Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Late, Entirely Wonderful Betty White

When Betty White died on December 31 2021 at the age of 99, there was was an outpouring of grief of the like I have never seen in my lifetime. At 99 Betty had a extremely long career. In fact, she holds the record for the performer with the longest career in American television to Guinness World Records. She made her debut on the medium in 1938 only three months after she had graduated high school, at which point television was still largely experimental. She was also a television pioneer, serving as a producer on her sitcom Life with Elizabeth when very few women worked behind the camera. Of course, Betty White was also immensely talented. She had perfect comic timing and could come up with funny lines off the top of her head. It was that talent that allowed her to appear as a regular on multiple television shows, including Life with Elizabeth, Date with the Angels, three different shows titled The Betty White Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mama's Family, The Golden Girls, and Hot in Cleveland. As long as her career was and as prolific as she was, I don't think that is why everyone loves Betty White so. Instead it was because Betty was always sunny in disposition and well known for her kindness to other people. While one occasionally hears a bad word about other celebrities, one never heard any about Betty White. The world loved Betty White not simply because she was an incredibly talented actress and comedian, but because she was a truly good person.

Betty White was born on January 17 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois. In 1923 her family moved to Alhambra, California, at which point she was only a little over a year old. Her family later moved to Los Angeles. She graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1939. Betty White wanted to be a forest ranger, but at the time women weren't allowed to become rangers. She then decided to become an actress. It was only three months after she graduated high school that she made her television debut. She and one of her classmates sang songs from The Merry Widow on an experimental television show. She worked as a model. Her first professional work was at the Bliss Hayden Little Theatre. During World War II she joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Among other things, she drove a PX truck with military supplies to Hollywood Hills during her service.

Following World War II, Betty White resumed her career by working in radio. She had appeared on radio when she was only eight years old on the radio show The Empire Builders. As an adult she  read commercials on radio and played small parts on radio shows.Ultimately she would appear on such shows as Family Theatre, Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This is Your FBI. She eventually received her own radio show, The Betty White Show.

While Betty White had a successful carer in radio, it would be television that would be her medium. In 1949 Betty White began a long stint as the co-host of the live television variety and talk show Hollywood on Television. In 1951 she received her first Emmy nomination for Best Actress for her work on Hollywood on Television. In 1952 Betty White co-founded Bandy Productions with writer George Tibbles and producer Don Fedderson. Bandy Productions produced Betty White's sitcom, Life with Elizabeth, based on a character Betty had originated on Hollywood on Television. Life with Elizabeth centred on the title character played by Betty White, and her husband Alvin Del Moore). Elizabeth was a housewife with a mischievous streak and a tendency to get into various predicaments. Life with Elizabeth was very successful and ended its run only because Guild Films the show's production company, was worried about saturating secondary markets with the series. At about the same time Betty White was appearing in Life with Elizabeth, she was also appearing on her own variety show, The Betty White Show, on NBC. From 1957 to 1958 Betty White appeared in the classic sitcom Date with the Angels. During the Fifties Betty White also guest starred on The Millionaire and appeared on the game shows What's My Line?, To Tell the Truth, and Make the Connection, as well as Tonight Starring Jack Paar, In 1958 she hosted a revival of her variety and talk show The Betty White Show. In 1956 she began a 19 year stint hosting the Tournament of Roses Parade on NBC.

In the Sixties Betty White continued to appear on Tonight Starring Jack and  Paar and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. She appeared frequently on game shows, including To Tell the Truth, You Don't Say, Password, What's My Line, The Match Game, It Takes Two, and others. She was a regular panel1ist on the game Liar's Club. She continued to host the Tournament of Roses Parade and she began hosting the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC with Lorne Greene in 1963. The two of them hosted the parade until 1972. She guest starred on the TV shows The United States Steel Hour, Another World, That's Life, and Petticoat Junction. Betty White made her film debut in Advise & Consent in 1962.

In 1973 Betty White began playing man hungry Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She remained with the show until its run ended. In 1977 she followed The Mary Tyler Moore Show with her own sitcom, The Betty White Show. On the series she played Joyce Whitman, the star of the fictional show Undercover Woman. She also guest starred on the shows The Odd Couple, Lucas Tanner, Ellery Queen, The Rich Little Show, The Diahann Carroll Show, The Jim Nabors Show, Donnie and Marie, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Love Boat. From 1971 to 1972 she hosted The Pet Set. Betty White continued to appear frequently on games shows including I've Got a Secret, It's Your Bet, Password, You Don't Say, Tattletales, The Hollywood Squares, and others. She also appeared on several talk shows, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, and Dinah!. Betty White appeared in The Paul Lyne Halloween Special, as well as the TV movies With This Ring, Snavely, The Best Place to Be, Before and After, and The Gossip Columnist. Her stint as host of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC came to an end in 1972 and her stint as the host of the Tournament of Roses Parade on NBC came to an end in 1975.

In 1983 Betty White started playing the recurring role of Ellen Harper Jackson (a role she had originated on The Carol Burnett Show). It was in 1985 that she began playing one of her most famous roles, that of feather-brained Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. She would also play the role in guest appearances on Empty Nest. She guest starred on the shows Best of the West; Love Sidney; Fame; Hotel; St. Elsewhere; The Love Boat; D. C. Follies; Matlock; Santa Barbara; Days of Our Lives; and Carol & Company. Betty White hosted the game show Just Men! and continued to appear frequently on game shows, including The $25,000 Pyramid, Password Plus, Body Language, Family Feud, Wheel of Fortune, The New Hollywood Squares, and others.

Betty White continued to appear as Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls into the early Nineties. She also guest starred as Rose on Empty Nest and Nurses. She starred as Rose on the short-lived sequel series to The Golden Girls, The Golden Palace. She played the recurring role of Sylvia Schmidt on Bob Newhart's short-lived sitcom Bob. She was a regular on the short-lived shows Maybe This Time and Ladies Man. She guest starred on the shows Diagnosis Murder, The Naked Truth, The John Laroquette Show, Suddenly Susan, L.A. Doctors, Hercules, and Ally McBeal. She provided voices for the animated series The Lionhearts and The Wild Thornberrys. Betty White appeared in the movies Hard Rain (1998), Holy Man (1998), Lake Placid (1999), and The Story of Us (1999). She provided the voice of Round in the movie Whispers: An Elephant Tale (2000).

In the Naughts Betty White had a recurring role on Boston Legal. She appeared on the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. She was a regular voice on the animated show Pound Puppies. In 2010 she began her stint as Elka Ostrovsky on Hot in Cleveland. She guest starred on the shows The Ellen Show; Teacher's Pet; Yes, Dear; Providence; That '70s Show; I'm With Her; The Practice; Everwood; My Wife and Kids; Malcolm in the Middle; Complete Savages; Joey; Ugly Betty; The Middle; Glenn Martin DDS; My Name is Earl; 30 Rock; and Community. Betty White hosted Saturday Night Live. She provided guest voices on the animated shows King of the Hill, Grim & Evil, Gary the Rat, Family Guy, and The Simpsons. She appeared in the movies Bringing Down the House (2003), The Third Wish (2005), Love N' Dancing (2009), The Proposal (2009), and You Again (2010).

During the Teens Betty White continued to appear as Elka Ostrovsky on Hot in Cleveland. She was the host, and producer of Betty White's Off Their Rockers. She guest starred on the shows The Client List, Save Me, The Soul Man, Crowded, Bones, Young & Hungry, and Fireside Chat with Esther. Betty White appeared in the TV movie The Lost Valentine. She was a guest voice on the animated series Spongebob Squarepants. She was a voice in the animated movies The Lorax (2012), Toy Story 4 (2019), and Trouble (2019).

There may have been no celebrity as beloved as Betty White. As I said, I have certainly never seen as large an outpouring of grief for any single person as I have Betty. Much of it probably has to do with the length of her career. She first appeared on television in 1939. Her last appearance on television was last year. In between she appeared in numerous television shows. Betty White never had to make a comeback, because there was never a point in her career where she was not popular, never a point in her career where she was not relevant. She was always working and she never retired.

Of course, Betty White was able to work so long and so frequently because she was such an enormous talent. Her comic timing was perfect and she could improvize lines on the spot. No one could be as funny as Betty White. What is more, she was very adaptable. This can be seen in the roles she played in her various television shows over the years: the mischievous Elizabeth from Life with Elizabeth, the daydreamy Vicki Angel, the man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens, the scatterbrained Rose Nylund, and the caustic Elka Ostrovsky. All of these characters were different, and yet they were all funny. Her roles in movies were varied as well.  In Bringing Down the House she played a character as far removed from her other characters as the character was from Betty White herself, an openly racist neighbour. In The Proposal she played the eccentric grandmother of lead character Andrew (Ryan Reynolds). I don't think Betty White ever quite got credit for her talent as an actress. She could certainly play a wide range of characters.

While the length of Betty White's career and her overwhelming talent are often acknowledged, I don't think her status as a television pioneer is acknowledged often enough. She produced her own show, Life with Elizabeth, at a time when few women worked behind the camera in television. While she was not the first woman to star in a sitcom (after all, I Love Lucy pre-dates by two years), she was one of the earliest to do so. She hosted such variety shows as Hollywood on Television and The Betty White Show at a time when most hosts were men. What is more, she had creative control on The Betty White Show. When she hosted Just Men!, she was the only female game show host on the air. When it came to being a television pioneer, perhaps only Lucille Ball rivalled Betty White as a trailblazer.

While Betty White had a long career, while she had great talent, and while she was a true pioneer, I think the reason she was so beloved and the reason we are all mourning her so is that she was the rarest of people, a genuinely good person. Throughout her career, one realized that Betty White cared about both her fellow human beings and her fellow living things. Among the many tributes to Betty White following her death is s tweet in which an individual explains how his boyfriend was a flight attendant flying from New York City to Los Angeles. While on the flight a passenger offered to help him serving the other passengers. The passenger took the coffee pot and proceeded to fill the cups of the other passengers. That passenger was Betty White. Todd Milliner, an executive producer on Hot in Cleveland, wrote in a long tribute to Betty, "We honour her because she was so full of kindness — kindness to people, kindness to animals and kindness to the world. That’s pretty rare right now." While one hears many horror stories about stars on the sets of movies and TV shows, one never heard a complaint about Betty White. It is a mark of Betty White's kindness and consideration for others that 10 days  before her death, she recorded a tribute to her fans to be unveiled on her 100th birthday.

While Betty White was always kind and considerate, she was no pushover. She was not afraid to stand up for what she believed in. During World War II, she served in the Women's Voluntary Services. When Betty was starring in her talk/variety show The Betty White Show in the mid-Fifties, she hired what may have been the first female director of a variety show in American television. On that same show she had African American tap dancer Arthur Duncan as a regular cast member. When NBC affiliates in the South complained and threatened to drop the show if they did not get rid of Mr. Duncan, Betty White simply replied, "I'm sorry. Live with it." She then gave Arthur Duncan even more air time. Arthur Duncan credited Betty White with his big break. Of course, Betty White was well known as an animal welfare advocate. Among the groups she worked with regards to animal welfare were the Los Angeles Zoo Commission, The Morris Animal Foundation, African Wildlife Foundation, and Actors and Others for Animals. She supported LGBTQ rights at a time when it was not fashionable to do so.

Of course, as much as we loved Betty White, the love of her life was third husband Allen Ludden. The two had met on the game show Password. She never remarried after his untimely death in 1981 from stomach cancer. When asked by Larry King in an interview why she never remarried, she simply replied, "Once you've had the best, who needs the rest?" According to Vicki Lawrence, she was told by Carol Burnett that Betty's assistant told her that Betty's last word was, "Allen."

Betty White lived a long life and achieved things most of us can only dream of. She will never be forgotten. And if one believes in an afterlife, one has to believe that she has been reunited with her beloved Allen Ludden. If we are mourning so much for Betty White, it is largely for ourselves. With her wit, humour, graciousness, and kindness, Betty White brought light into a world that sorely needed it, and we loved her for it. Without Betty White, some of that light is gone, and we cannot help but miss her. As far as the world is concerned, at 99 years old Betty White died all too soon.

No comments: