Betty White Was Always on TV

She’s owned the medium—in multiple ways—for its entire history.

Betty White in 1957. Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney via Getty Images
Betty White in 1957. Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney via Getty Images
Betty White in 1957. Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney via Getty Images

Betty White, the most durable television star of all time and one of the most beloved and groundbreaking, died just short of her hundredth birthday. She was preceded in death by TV broadcasting as millions knew it, and then outlived it, adapting to a transformed entertainment landscape more gracefully than the medium that she embodied. White is thought to be the first woman to host a talk show solo. She started one of the first significant woman-owned production companies, maintaining creative control over its product. After she glided past 40, a milestone that often marked the beginning of the end of a woman’s stardom, her fame only grew. White’s career began to hit its peak in 1973 when she was hired as a regular on The Mary Tyler Moore Show at 51, and it continued through a stint on Golden Girls in the 1980s and a seemingly endless sunset period that established her as a sly, sunny grandma who loved to work just a little bit blue. No matter what happened, Betty White found a place for herself.

White was known as The First Lady of Television (the title of a documentary about her career) not just because of her easygoing authority and stealthy influence but because she was the first woman to do all sorts of things in a medium where men held most of the power. An actor, singer, dancer, talk and game show host, and producer whose costars ranged from Eddie Albert to Ryan Reynolds, White was a big name on TV in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, aughts, and beyond. She won five Emmys for her performances and was nominated for 16 more, most recently in 2011, for Hot in Cleveland. She was television when television as we knew it was lights and vacuum tubes in a box. She was television when the box turned into a flat panel and became high-def. She was television when television became one of a zillion things we could watch on little combination  pocket computer-phones. Betty White was analog and digital, black-and-white and 8K OLED, Truman and Biden.

Two successive generations of Americans now have zero experience watching television programs on the boxlike sets that were commonplace when White’s renown was at its peak. But they knew who Betty White was, thanks not just to her ubiquity as an Internet meme source (barely into her fifties on MTM, White reinvented herself as an adorably horny woman with no filter, and the brand stuck) but also because White herself was just so damned charming, and such an unbeatable talk-show guest, that you couldn’t help loving her. Her sheer indestructibility became the joke after a while, and she played it masterfully. “I was not expecting this,” White told Conan O’Brien, describing her latest round of stardom during a celebratory 90th-birthday PR tour, “so I’m gonna start lying about my age.” Then she paused, looked out at the studio audience, and said, “I’m 45.”

The first crude test of television technology occurred in Paris in 1909. Twelve years later, in August 1921, Édouard Belin sent still images through the air using radio waves. The following January, Betty White was born in Oak Park, Illinois. A year after that, her family relocated to Alhambra, California. In February 1939, a few months after White graduated from high school, she took part in an experimental broadcast at the headquarters of a Los Angeles chain of Packard auto dealerships: She and the school’s student body president performed songs from The Merry Widow on the upper floor of a building while a TV camera broadcast the images live to a set located on the first floor. A few months later, television as a commercial medium and device made its official debut at the New York World’s Fair.

White and television would be entwined after that. She was born to entertain, and she was one of the first people to discover that she had that knack for behaving naturally under the glare of TV lights, talking to the camera as if it were her best friend, or acting in front of it as if it weren’t there. She took a hiatus from showbiz in World War II and worked for the American Women’s Voluntary Services, driving supplies through Southern California, then tried to break into movies, only to be told that she “wasn’t photogenic.” She found work in radio, first as a bit player and singer, then as a guest actor on such programs as The Great Gildersleeve, Blondie, and This Is Your FBI. In 1949, White was named co-host of Hollywood on Television, a six-day-a-week live talk show, alongside local disc jockey Al Jarvis. After two years, Jarvis left, citing his unendurable workload, and was replaced by future Green Acres star Eddie Albert, who lasted another six months and quit for the same reason. White—an endurance athlete of television, even then—continued solo, evolving the series to incorporate sketches and recurring characters with White at the center, playing a housewife named Elizabeth. She is believed to have been the first woman in the United States to host a talk show by herself, without a male partner.

Inspired by what Jackie Gleason and company were doing with The Honeymooners on the DuMont Network, she and her studio producer started a company, Bandy (named after her dog Bandit), and spun Hollywood on Television into into a half-hour sitcom titled Life With Elizabeth, that started out live and local and went syndicated and national, running for two years and 65 episodes. Along with I Love Lucy’s producer-star Lucille Ball, White was one of the only women in the 1950s who originated projects and had enough clout to get them on the air.

In 1954, White produced and hosted another talk show, The Betty White Show, for NBC, hiring a female director (which was rare then) and making an African-American performer, Arthur Duncan, a regular cast member. NBC told her that local affiliates in the Jim Crow south were threatening to stop airing the program unless White fired Duncan. She refused and increased his airtime. The show was canceled within the year. White rebounded with another NBC series, Date With the Angels, a fantasy sitcom, and when that was canceled, the network brought back her talk show. She also started building a second, adjacent career as a guest on talk and celebrity-panelist game shows.

Among the latter was Password, hosted by Alan Ludden. White made her first appearance in 1961 and was so beloved by the audience and Ludden that she kept getting invited back. White and Ludden’s onscreen chemistry was not an act. They began dating and married in 1963. (She had been married twice before, but later dismissed those as “rehearsals.”) White remained a fixture on game shows until well into the late 1980s, appearing on I’ve Got a Secret, To Tell the Truth, What’s My Line, Match Game, various versions of the $10,000 Pyramid series, and multiple incarnations of Password.

It was during these talk and game-show stints, arguably more so than in appearances on scripted programs, where White honed her public mien, which could be described as “stealth-horny.” A popular culture that relentlessly sold the idea that people (women especially) quit being sexual creatures around age 37 or so presented a ripe target for a post-40 comic actress of White’s skills, and she hit the bullseye time and again. She often presented herself as a sprightly and clean-cut middle-aged woman who could be a school administrator or government employee or somebody’s sweetie-pie aunt but whose mind was secretly, deliciously filthy, and who let you see fleeting glimpses of that, always with an air of, “Who, little old me?”

Once White started acting on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in a role that amplified those tendencies and shaped them into a comic persona for the ages, she began amping up the wicked wit on her talk and game show appearances, so that one aspect fed the other, elevating her stardom to new heights at a time when Hollywood is ordinarily inclined to begin shoehorning women into grandmother or dowager or murderous socialite parts.

White on the Mary Tyler Moore show in 1975. Photo: CBS via Getty Images

Moore seized the day in 1973, inviting White to make a guest appearance on her hit CBS sitcom. Moore herself had become a powerhouse female producer-star by that point, rivaling Ball in cultural influence. Moore and her husband Grant Tinker, co-founders of MTM, had been friends with White and Ludden since the early 1960s, so there was a comfort level, but even though the role was written with her in mind, nobody involved initially thought about approaching her to play it until CBS executive Ethel Winant (herself an industry groundbreaker) urged them to. Two of the sitcom’s writers had gone so far as to describe the character in their script as “a Betty White type,” referring more to the aura of sweetness than the other stuff, which was meant to be a comic surprise on Mary’s viewers.

The show’s co-producer Allan Burns phoned White one day to pitch a guest appearance as a character named Sue Ann Nivens who would become fixated on Lars, the husband of series regular Phyllis (played by Cloris Leachman). According to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s definitive making-of book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, Burns described Sue Ann as “cloyingly sweet on the surface and something of a dragon underneath, with a tinge of nymphomania.”

To quote Armstrong: “As Sue Ann developed, she’d become a sly reversal of the sweet ‘Betty White type.’ Or, as White told the Los Angeles Times, ‘She’s not only a bitch, but a nympho. She can’t keep her hands off any man … I’ve been waiting all my life for a part like this.” White’s performance was nominated for three Emmys, in 1975, ‘76, and ‘77, with her winning the first.

White remained a regular on The Mary Tyler Moore show until its finale in 1978 and rolled her cachet over into The Golden Girls, a beloved sitcom about retired women that premiered in 1985. Starring opposite Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty, White played Rose Nylund, a sunny widow from St. Olaf, Minnesota, who moved to Miami and found work as a grief counselor, then as an assistant to a local consumer reporter. White originally read for Blanche Devereaux, the randy character ultimately played by McClanahan, but pivoted after one of the producers pointed out that if she played another “man-hungry” woman like Sue Ann, people might think she was coasting. So she read for Rose, a goodhearted dimwit in the vein of All in the Family’s Edith Bunker who was capable of summoning unexpected strength and wisdom when it was needed.

The part was a perfect fit. Maybe too perfect: White’s husband Ludden had died five years earlier, and White was still grieving. She dreaded any scene where Rose was expected to talk about her late husband, because it made her think of Ludden; being a pro, she took the sadness and used it. Golden Girls director Lex Passaris once recalled that “while filming the episode ‘The Heart Attack,’ Betty’s voice cracked, an obvious clue that she had been pulling emotions from her real-life loss.” Yet, White explained during a Today segment with the cast in 1991, “the glass is always half-full as far as Rose is concerned … Life is a musical comedy as far as she’s concerned. It’s always gonna have a happy ending … She’s never sarcastic. She always takes every word as having the exact meaning of that word. She doesn’t have any imagination. If you say, ‘I could eat a horse,’ she calls the ASPCA.”

White was quick to correct people who dismissed The Golden Girls as frivolous. She saw it as a cheerfully defiant statement against ageism. “You don’t fall off the planet once you reach a given age,” she told Today. Arthur, McClanahan, Getty and White all sounded variations of this note during and after the show’s run (NBC tried to keep the money train rolling with a modestly successful follow-up series sans Arthur called The Golden Palace). White also pointed out that, if the actresses’ mail constituted a reliable sample, the majority of the show’s viewership consisted not of retirees, but viewers under 25. She was nominated for eight acting Emmys for The Golden Girls, and (again) won her first time out.

Since the early 1950s, there has never been a time in this country when people did not, by and large, know who Betty White was. She continued to be a go-to talk show guest until her mid-nineties. She won yet another Emmy as a guest actor in The John Larroquette Show (playing herself, in 1996) and was nominated nine other times, including three for hosting Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, an unscripted show modeled on Candid Camera in which elderly people play pranks on the young. She hosted Saturday Night Live mainly because of a fan-led campaign to hire her for the gig. It won her yet another Emmy. She gained legions of new fans co-starring in 2009’s The Proposal opposite Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, and turned the latter’s supposed thirst for her into a hilarious running bit. ““I’ve heard Ryan can’t get over his thing for me,” White told People, “But Robert Redford is The One.” When younger people on her management team explained that she was becoming an Internet celebrity, she didn’t just sit back and let it happen; she actively participated in it, instinctively and with killer instincts, as only a born star can.

“The world looks different now,” Reynolds tweeted on the day that White’s death was announced. “She was great at defying expectation. She managed to grow very old and somehow, not old enough. We’ll miss you, Betty. Now you know the secret.”

The breadth of White’s accomplishments is staggering and unrepeatable, and easy to take for granted because she remained self-deprecating right up to the end. The older forms of television are still limping along, generating ad revenue from an aging audience that still watches with an antenna or a cable. But to a growing majority, the word “television” describes certain kinds of stories and a certain way of watching them, on demand, streaming, with a pause button and (ideally) no commercials. Betty White was comfortable in this world, too. If she’d stuck around any longer, one suspects that she’d find a way to star in it.

Betty White Was Always on TV