Betty White, 1922-2021

The television star increasingly known for her longevity has passed days shy of her 100th birthday.

Washington Post (“Betty White, one of the most endearing and enduring faces on television, dies at 99“):

Betty White, an Emmy Award-winning comic actress who was best known for playing a man-hungry TV hostess on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the 1970s and a ditsy widow on “The Golden Girls” in the 1980s before her late-in-life resurgence as a tough, funny and ribald old lady, died at her home overnight in Los Angeles. She was 99.

The death was confirmed by her friend and agent, Jeff Witjas. Police were called Friday to investigate a death at her Brentwood residence. No specific cause was cited. She died less than three weeks before what would have been her 100th birthday.

In a career spanning seven decades, Ms. White became one of the most endearing and enduring faces on television. She said that her late husband, veteran game show host Allen Ludden, used to joke, “Meet my wife, one of the pioneers in silent television.”

He was not far off. She appeared on an experimental TV transmission in 1939 and later became a stalwart of domestic comedies, game shows, talk shows, anthology series, soap operas and made-for-television movies. Her trademark was a disarming, dimple-cheeked wholesomeness — her very name conjured girl-next-door appeal — but her impeccable comic timing knew vast range, from genteel innocence to stiletto-like bite.

In 2010, she starred in a Snickers candy bar commercial that aired during the Super Bowl — she was shown being tackled on muddy turf while playing football. That led to a massive Internet outcry for her to host “Saturday Night Live,” for which she received an Emmy Award for best guest actress in a comedy series.

She remained an incorrigible presence on television sitcoms and talk shows, often portraying herself as a seemingly demure old woman who suddenly detours into a ribald punchline. When talk-show host David Letterman asked how she spent her time, she rambled on about her love of animals before noting that “vodka’s kind of a hobby.”

Most recently, she had a recurring role on the TV Land sitcom “Hot in Cleveland” and hosted a hidden-camera, practical-joke show called “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers,” which featured senior citizens pranking people young enough to be their grandchildren.

Asked in 2012 about the devoted following that suddenly sprang up around her, she explained to an Australian newspaper, “I think when I turned 90, it somehow fascinated people that I was still working. I’m very grateful that they still invite me to do things, but it comes as much as a surprise to me as it does to them.”

Ms. White first made an impression on critics and audiences in her starring role on the suburban sitcom “Life With Elizabeth,” which aired from 1953 to 1955. New York Times television critic Jack Gould called Ms. White a talented and “immensely personable” actress with an “intuitive feel for farce.”

If the role helped propel Ms. White’s long career, she later spoke dismissively about what she considered its dated premise. Plotlines centered on “Elizabeth’s biscuits not turning out,” she later told The Washington Post. “We were trying to be funny. We were more two-dimensional cartoon characters than three-dimensional real people.”

Her other sitcom work from the period was not much better, but her heart-shaped face and amiable personality won her a great deal of work on other programs, notably such long-running quiz shows as “What’s My Line?” and the Ludden-hosted “Password.”

She said she was approached by NBC in the early 1960s to be the “new girl” on the “Today” morning show but declined because she did not want to live in New York City. “They had to make do with Barbara Walters,” Ms. White told NPR. “What can I tell you?”

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” provided Ms. White with one of her juiciest roles. From 1973 until the show ended in 1977, she portrayed Sue Ann Nivens, the outwardly sweet “Happy Homemaker” on the fictional Minneapolis station WJM-TV who had a sexually rapacious off-camera personality.

Portraying the “neighborhood nymphomaniac,” Ms. White later said, was pivotal in reviving her acting career after years of game-show work.

After years of playing “that nice lady,” she told TV Guide in 1974, “it was great fun for them to see that nice ladies sometimes have claws. For me, it was like being born again.”

She won two Emmy Awards for her supporting role on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and was nominated for another.

“The Golden Girls,” which debuted in 1985 to glowing reviews and ran for seven years on NBC, sealed Ms. White’s presence on the small screen.

She played ditsy but kindhearted Rose Nylund, a widowed grief counselor who shares a Miami home with three other senior citizens: the oversexed Southern belle Blanche (Rue McClanahan); the abrasive octogenarian Sophia (Estelle Getty); and Sophia’s dominating daughter, Dorothy (Bea Arthur).

Rose was prone to self-doubt and misinterpreted everything said around her. Sexual innuendo often stumped her, such as Dorothy’s comment that her ex-husband needed to strip naked to count to 21. Rose came from the Minnesota town of St. Olaf, and her rambling reminiscences of its eccentric residents became a running joke. She won the 1986 Emmy for lead actress in a comedy series and was nominated six more times during the show’s run.

Over the years, Rose coped with the death of her married lover — in her bedroom. And in another story line, she can’t bring herself to break up with a man because of his short stature; he eventually ends the relationship because she doesn’t share his Jewish faith.

Because of her memorable role on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Ms. White was initially approached to play Blanche on “The Golden Girls.” She said she was happy when the switch occurred, telling the publication Back Stage, “It was great fun, because we each had new territory to investigate, and Ruesie [McClanahan] took Blanche out into orbit where I never would have had the guts to go.”

New York Times (“Betty White, a Television Golden Girl From the Start, Is Dead at 99“):

Betty White, who created two of the most memorable characters in sitcom history, the nymphomaniacal Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the sweet but dim Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls” — and who capped her long career with a comeback that included a triumphant appearance as the host of “Saturday Night Live” at the age of 88 — died on Friday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 99.

[…]

Ms. White won five Primetime Emmys and one competitive Daytime Emmy — as well as a lifetime achievement Daytime Emmy in 2015 and a Los Angeles regional Emmy in 1952 — in a television career that spanned seven decades and that the 2014 edition of “Guinness World Records” certified as the longest ever for a female entertainer.

But her breakthrough came relatively late in life, with her work on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” from 1973 to 1977, for which she won two of her Emmys.

As Sue Ann, the host of a household-hints show on the television station where Ms. Moore’s character worked, the bedimpled Ms. White was annoyingly positive and upbeat, but also manipulative and bawdy — the sexpot next door, who would have you believe she slept with entire Army brigades during World War II.

Once, when someone asked her how she was feeling, Sue Ann replied cheerfully: “I didn’t sleep a wink all night. I feel wonderful.”

She won another Emmy in 1986 for an entirely different kind of character: the naïve, scatterbrained Rose on “The Golden Girls,” which revolved around the lives of four older women sharing a house in Miami. Whereas Sue Ann knew everything there was to know about getting a man into bed, Rose got to the same place innocently, and by being just a wee bit off center.

Ms. White was the last surviving member of the show’s four stars. Estelle Getty died in 2008, Bea Arthur in 2009 and Rue McClanahan in 2010.

Ms. White won her final Emmy in 2010 as outstanding guest actress in a comedy series for hosting the Mother’s Day episode of “S.N.L.” She followed that appearance with a regular role on yet another sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland,” and then with a book contract and her own reality show. She was bigger than she had been in decades. But she didn’t see her resurgence as a comeback.

“I’ve been working steady for 63 years,” she said in an interview for the ABC News program “Nightline” in 2010. “But everybody says, ‘Oh, it’s such a renaissance.’ Maybe I went away and didn’t know it.”

Death at 99 is hardly a tragedy. She lived an incredibly long life, remained productive and engaged right up to the end, and was a genuinely beloved figure.

Because she has worked continuously for so long, I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t on television. I remember her on the old Password show. I remember when her last husband, Alan Ludden, host of that show, died of cancer at 63—way back in 1981.

The family and I watched her on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and, even though she was somewhat younger then than I am now, she seemed old to me then.

It’s hard to believe that Ed Asner was just 44 when the show started; he looked 20 years older than that. White would have been 53. And yet she outlived not only everyone in that picture but every other significant member of the show’s cast. (Indeed, we lost Gavin McLeod, Cloris Leachman, and Asner in 2021 as well.)

She was 64 when The Golden Girls debuted in 1985, slightly older than both Bea Arthur and Estele Getty and a dozen years older than Rue McClanahan. She outlived them all, too.

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    A national treasure!

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  2. Mister Bluster says:

    A Tweet from The Martin Luther King Jr. Center

    In 1954, Betty White 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.

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  3. Monala says:

    I read a great comment on Twitter: “Live your life so well that when you die at 99, people say you were gone too soon.”

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  4. CSK says:

    Duncan is 88 and, as far as I know, still tapping up a storm. Incredible dancer.

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    2

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