Betty White was America’s naughty sweetheart.
With a wholesome smile and a dirty joke she charmed millions of viewers decade after decade, rising from $50-a-week to ageless superstar who advised her fans, “Don’t try to be young. Just open your mind.”
Even in her 90s, in defiance of time and expectations, she still enjoyed a cocktail before dinner, a weekly poker night and wide-eyed interest in the world around her. “There are so many things I won’t live long enough to find out about, but I’m still curious about them,” she declared.
It helped that she only needed four hours of sleep each night.
White, who died Friday at 99 just weeks before her birthday, launched her TV career when the medium was still in its infancy and never lost touch.
Her saucy, up-for-anything appeal certified her as a television mainstay. Her combination of sweetness and spice gave life to a roster of quirky characters in shows from the sitcom “Life With Elizabeth” in the early 1950s to man-crazy TV hostess Sue Ann on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the 1970s, from loopy housemate Rose Nylund in “The Golden Girls” in the ’80s to courtroom drama “Boston Legal,” which ran from 2004 to 2008.
But all that proved to be only a warmup for even greater stardom in the new millennium when White’s stardom erupted, by public demand, as it never had before.
In a Snickers commercial that premiered during the 2010 Super Bowl telecast, she impersonated an energy-sapped dude getting tackled during a backlot football game.
“Mike, you’re playing like Betty White out there,” sneered one of his chums. White, knocked flat on the ground and covered in mud, fired back, “That’s not what your girlfriend said!”
The instantly-viral video helped spark a Facebook campaign called “Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!,” whose half-million fans led to her co-hosting “Saturday Night Live” in a much-watched, much-hailed edition on Mother’s Day weekend. The appearance won her a seventh Emmy award.
A month later, the TV Land cable network premiered “Hot In Cleveland,” its first original scripted series, which starred Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick as three show-biz veterans who move to Cleveland to escape the youth obsession of Hollywood. They move into a home being looked after by an elderly Polish widow — a character, played by White, who was meant to appear only in the pilot episode.
But once again, White worked her magic. The salty Elka Ostrovsky became a key part of the series, which became an instant hit.
Then she was voted the Entertainer of the Year by members of The Associated Press. “It’s ridiculous,” scoffed White, self-deprecating, at the honor.
“They haven’t caught on to me, and I hope they never do.”
Such was her popularity that even White’s birthday became a national event: In 2012, NBC aired “Betty White’s 90th Birthday Party” as a star-studded prime-time special. She was still working well into her 90s, including serving as one of the voices for the toys, “Bitey White,” in “Toy Story 4.”
One thing that made White seem forever young was her skill at playing bawdy or naughty while still radiating niceness.
The horror spoof “Lake Placid” and the comedy “The Proposal” were marked by her characters’ surprisingly salty language. Her character Catherine Piper killed a man with a skillet on “Boston Legal.”
But she almost wasn’t cast as “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1973. She and her husband, Allen Ludden, were close friends of Moore and Moore’s then-husband, producer Grant Tinker. It was feared that if White failed on the show, which already was a huge hit, it would be embarrassing for all four.
But CBS casting head Ethel Winant declared White the logical choice. Originally planned as a one-shot appearance, the role of Sue Ann lasted until Moore ended the series in 1977.
White made comic hay as Sue Ann, for instance with a line explaining that she planned to spend Christmas with a sister in Florida: “She’s kind of a creep,” Sue Ann noted sweetly, “but she’s got a pool.”
The role brought her two Emmys as supporting actress in a comedy series.
In 1985, White starred on NBC with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty in “The Golden Girls.” Its cast of mature actresses, playing single women in Miami retirement, presented a gamble in a youth-obsessed industry, but it proved a solid hit and lasted until 1992.
White played Rose, a gentle, dim-bulb widow who managed to misinterpret most situations. She drove her housemates crazy with off-the-wall tales of her childhood in the fictional backwoods town of St. Olaf, Minnesota
For example, Rose’s explanation of the annual talent show, which was highlighted by a herring juggling act:
“Somebody actually juggled herring?” her friends asked skeptically.
“No!” Rose corrected them. “It was the herring that did the juggling: tiny little Ginseng knives.”
That role won her another Emmy, and she reprised it in a short-lived spinoff, “The Golden Palace.”
White’s other TV series included “Mama’s Family,” as Vicki Lawrence’s irascible mother; “Just Men,” a game show in which women tried to predict answers to questions directed to male celebrities; and “Ladies Man,” as the catty mother of Alfred Molina.
“Just Men” brought her a daytime Emmy, while she won a fourth prime-time Emmy in 1996 for a guest shot on “The John Larroquette Show.”
She also appeared in numerous miniseries and TV movies and made her film debut as a U.S. senator in Otto Preminger’s 1962 Capitol Hill drama “Advise and Consent.”
She was born Betty Marion White in 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois, and moved to Los Angeles when she was a toddler.
“I’m an only child, and I had a mother and dad who never drew a straight line: They just thought funny,” she told The Associated Press in 2015. “We’d sit around the breakfast table and then we’d start kicking it around. My dad was a salesman and he would come home with jokes. He’d say, `Sweetheart, you can take THAT one to school. But I wouldn’t take THIS one.′ We had such a wonderful time.”
Her early ambition was to be a writer, and she wrote her grammar school graduation play, giving herself the leading role.
At Beverly Hills High School, her ambition turned to acting, and she appeared in several school plays. Her parents hoped she’d go to college, but instead she took roles in a small theater company and played bit parts in radio dramas.
Then in 1949, she was hired for a local daytime TV show starring Al Jarvis, the best-known disc jockey in Los Angeles.
It was then that she got a tip to start lying about her age.
“We are so age-conscious in this country,” she said in a 2011 interview with The Associated Press. “It’s silly, but that’s the way we are. So I was told, ‘Knock four years off right now. You’ll be blessing yourself down the road.’ “I was born in 1922. So I thought, ‘I must always remember that I was born in 1926.’ But then I would have to do the math. Finally, I decided to heck with it.”
White proved to be a natural for the new medium. She was bright, pretty and likable, with a dimpled, eye-crinkling smile. A 1951 Los Angeles Times headline said: “Betty White Hailed as TV’s Busiest Gal.”
“I did that show 5½ hours a day, six days a week, for 4½ years,” she recalled in 1975. Jarvis was replaced by actor Eddie Albert, and when he went to Europe for the film “Roman Holiday,” she headed the show.
A sketch she had done with Jarvis turned into a syndicated series, “Life With Elizabeth,” which won White her first Emmy. For a time, she did interviews on “The Betty White Show” in the daytime, filmed the series at night and often turned up on a late-night talk show. She also appeared on commercials and narrated New Year’s Pasadena Rose Parade.
With the glib tongue and quick responses nurtured in the Jarvis years, she was a welcome guest on “I’ve Got a Secret,” “To Tell the Truth,” “What’s My Line” and other game shows — all the way up to the 2008 “Million Dollar Password,” which revived the game once hosted by Ludden, whom she had met as a contestant on the original “Password.”
That was in 1961, and the next year, while touring in summer theater during television’s off-season, she starred with Ludden — by then a widower with three children — in the comedy “Critic’s Choice.”
White, who had claimed to be “militantly single” since a marriage in the late 1940s, weakened in her resolve.
“I had always said on ‘The Tonight Show’ and everywhere else that I would never get married again,” she told a reporter in 1963. “But Allen outnumbered me. He started in and even the children got in the act. And I surrendered — willingly.”
The marriage lasted from 1963 until his death from cancer in 1981.
Off-screen, White tirelessly raised money for animal causes such as the Morris Animal Foundation and the Los Angeles Zoo. In 1970-1971, she wrote, produced and hosted a syndicated TV show, “The Pet Set,” to which celebrities brought their dogs and cats. She wrote a 1983 book titled “Betty White’s Pet Love: How Pets Take Care of Us,” and, in 2011, published “Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo.”
Her devotion to pets was such that she declined a plum role in the hit 1997 movie “As Good As It Gets.” She objected to a scene in which Jack Nicholson drops a small dog down a laundry chute.
In her 2011 book “If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t),” White explained the origins of her love for dogs. During the Depression, her dad made radios to sell to make extra money. But since no one had money to buy the radios, he willingly traded them for dogs, which, housed in kennels in the backyard, at times numbered as many as 15 and made White’s happy childhood even happier.
Are there any critters she doesn’t like?
“No,” White told the AP in 2011. “Anything with a leg on each corner.”
Then what about snakes?
“Ohhh, I LOVE snakes!”
And when asked how she had managed to be universally beloved by humans throughout her life, not just by animals, she summed up with a dimpled smile, “I just make it my business to get along with people so I can have fun. It’s that simple.”
Moore, AP’s longtime television writer, retired in December 2017.
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