Betty White, a Welcome Guest in American Homes for Almost a Century, Has Died
Generations of radio and television fans came to think of Betty White as just another member of the family who happened to pop up on radio dramas, quiz shows, and sitcoms.
Everybody knew Betty White.
She’s been a regular presence in the home of anyone with a radio or a television set for almost a century. White, who died on Friday at the age of 99, began her career as a child actor on radio before she was 10 and starred on television until well into her nineties, charming generations of audiences with a beguiling mix of human qualities that were hers alone: sweet but never syrupy, smart but not intimidating, tartly funny without being mean, her turn as Sue Ann Nivens notwithstanding.
“She passed away peacefully in her home in Brentwood, California,” White’s longtime agent Jeff Witjas confirmed to The Daily Beast on Friday afternoon.
In a recent interview with People magazine, published three days before her death, White said she was “born a cockeyed optimist.” She was set to grace the magazine’s cover in early January.
“I got it from my mom, and that never changed,” she told the magazine. “I always find the positive.”
As a performer, she thrived almost exclusively on TV, and before that on radio. She was never a movie star and never had a big stage career. But for decades, she was a familiar presence in the more intimate, human-scale formats of broadcasting, appearing regularly on sitcoms, game shows, variety shows, radio dramas, and as a long-time host of the Rose Bowl Parade.
And because her whole life can be told through the shows on which she appeared, that is what we’ve done here. Tune in.
Betty was her given name. It’s not short for anything. Betty Marion White Ludden was born Jan. 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the only child of Christine Tess and Howard Logan White. When Betty was 2, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Howard White eked out a living building and selling and sometimes bartering radios. More than once, he bartered a radio for a dog. The Whites loved dogs so much, Betty recalled, that even when hard times forced the family to miss a meal, the dogs always ate. Radios and animals were tandem themes throughout Betty’s childhood, and her love of animals (both real and stuffed) lasted all her life.
Her radio days began in her father’s shop, but she had barely entered elementary school when she started acting in nationally broadcast radio plays. From radio she made the leap to television, and there she stayed—not forever, because it turns out that even Betty White is mortal, but it seemed like forever for a very long time.
In 1930, an 8-year-old Betty played 10-year-old Ann, a child confined to a hospital in Portland, Oregon, in the Christmas episode of The Empire Builders (1930), a mashup of radio play and infomercial for its sponsor, the Great Northern Railway.
Betty was 27. She’d been a pro on the radio for almost two decades. She had already made some appearances on the infant medium of television, and she’d auditioned for movie parts. But casting directors told her she was not photogenic. So, she stuck to radio. In the beginning, she took any part that came her way, even providing crowd noises and showing up on local game shows. Ultimately, she became a versatile radio personality who switched easily between comedy (Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve) and drama (This Is Your FBI). In 1952, she got her own show, The Betty White Show, a variety show where she ad-libbed and occasionally sang on the air for five hours at a stretch.
In this installment of the ripped-from-the-headlines cop show This is Your FBI—“the finest dramatic program on the air,” claimed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover—Betty’s character gets the book thrown at her for colluding in cons orchestrated by her mother.
This Is Your FBI: “Larcenous Bride” - 08/12/1949
Unlike many performers in early radio, and television, she did not get her start in vaudeville, big bands, or theater. Betty White was a creature of mass media.
In 1953, Life with Elizabeth premiered, and White had her first sitcom. The show was a spinoff of a character from Hollywood on Television, a variety show that began on radio and migrated to television. When the talkshow made the transition, so did White. Life With Elizabeth not only marked her transition to television, it also made her one of television’s earliest producers. She helped create the show, starred in it, and then produced it for its entire three-year run, making her one of the few women to have total artistic control in Hollywood before or since. She was barely 30 and still lived with her parents.
Life with Elizabeth: “Lobster for Dinner”
Betty was 33 when The Betty White Show—her behind-the-desk talkshow—first aired on television. There would eventually be a third show of the same title. She hired a female director, and Arthur Duncan was so often a guest that she was widely criticized for featuring a Black man so prominently. Crediting Betty for his early television appearances, Duncan said, “She is probably one of the nicest, grandest, and greatest of all people I’ve had the chance to meet throughout my life. Whenever she walked into a room, it lit up. She was very thoughtful and very helpful. She launched me into show business.”
The Betty White Show - 11/29/1954
Vintage Betty White in her ’50s Dior-style dresses endorsing Richard Hudnut cosmetics might be the best part of the Milton Berle television special that aired Oct. 11, 1959. By now, she was a 37-year-old television mainstay, seemingly immune to the agism so often associated with the industry. She was just getting started!
NBC Milton Berle Television Special - 10/11/1959
In the mid-’60s, game shows dominated television, and Betty White was an oft-featured special guest. Good fortune landed her on Password, where she met and later married the show’s host, Allen Ludden. She declined his marriage proposals on a few occasions, and turned down hosting NBC’s Today Show, which would have put her on the East Coast with Ludden. After he presented her with a stuffed bunny and a pair of sapphire and diamond earrings, she finally said yes to his proposal, but not for the earrings. She loved the stuffed bunny, and Allen. The two remained the epitome of a happy couple until his death in 1981.
Watch the flirtations between the two on this episode of Password.
The ’70s were a breakout decade for White. Her love for animals and her cachet as a television producer allowed her to create a show where her celebrity friends could showcase their pets. The Pet Set, the television experience she loved the best, lasted only one season. But she and Ludden got to work together on the show, and she loved working with the animals. “I was like a kid in a candy store,” she said. “I’d get one of my celebrity friends to come on and bring her animal, and then I’d write the rest of the show around that celebrity’s interest in animals.”
In 1973, she was cast in the fourth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Sue Ann Nivens, “The Happy Housewife,” sweet on camera but a horror the minute the cameras were off. The show’s producers sought to cast an “icky sweet Betty White type”—but not Betty White, because, should she fail the audition, her friendship with Mary Tyler Moore might be compromised. In the end, no problem: She was utterly successful in her ability to pull off the ultimate sweet-and-sour Sue Ann. “She’s not only a bitch but a nympho,” White told Los Angeles Times TV critic Cecil Smith in 1973. Her performance won her second and third Emmys for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
Years on the radio with five-and-a-half hours of unscripted riffing made Betty White perfect to announce Pasadena’s Rose Parade. In 1975, due to her rising status at CBS, NBC fired Betty and replaced her as commentator for the live airing of the parade, a position she had held for two decades (doubling up from 1962-1971 as an announcer for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as well). She was devastated, because she had come to think of it as her parade, which in a way it was.
The Tournament of Roses - 1970
Doe-eyed Rose Nylund, Betty’s character in The Golden Girls, is as close a match to naïveté as an adult can be, although it’s hard to single out a Betty White character who doesn’t embody that sweetness, fake or not, on some level. Over the show’s seven-year run on NBC (1985-1992), all four cast members—Betty White, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty— won Emmys for their respective performances. In recent years, The Golden Girls has experienced a retro resurgence with younger audiences.
The Golden Girls - Season 6 episode 26 “Henny Penny Straight No Chaser”
Betty White even hosted Off Their Rockers, a geriatric take on “Jackass”—well, maybe closer to Candid Camera. Manufactured senior moments that nobody younger than 70 could pull off, the show premiered in 2010 and ran two seasons on NBC before Lifetime picked it up for a third season. “Respect your elders. There’s nothing in there about us respecting you back!”
Off Their Rockers - Trailer (2012)
In 2018, Betty White enjoyed a standing ovation at the 70th Emmy Awards, where she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. She was 96 when she received the award and no less enthusiastic about winning than she had been the previous eight times.