Remembering Betty White

The American television pioneer passed away on New Year’s Eve aged 99.

There has been lots of articles written on Betty White in the past 24 hours, and while ATV Today doesn’t usually go into ‘stateside deaths’ we had to pay our own small tribute to the First Lady of Television in America.

In the UK Betty is best known for 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls, a huge hit for Channel 4 and most recently a re-run on Channel 5. The NBC sitcom saw four older women sharing a home in Miami and the lives they led, not conforming to the older image many had of senior citizens at the time. It broke taboos on several topics, won awards and made White, along with co-stars Bea Arthur (1922-2009), Rue McClanahan (1934-2010) and Estelle Getty (1923-2008) household names wherever it was screened.

And while the UK only saw a fraction of Betty’s work, stateside she had been a radio performer and pioneer for women in television in America since the 1930s.

Betty Marion White Ludden was born on January 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois. Betty was the only child of Christine and Horace Logan White, her mother a ‘housewife’ while her father worked as a lighting company executive. Neither lifestyle appeared to the young White who loved the outdoors and animals, hoping to be a Forest Ranger when she graduated from high school in 1939, however, women were not allowed to serve as rangers and Betty turned initially to writing plays, which lead to stage performances.

Soon there were stage and modelling roles offered along with minor TV work. However, with the arrival of World War II Betty halted her acting career and joined American Women’s Voluntary Services. Her roles were various with the AWVS but work included driving military trucks with military supplies and performing at ‘moral boosting events’ held for troops before they left the states.

We are saddened by the passing of Betty White. Not only was she an amazing actress, she also served during WWII as a member of the American Women’s Voluntary Services. A true legend on and off the screen.” – U.S. Army statement on social media

After the war, Betty turned her attention back to performing, making a name for herself on ‘the wireless’. Radio work included bit parts for several months playing small roles in dramas and voicing commercials. Spotted as a talent she was offered her own show, The Betty White Show. It wasn’t long before television came calling in 1949.

Heading to local station KLAC-TV White joined Al Jarvis’ five-and-a-half-hour, six-days-a-week live variety show, Hollywood on Television. Betty appeared as Al’s assistant host later taking over the show’s presenting duties when Jarvis left in 1952. She decided to move on in 1954.

In 1952 she formed Bandy Productions with producer Don Fedderson and writer George Tibbles. Spinning off characters from a Hollywood on Television sketch, they created the domestic comedy Life with Elizabeth, for which White received her first of six Emmys. Syndication brought the program to national audiences through the mid-’50s.

The series made White one of only a few women with creative control before and behind the camera in television’s early years. White went on to produce and host a daily NBC talk and variety skein The Betty White Show garnering a Daytime Emmy nomination. It was this programme that also had influence in the UK. In 1954 ATV boss Lew Grade was looking for stateside programmes and formats for the soon-to-launch ITV. He sent Noele Gordon to study television for a year at New York Uni and also work for television in America. Paid £30 a week for making notes one show Noele observed as being ‘perfect for ITV daytime’ was The Betty White Show – in the UK it launched as Lunchbox in 1956 on ATV in the Midlands, and several regional variations of it also appeared including Tyne Tees TV’s The One O’Clock Show.

Obviously inspired by White, Lew Grade made Gordon a female executive and producer in the UK, something unheard of at the time. Back in America, Betty was also continuing to make her mark in a male-dominated industry, her second situation comedy, A Date with the Angels, premiered in 1957 and evolved into another eponymous comedy and variety showcase.

White’s sly ribald humour made her an audience favourite on the late-night circuit, not only matching wits with Jack Paar with more than 70 appearances, Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson where she would often perform in his sketches. Betty also was asked to ‘stand-in’ as host on all three shows while the usual face was taking time off. Her clever spontaneity also earned her spots on numerous game and talk shows, such as The Match Game, To Tell the Truth, I’ve Got A Secret, Liar’s Club and especially Password, whose host Allen Ludden she married in 1963 after a persistent two-year courtship.

When White and Ludden’s pals, actor Mary Tyler Moore and her producer/husband Grant Tinker, were casting about for a cloyingly sweet “Betty White-type” to guest star on their hit The Mary Tyler Moore Show, they ultimately decided to go with the real deal. White’s 1973 guest shot as the saccharinely catty, man-hungry, Happy Homemaker, Sue Ann Nivens was White’s entrée into one of television’s most iconic ensembles. The role relaunched White’s acting career and earned her back-to-back supporting actress Emmy and then a fourth Emmy nomination.

I loved Betty very, very much. The world has lost one in a million” – Carol Burnett

After the series’ historic final episode in 1977, MTM created another incarnation of The Betty White Show. This time the format was entirely different with White playing the second-rate star of a TV police drama. After its brief run, White guest-starred in the miniseries The Place to Be (1979) and such telefilms as With this Ring, (1978) Before and After (1979) and The Gossip Columnist, (1980), before breaking ground as TV’s first female game show host on NBC’s Just Men.

Drawing on the lascivious persona perfected as Sue Ann Nivens, White earned the first and only Daytime Emmy for Best Game Show Host awarded to a female emcee. A second Daytime Emmy nomination followed in 1984. 1983 also saw White begin a three-year recurring stint on Vicki Lawrence’s Mama’s Family, reprising the role of social climber Ellen Harper Jackson she’d created in sketches on The Carol Burnett Show in the early ‘70s.

In 1985, at 63, White began what became the most lauded role of her career, the sweetly naïve Minnesotan Rose Nylund on NBC’s Saturday night hit The Golden Girls. White, along with co-stars Beatrice Arthur, Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan, proved that great comedy transcended age, as did the series’ stellar ratings and countless honours including, for White, a first-year lead actress Emmy, six subsequent nominations and two Golden Globe nominations. She was to reprise the role of Rose on three other series: Empty Nest (1989, 1992), Nurses (1991) and The Golden Palace (1992–93).

In 1991 White starred opposite Leslie Nielsen in the romantic NBC telefilm Chance of a Lifetime and subsequently guest appeared in several series including as Marie Osmond’s mother in Maybe This Time (1995), as Alfred Molina’s mother in Ladies Man from 1991-2001, St. Elsewhere, The Ellen Show, Everwood, My Wife and Kids, Joey, Malcolm In the  Middle and recurred in That 70’s Show in 2002-2003.

She won her fourth Emmy for her guest-starring self-caricature on The John Larroquette Show (1996) and earned more Emmy nominations for guest roles on Suddenly Susan (1997) and Yes, Dear (2003). She played a 2007 TV Land Awards parody entitled “Ugly Betty White” which led to a subsequent guest appearance as herself Ugly Betty. She has voiced animated characters on  The Simpsons, King of the Hill, The Wild Thornberrys Father of the Pride and Family Guy and in the feature Whispers: An Elephant’s Tale.

In 1954, #BettyWhite was criticized after having Arthur Duncan, a Black tap dancer, on her show. Her response: “I’m sorry. Live with it.” She then gave Duncan even more airtime. The show was canceled soon after. Rest well, Betty.” – The Martin Luther King Jr. Center

With The Practice in 2004, White once again turned one-shot casting into gold. Her guest turn as conniving blackmailer Catherine Piper led not only to another Emmy nomination but also to a recurring return for White as Catherine on the subsequent David E. Kelley series Boston Legal (2005–2008). In 1999, White had guest-starred for Kelley on Ally McBeal, earning an American Comedy Award for Funniest Female Guest Appearance in a Television Series, and starred in his horror-film send-up Lake Placid. Her 2009 guest performance as the Crazy Witch Lady on My Name is Earl earned White her eighteenth Emmy nomination. In 2010 she became the oldest person to present Saturday Night Live, after a social media campaign to get Betty onto the show as host. She returned for their 45th anniversary in 2015.

There were numerous made for TV movies as well as big-screen hits, the latter include Bringing Down the House, opposite Steve Martin and Queen Latifah, Love N’ Dancing, Hard Rain with Morgan Freeman and Christian Slater,  Dennis the Menace Strikes Again, opposite Don Rickles, Rob Reiner’s The Story of Us and The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.

Despite her huge successes, she wasn’t snobby about soap operas as some ‘big stars’ are, taking on a recurring role in daytime soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful playing, from 2006, Ann Douglas the long-lost mother of matriarch Stephanie Forrester (Susan Flannery) until Ann was killed off in 2009. White narrated network telecasts of the annual Tournament of Roses Parade from 1954 to 1974 and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for 10 years. In 2010 she became a sensation all over the internet for her appearance alongside Abe Vigoda, in an advertisement for Snickers that had initially appeared during Super Bowl XLIV. It was this year that also saw huge success with the sitcom Hot in Cleveland where she played Elka Ostrovsky, the house caretaker on the TV Land show.

When Betty worked on our show we gave her my dressing room ( it’s closest to the stage) for the duration.. On her first day I stuck my head in to welcome her.. She smiled and said, “Thanks for the room..We COULD share, you know!!” and she gave a wonderful, sly wink everyday..God rest her sweet, funny soul…” – John McCook, Eric in The Bold and the Beautiful on social media

Honours have been bestowed on White throughout her career. Highlights include in 1976 being awarded the Pacific Pioneers in Broadcasting Golden Ike Award and the Genii Award from the American Women in Radio and TV. She was honoured with the American Comedy Award for Funniest Female in 1987 and their Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990.  In 1995 she was inducted into the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame. In 2009 she received a Career Achievement Award from the Television Critics Association and in the same year was presented with a Disney Legends Award. The 16th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards honoured Betty with a lifetime award and she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2010. In the same year she was chosen as the Associated Press’s Entertainer of the Year. 

On November 9, 2010, the USDA Forest Service, along with Smokey Bear, made White an honorary forest ranger, fulfilling her lifelong dream. When White received the honour, more than one-third of Forest Service employees were women.

In 2011, White received a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series for her role in Hot in Cleveland. She won the same award again in 2012 and later received a third nomination. Betty White was awarded an honorary degree and white doctor’s coat by Washington State University at the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association’s centennial gala in Yakima, Washington and in 2017, after 70 years in the industry, White was invited to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. At age 95, this made her the oldest new member at the time.

White’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame rests adjacent to that of her late husband Allen Ludden, who sadly succumbed to cancer in 1981. Never marrying after Ludden’s death Betty dedicated her free time to the health and welfare of animals, a passion since childhood.

She was president emeritus of the Morris Animal Foundation and had been a trustee since 1971. She first learned about the Foundation’s support of research studies to protect, treat and cure animals while creating, producing and hosting The Pet Set, the 1970-71 syndicated series featuring celebrities and their pets. She received the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Humane Award in 1987.

RIP Betty White, the only SNL host I ever saw get a standing ovation at the after party. A party at which she ordered a vodka and a hotdog and stayed til the bitter end.” – Seth Meyers

A member of the board of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association since 1974, she served as a Zoo Commissioner for eight years. White was honoured by the City of Los Angeles with a bronze plaque placed next to the Gorilla Exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo naming her “Ambassador to the Animals” for her life-long work for animal welfare while Western University Veterinary School awarded her an honorary “Doctor of Humane Veterinary Sciences.”

Betty White was all set to celebrate her 100th birthday in two weeks time on January 17. A special front page cover and celebratory spread, marking her centenary, is currently on sale in People Magazine stateside while American broadcasters had been covering her impending landmark day, with one report airing just hours before her death was announced. There was to be a big ‘100 minutes’ big-screen celebration of Betty in January, and fans hope this will go ahead to celebrate not only an amazing career but an amazing woman.

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