Creating an Icon: How Betty White Became Hollywood’s Golden Girl
For a woman to host her own talk show on television in the 1950s was revolutionary. For a woman to also produce said show was unheard of. And for a woman to stand firm in the face of pressure from the Deep South to fire a black tap dancer from the show was extraordinary.
That’s exactly what Betty White did in 1954 when racists threatened to boycott her namesake show if up-and-coming dancer Arthur Duncan continued to perform on it. “I’m sorry, but, you know, he’s staying. Live with it,” she said, giving Duncan even more airtime.
the Betty White Show was quietly canceled soon after, but it was years before Duncan learned of the controversy. Over her seven decades in showbiz, White has made a habit of standing on the right side of history. Her very presence helped smash the glass ceiling of the television industry — no more so when she became the first woman to win an Emmy for hosting a game show in 1983.
Then in 1990, White’s series The golden girls became one of the first sitcoms to address the AIDS crisis when her character, Rose Nylund, had to be tested for HIV after a blood transfusion. The episode helped demystify AIDS and the stereotype that the disease only affected the queer community – at a time when less than a quarter of American doctors believed they should be legally bound to treat HIV-positive patients.
“She’s one of the trailblazers,” admitted the late Carl Reiner in the 2018 documentary Betty White: First Lady of Television. “A lot of us are here because she was there at the start. She set the standard. She paved the way for a lot of people.
Becoming a pioneer actor was never Betty Marion White’s plan. Not in Illinois in 1922, White was the only child of Christine, a homemaker, and Horace, an electrical engineer, who turned to making crystal radios during the Great Depression after the family moved to Los Angeles when White was a toddler.
During the height of the Depression, when everyone was struggling to make ends meet, Horace traded the radios for household items, including dogs. This is how the family ended up with 26 dogs and White fell in love with animals for the first time. That love solidified on the family’s vacation in the Sierra Nevada and that prompted White to become a ranger.
There was a small problem with White’s career aspirations: Women weren’t allowed to be rangers in the 1940s. She found a plan B in acting after writing and acting. in his graduation play and went on to appear in an experimental television show. When the United States entered World War II in 1941, White took a break and joined American Women’s Voluntary Services, where she drove a truck delivering soap, toothpaste and candy to soldiers occupying the forts. from Santa Monica and Hollywood.
While in service, White met, married, and divorced Air Force pilot Dick Barker.
Towards the end of the war, White returned to the stage. His first professional acting gig at the Bliss Hayden Little Theater caught the eye of talent agent Lane Allen in more ways than one. White married Allen in 1947 and divorced her two years later because he wanted a family and she wanted a career.
Not having children is a decision White has never regretted. She wanted a career and that’s exactly what she got. After rising through the radio ranks, White continued to star in her own sitcoms and variety shows through the 1950s and became a regular on the game show circuit in the early 1960s.
On the game show set Password, White hit it off with host Allen Ludden, who convinced her it would be a lucky third time if she married him. It was not an easy persuasion; White refused a number of proposals from Ludden – he resorted to wearing the diamond ring on a chain around her neck as a reminder of his undying love – before she accepted.
The couple married in 1963 after Ludden wooed White with “an adorable fluffy white stuffed rabbit” with diamond and sapphire earrings in his ears for Easter. White joked that she finally agreed to marry her husband because of the gift – not for the earrings but for the bunny.
Sealed with a plush, White and Ludden’s love story has become legend. He was the love of her life, and she was the shining star of his. During their marriage, White enjoyed great success with her role in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as the relentlessly perky (and horny) cooking show host Sue Ann Nivens. White credited her casting in the 1970s sitcom – alongside her best friend Mary Tyler Moore – as a turning point for her career.
“Sue Ann Nivens really changed my career,” White recalled. “That sweetish image I had grown up with spread to another context. She was the happy housewife who could fix anything, cook anything, clean anything and sleep with someone who would stay still.
White spent four years — and won two Emmys — playing the neighborhood nymphomaniac on The Mary Tyler Moore Show before the series ended in 1977. But the role’s lasting impact followed her into the next decade when director Jay Sandrich was cast in a small series titled Jit golden girls.
White had been a shoo-in to play flirtatious Blanche Devereaux, but when Sandrich pointed out how similar to Sue Ann Nivens’ character, White switched roles to play the naïve but oh-so-lovable widow Rose Nylund.
White was 63 and at the height of his career. But both off and on screen, she mourned the loss of her husband, who died of stomach cancer in 1981 after 18 years together. White channeled her loss into her work, admitting she often thought of Ludden when her character, Rose, talked about her late husband, Charlie.
In one such scene, Rose thought back to celebrating her first birthday without her husband, sitting at the kitchen table eating cheesecake alone, talking to an empty chair as if he were there with her. . At the end of the conversation, Rose choked up telling Charlie that she loved him and missed him. It’s impossible to know where Rose ended and where Betty started at that time.
White never remarried, saying, “Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest? She maintained that she did not fear death because she knew she would be reunited with Ludden.
Don’t call it a comeback. In 2010, White cheekily responded to headlines that she was having a resurgence, following his scene-steal role of Ryan Reynold’s grandmother in romantic comedy Proposal. “I have worked regularly for 63 years. But everyone says, ‘Oh it’s such a rebirth.’ Maybe I left unknowingly,” White told ABC News in 2010.
On the back of his renewed popularity, a Facebook campaign was launched for White to host Saturday Night Live. The petition was successful; and White became the the oldest person to host the show at 88, winning an Emmy for his efforts.
At the time, White joked, “I didn’t know what Facebook was, and now that I know what it is, I have to say it feels like a huge waste of time.”
White’s tongue was equally sharp at the 2010 Screen Actors Guild Awards, where she received a Life Achievement Award from him. Proposal co-star Sandra Bullock. She thanked Bullock with a compliment, “Isn’t it heartwarming to see how far a simple girl can go?” The crowd went wild.
After guest roles on Love glory and beauty, Boston Legal and Suddenly SusanotWhite returned to her sitcom roots on Hot in Clevelandplaying house keeper Elka Ostrovsky for five seasons. At ninety, she won a Guinness World Record for the longest television career by a female entertainer. “I’m the luckiest old broad on two feet,” she told CNN in 2017. “I’m still able to get a job, at this age. I’ll go to my grave saying, ‘Then I come in and read for it tomorrow?’ “
White died in her sleep on December 31, 2021, from a Christmas Day stroke. She was 17 days away from turning 100. The outpouring of grief was immense. US President Joe Bidden declared White an “American treasure”; Michelle Obama wrote, “Betty White broke down barriers, defied expectations, served her country and made us all laugh”; and Ryan Reynolds lamented, “She managed to get really old and somehow not old enough.”
White is remembered as a gifted actress, a trailblazer and ally, and – as she would have liked – an avid animal lover. On what would have been its 100th anniversary, the viral #BettyWhiteChallenge has raised millions of dollars for animal shelters around the world. In his last message to his fans, posted on Instagram after his death, White said, “I just want to thank you all for your love and support over the years. Thank you very much and… stick around.
When asked what she hoped God would tell her if heaven existed, White didn’t hesitate. “Come on, Betty. This is Allen, she replied.