returned to series television in 1957, co-creating Date With The Angels. Sponsored by Plymouth automobiles, the ABC sitcom centered on the first year of bliss for newlyweds Vicki (White) and Gus (Bill Williams) Angel. But the ratings were not good, and the show was reworked as a half-hour comedy-variety series called The Betty White Show. It didn’t do any better than “Angels”, and left the airwaves in April 1958.
Between 1958 and 1973, Betty White would remain in the public eye as a popular guest panelist on various game shows, a frequent fixture on talk shows, and a pitchwoman for commercial products. In 1961, White appeared on the Goodson-Todman game show Password, and caught the eye of the show’s literate and gentlemanly host, Allen Ludden. The two eventually started dating and married in 1963; White became stepmother to Ludden’s four children from a previous marriage.
For years, the Luddens were good friends with another famous couple, Mary Tyler Moore and television producer Grant Tinker. By the early 1970’s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a critical and ratings success, and White wanted to be on the show. The opportunity came during the fourth season, when the writers came up with a script having a “perfect homemaker” steal the husband of series regular Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman).
The script called for what the writers described as “icky sweet Betty White type”. But the producers decided to bring the real Betty White on board, after checking with Moore and Tinker. As Sue Ann Nivens, the “Happy Homemaker” of Minneapolis television station WJM, White satirized her own cheerful domestic image. She added a nasty, bawdy, man-hungry streak to a sugary-sweet exterior. Sue Ann was a triumph, and White returned to the show several more times that season. By the fall of 1974, White became a regular of the MTM cast; though she did not appear on every episode, she made the most of her opportunities-especially when chasing after WJM news director Lou Grant (Ed Asner). White was rewarded with two more Emmy awards for her role as Sue Ann.
When The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended its run in 1977, MTM and CBS put White into a new series of her own. The Betty White Show (the third White TV series with the same title) featured the star as Joyce Whitman, an actress who starred in a Police Woman-like series for CBS called Undercover Woman. The wonderfully funny Georgia Engel (an MTM regular as Georgette, Ted Baxter’s girlfriend and later wife) played Joyce’s roommate Mitzi. But the focus was Joyce’s relationship with the show’s director, John Elliot, who also happened to be Joyce’s ex-husband. John was played with aplomb by character actor John Hillerman, who would go on to greater fame as Jonathan Higgins on Magnum, P.I.
Despite the stellar cast and familiar trappings (Joyce Whitman was not dissimilar to Sue Ann Nivens), The Betty White Show never found an audience against ABC’s Monday Night Football or NBC’s movies, and was gone by early 1978.
For the next several years, White stayed mostly out of the public eye, as husband Allen Ludden battled and (sadly) succumbed to cancer. After his passing, White began to step back into guest starring roles and appearances, which she later noted helped her deal with Ludden’s death.
White seemed a natural to host a game show, given her dozens of appearances on quizzers over the years (she hosted a week of Password in 1975 when her husband was a celebrity). In 1983, NBC gave her the chance to become one of the few women to MC a game show. Just Men! produced by Orion Television featured seven male guests who would match wits against two female contestants. White indeed proved a natural, becoming the first woman ever to win an Emmy for hosting a quiz show. But Just Men! didn’t click with audiences and was canceled after six months.
It proved to be a short-lived disappointment, as White returned to well-received guest appearances on such programs as St. Elsewhere and Mama’s Family. But in 1985, White was rewarded with the biggest hit of her long career.
It happened when NBC Entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff and his young niece watched the film “How To Marry A Millionaire”. The famed Marilyn Monroe feature did spawn a syndicated TV series in the late 1950’s, with a pre-I Dream of Jeannie Barbara Eden playing Monroe’s role of “Loco”. But Tartikoff considered updating the format of three single women looking for a husband; producers who were pitched the idea spit it back out, calling it old-fashioned and sexist in the more enlightened 1980’s. One producer who didn’t reject the idea was Susan Harris, the creator of Soap and Benson. Harris had always featured middle-aged women in key roles, and she thought the idea would work with women past middle age-in their late 50’s or early 60’s. The result was The Golden Girls. Harris created the concept and co-produced the show with Paul Witt (later her husband) and Tony Thomas, son of comedy legend Danny Thomas.
Betty White was one of the first actresses considered for the show. Originally, she was tapped to play Blanche Deveraux, the man-crazy Southern belle, while co-star Rue McClanahan was set to play Rose Nylund, the wholesome but somewhat illogical farmer’s daughter from St. Olaf, Minnesota. But during rehearsals, a director asked the two actresses to switch parts. The strategy worked; McClanahan was a stitch as oversexed Blanche, while White brought a sweetness and innocence to Rose. Along with Bea Arthur as sensible substitute teacher Dorothy Zbornak and Estelle Getty as her outspoken mother Sophia Petrillo, The Golden Girls was an instant top-ten hit for NBC. It was also a big winner at the Emmys, winning Best Comedy Series honors two years in a row. Not only that, each of the four “Girls” picked up an Emmy during the show’s run, one of the few times that the major stars of a “gang” comedy were so honored. White was the first cast member to win an Emmy, during the show’s first season.
Golden Girls (along with a short-lived spin-off The Golden Palace) ran through 1993. White then co-starred with comedy veteran Bob Newhart in his third situation comedy for CBS, Bob. After that show was canceled, White came back in another short-lived sitcom, Maybe This Time, which had a short life on ABC in 1995. In recent years, White has appeared as a guest star on many comedies and dramas, and recently returned to playing games on TV, making an appearance on the updated version of Pyramid.
It should be mentioned that White has been a tireless advocate for animal rights over the years, and has served on many animal welfare organizations. (Her love of animals was also incorporated into many a Golden Girls script; she also hosted a short-lived series entitled The Pet Set.)
In an interview, White had this to say about comedy in general: “I think we're losing our sense of humor instead of being able to relax and laugh at ourselves. I don't care whether it's ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, or whose ox is being gored”.
Betty White has survived and thrived for so many years, because she has never lost her sense of humor—and we have not only laughed AT her, but WITH her. “America’s Sweetheart”, indeed.
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