RIP: Betty White dies at 99: Legendary actress passes away just weeks before her milestone 100th birthday
Beloved Golden Girls star Betty White tweeted excitedly about her upcoming 100th birthday on Tuesday – three days before she passed away and just three weeks before her milestone celebration.
White, who capped a career of more than 80 years by becoming America’s sweetheart after Emmy-winning roles on television sitcoms, is believed to have died of natural causes at her home on Friday morning, law enforcement confirmed.
She was not battling any particular ailments and did not have a sudden illness, a source close to the star told TMZ. Police were seen at White’s home on Friday, but stressed they were only investigating her death as a matter of procedure, and that no foul play was suspected. A black coroner’s van was also seen leaving as the afternoon wore on.
On December 28, she tweeted: ‘My 100th birthday… I cannot believe it is coming up, and People Magazine is celebrating with me! The new issue of @People is available on newsstands nationwide tomorrow.’
Writer John Leavitt joked: ‘You gotta admit, having an entire magazine devoted to your 100th birthday hit the racks and then dying before that birthday is excellent comic timing.’
President Joe Biden led tributes to the star, tweeting: ‘Betty White brought a smile to the lips of generations of Americans.
‘She’s a cultural icon who will be sorely missed. Jill and I are thinking of her family and all those who loved her this New Year’s Eve.’
Barack Obama’s official photographer, Pete Souza, posted a charming photo of the pair meeting in the Oval Office, with Obama doubled over in giggles.
‘She made us laugh,’ Souza said.
The U.S. Army also thanked her for her service in World War II.
‘We are saddened by the passing of Betty White,’ the Army tweeted.
‘Not only was she an amazing actress, she also served during World War II as a member of the American Women’s Voluntary Services.’
The volunteer group amassed more than 300,000 members and provided a variety of services and support such as selling war bonds, driving ambulances, trucks, cycle corps and dog-sleds, and working in navigation, aerial photography, aircraft spotting, and fire safety.
White’s biggest role was as batty Rose Nylund in classic sitcom The Golden Girls, and she is the last of the hit show’s four leads to die, after saying she’d enjoyed good health throughout her old age.
A few days ago – in an interview about her upcoming centennial year – White said she was ‘so lucky to be in such good health and feel so good at this age’.
White planned to welcome fans at her 100th birthday party by having it filmed for a documentary titled Betty White: 100 Years Young – A Birthday Celebration.
The film was going to follow White in her day-to-day life and was set to screen at 900 theaters nationwide. After the documentary, cinemas would show live footage of her actual birthday party.
It is not clear if the screenings will still take place.
She was last photographed in public running errands with her driver the day before her birthday 98th birthday, in January 2020. The star spent the remainder of last year, and the whole of 2021, shielding from COVID.
Shortly after that outing, she began limiting contact with others to avoid contracting the virus. When it first surged, she said she was ‘relaxing through her quarantine’ at her residence in Los Angeles.
The star’s essential errands, like groceries, were being taken care of for her so she wouldn’t have to leave her house. Additionally, she was ‘only coming in contact with people being equally cautious of the virus’ and who respected her state’s stay-at-home orders.
Despite the pandemic, White continued to interact with her loved ones and fans on Zoom calls.
‘Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever,’ her agent and close friend Jeff Witjas said in a statement issued to People.
‘I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don’t think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again.’
White leaves behind a massive legacy as a comedienne, actress, author, animal rights activist and one of the first female pioneers in television.
Biden and other notable figures, including Ryan Reynolds, Reese Witherspoon and Viola Davis, are among luminaries paying tribute to the star.
‘That’s a shame. She was a lovely lady. … 99 years old,’ the president told reporters when informed of the actress’s death. ‘As my mother would say, ‘God love her.”
First Lady Jill Biden, who was enjoying a New Year’s Eve lunch with her husband, added: ‘Who didn’t love her? We’re so sad about her death.’
Reynolds, who had just been joking with White over social media a day prior, posted a picture to his Instagram of the actress.
‘The world looks different now. She was great at defying expectation. She managed to grow very old and somehow, not old enough. We’ll miss you, Betty,’ he wrote.
‘So sad to hear about Betty White passing,’ Witherspoon said. ‘I loved watching her characters that brought so much joy. Thank you, Betty, for making us all laugh!’
‘RIP Betty White! Man did I think you would live forever,’ wrote Davis. ‘You blew a huge hole in this world that will inspire generations. Rest in glorious peace….you’ve earned your wings.’
White was last photographed in public running errands with her driver the day before her birthday 98th birthday in January 2020. She spent the remainder of last year, and the whole of 2021 shielding from COVID
Police were photographed outside her Los Angeles home after the announcement of her death, saying they are investigating and ‘there is no foul play’
Police were photographed outside White’s Los Angeles home Friday after the announcement of her death. Officers told E! the department is investigating and ‘there is no foul play.’
‘It seems like just a natural death investigation,’ an officer said.
A neighbor was also spotted dropping a bouquet flowers off at the property. Fans have place flowers, stuffed toys and cards at her Hollywood Walk of Fame star.
Meanwhile, celebrities have started paying their respects to the late actress and flooding social media with tributes.
Star Trek actor George Takei wrote: ‘Our national treasure, Betty White, has passed just before her 100th birthday.
‘Our Sue Ann Nivens, our beloved Rose Nylund, has joined the heavens to delight the stars with her inimitable style, humor, and charm. A great loss to us all. We shall miss her dearly.’
A neighbor is pictured dropping off a bouquet at Betty White’s LA home on Friday in the wake of news that she has died aged 99
A black coroner’s van was seen pulling out of Betty White’s home hours after her death on Friday
Fans have place flowers, stuff toys and cards at her Hollywood Walk of Fame star
White’s biggest role came when she was cast in classic sitcom The Golden Girls in 1985. She was the final surviving member of the main cast, and is pictured with co-stars Estelle Getty (in turquoise) Rue McClanahan (in orange) and Bea Arthur (pictured in cream scarf)
Talk show host Seth Meyers said: ‘RIP Betty White, the only SNL host I ever saw get a standing ovation at the after party. A party at which she ordered a vodka and a hotdog and stayed til the bitter end.’
Bravo star Andy Cohen tweeted: ‘Tonight we will raise MANY glasses to the WONDERFUL legacy of Betty White!!!’
Actress Jennifer Love Hewitt posted a video of herself crying with the message: ‘Heartbroken. My angel. My idol. My friend. I miss you already.’
The pair starred in the 2011 Hallmark film The Lost Valentine together and became firm friends.
Oscar-nominated songwriter Diane Warren said: ‘A few yrs ago at an animal charity event I bid on a day at the zoo with Betty White.’
‘Not only was she a legend but a fierce advocate for animal rights. Both the humans and the animals are so sad today Betty.’
Gone but not forgotten: Ryan Reynolds, who had just been joking with White over social media a day prior, posted a picture to his Instagram of the actress
White was known for her optimism and positivity.
‘I’ve always been a cockeyed optimist,’ White once said in an interview with Fox News. ‘I got it from my mom. I’m gonna stick with it.’
On her 96th birthday she credited ‘vodka and hot dogs’ for her longevity and added that trips up and down the stairs of her two-story house kept her in shape.
Most importantly, she said: ‘It’s your outlook on life that counts. If you take yourself lightly and don’t take yourself too seriously, pretty soon you can find the humor in our everyday lives.’
When she was awarded the Guinness World Record for longest TV career for a female entertainer in 2014, she said: ‘I have no regrets at all. None. I consider myself to be the luckiest old broad on two feet.’
Celebrities have started paying their respects to the late actress and flooding social media with tributes
Actress Jennifer Love Hewitt posted a video of herself crying with the message: ‘Heartbroken. My angel. My idol. My friend. I miss you already.’ The pair starred in the 2011 Hallmark film The Lost Valentine together and became fast friends
Epic tributes: Some stars like Kathy Griffin took time to share anecdotes about the star
White was born in Oak Park, Illinois on January 17, 1922.
Her legal name, Betty, is not a shortened version of ‘Elizabeth’ because her parents did not want their daughter saddled by any derivatives and nicknames like Beth, Liza and Ellie.
White was an only child and liked it that way, she remembers her blissfully happy childhood as a young girl who was ‘spoiled rotten, but taught to appreciate it.’
Her family moved to Los Angeles in 1923 when she was just over a year old. She attended Beverly Hills High School and though she was interested in theater she said, her dream was to become a zookeeper or forest ranger. ‘The problem was, back then a girl wasn’t allowed to be either one,’ she wrote in her autobiography.
She started her entertainment career in radio in the late 1930s and by 1939 had made her TV debut singing on an experimental channel in Los Angeles.
After serving in the American Women’s Voluntary Service, which helped the U.S. effort during World War Two, she was a regular on Hollywood on Television, a daily five-hour live variety show, in 1949.
Born as an only child in 1922, Betty White’s family moved to Los Angeles when she was just an infant. Her passion for animals began as a child when her father built radios during the Great Depression to make extra money. Nobody had money for the radios so he would often trade them for other goods, including dogs. At one point, the Whites owned up to 15 ‘well-loved’ dogs. Above, Betty poses with her beloved Chow
A promotional photo from Betty White’s 1957 sitcom, Date With the Angels. After graduating high school, White made her rounds at movie studios but was told that she was too ‘unphotogenic’ for the silver screen. Alternatively, she picked up odd jobs in radio reading commercials, playing bit parts and sometimes as a background ‘noisemaker’ in the crowd
A few years later she became a pioneering woman in television by co-founding a production company and serving as a co-creator, producer and star of the 1950s sitcom Life With Elizabeth.
Through the 1960s and early ’70s, White was seen regularly on television, hosting coverage of the annual Tournament of Rose Parade and appearing on game shows such as Match Game and Password.
She married Password host Allen Ludden, her third and final husband, in 1963.
Betty White poses in a publicity portrait for her part in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She wrote in her autobiography: ”For me, humor is about rhythm. It’s like an ear for music. It’s hard to explain’
White reached a new level of success on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, playing the host of a home-making television show – the snide, lusty Sue Ann Nivens, whose credo was ‘a woman who does a good job in the kitchen is sure to reap her rewards in other parts of the house.’
White won best-supporting actress Emmys for the role in 1975 and 1976.
She won another Emmy in 1986 for The Golden Girls, a sitcom about four older women living together in Miami that featured an age demographic rarely highlighted on American television.
White also was nominated for an Emmy six other times for her portrayal of the widowed Rose Nylund, a sweet, naive and ditzy Midwesterner, on the show, which ran from 1985 to 1992 and was one of the top-rated series of its time.
After a less successful sequel to The Golden Girls came a series of small movie parts, talk-show appearances and one-off television roles, including one that won her an Emmy for a guest appearance on The John Larroquette Show.
By 2009 she was becoming ubiquitous with more frequent television appearances and a role in the Sandra Bullock film The Proposal.
She starred in a popular Snickers candy commercial that aired during the Super Bowl, taking a brutal hit in a mud puddle in a football game.
She started her entertainment career in radio in the late 1930s and by 1939 had made her TV debut singing on an experimental channel in Los Angeles
In a statement released Friday, White’s agent said she never feared dying because she ‘always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again’ (The couple are pictured together in 1974)
A young fan started a Facebook campaign to have White host ‘Saturday Night Live’ and she ended up appearing in every sketch on the show and winning still another Emmy for it.
The Associated Press voted her entertainer of the year in 2010 and a 2011 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that White, then 89, was the most popular and trusted celebrity in America with an 86 percent favorability rating.
White’s witty and brassy demeanor came in handy as host of ‘Betty White’s Off Their Rockers,’ a hidden-camera show in which elderly actors pulled pranks on younger people.
‘Who would ever dream that I would not only be this healthy, but still be invited to work?’ White said in a 2015 interview with Oprah Winfrey.
‘That’s the privilege … to still have jobs to do is such a privilege.’
White, who had no children, worked for animal causes. She once turned down a role in the movie As Good as It Gets because of a scene in which a dog was thrown in a garbage chute.
‘I’m the luckiest broad on two feet’: How three-times-married Betty White wanted to be a zookeeper, drove a supply truck during WWII then went on to dazzle audiences with her wit despite being told she was too ‘unphotogenic’ to make it
After graduating from Beverly Hills High School, Betty White got her start in showbiz in 1939 when she was asked to perform a song from The Merry Widow on an experimental television show filmed in downtown Los Angeles. ‘I was there when television first started. We grew up together,’ she said
In a business where longevity is rare, Betty White broke the mold.
With her dimpled smile and wicked sense of humor, she lit up television screens and delighted audiences in hundreds of sitcoms, commercials and films throughout her eight-decade-long career in Hollywood.
Her roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls turned her into a household fixture; while her appearance on SNL at the age of 88 cemented her designation as a ‘national treasure.’
She holds the Guinness Record for ‘Longest TV Career for an Entertainer;’ her 80-year devotion to showbiz also earned her eight Emmy Awards, 21 nominations and legions of fans who will always remember her quick wit and top drawer comedic timing.
The icon of American television passed away in her home on Friday morning, at the age of 99. She was just three weeks away from her milestone centennial birthday.
She leaves behind a massive legacy as a comedienne, actress, author, animal rights activist and one of the first female pioneers in television.
A comic till the end, she credited ‘vodka and hot dogs’ for her longevity and added that trips up and down the stairs of her two-story house kept her in shape.
Most importantly, she said: ‘It’s your outlook on life that counts. If you take yourself lightly and don’t take yourself too seriously, pretty soon you can find the humor in our everyday lives.’
Betty White on her wedding day to her first husband, Dick Barker in 1945. White met Barker, an Army pilot while working as truck driver delivering supplies in the American Women’s Voluntary Services during WWII. She said their relationship was ‘terribly romantic’ at first, but fell apart when they moved into his parent’s Ohio chicken farm. ‘I couldn’t hack it, so I split and came back to California,’ she said. Their marriage only lasted six months
White’s first big break happened in 1949 when the veteran disc jockey, Al Jarvis asked her to be his ‘girl Friday’ on a new variety show, Hollywood on Television. White and Jarvis would riff off each other, interview celebrity guests, crack a few jokes and perform sketch comedy acts for 5.5 hours a day on live television. It taught White how to improv and think on her feet. Commercials in the early days of television were also live, which meant White filmed as many as 58 in one day. ‘There was no script, no anything, it was like going to television college’
Born in Illinois, she moved to Los Angeles as a child.
When she graduated high school in 1939, television was still a new frontier that had begun in New York but not yet started in California. Three months later, she was asked to do an experimental television show in downtown Los Angeles where she performed a waltz from The Merry Widow on the fifth floor of the Packard Automobile building. ‘And it was broadcast all the way to the bottom floor. My parents had to stand in front of a tiny little monitor on the first floor to see me! But it was the beginning of television in Los Angeles.’
White made her rounds at movie studios but was told that she was too ‘unphotogenic’ for the silver screen. Alternatively, she picked up odd jobs in modeling and radio until World War II broke out when temporarily shelved her showbiz career to join the American Women’s Voluntary Services.
White drove a PX truck carrying toothpaste, soap, candy and supplies to the camps in the Hollywood Hills and spent her nights at the raucous send-off dances organized for soldiers being shipped overseas. ‘It was a strange time and out of balance with everything,’ she recalled to Cleveland Magazine in 2010. ‘Which I’m sure the young people are going through now. We’ll never learn. We’ll never learn.’
It was during this time that White met her first husband, an Army pilot named Dick Barker. It was ‘terribly romantic,’ she recalled. They were engaged for most of the war and got hitched in 1945, but their marriage would only last a few months. ‘I married my first because we wanted to sleep together. It lasted six months, and we were in bed for six months.’
The newlyweds moved into Barker’s chicken farm with his parents, in small-town Ohio. ‘They would send me out to kill a chicken to bring it in for dinner. I said, ‘No way!’ That was a real trauma because I’m such an animal nut. I couldn’t hack it, so I split and came back to California.’
Betty White was dead set on remaining ‘militantly single’ after her divorce to second husband Lane Allen in 1949. She met her third husband, television host Allen Ludden (above) during an appearance on his game show, Password in 1961. She spent an entire year rebuffing his proposals but eventually relented in 1963. White said Ludden as ‘the love of her life’ and they were married for 18 years until his death from stomach cancer in 1981
White poses in the KLAC Channel 13 studio for her live variety show, Hollywood on Television in 1952. The marathon program required That same year, she won an Emmy Award for her role in the sitcom, Life With Elizabeth which she was filming simultaneously
Lucille Ball and Betty White met in 1957 when White was filming Date With the Angels at Desilu Studios. Though Lucy was 11-years older, the two women forged a connection that turned into a 30-year friendship. Both women had a lot in common: they each got their start in radio and started their own production companies which was a groundbreaking move for women in 1950s Hollywood. They supported each other through various marriages and deaths, White said: ‘Lucy was convinced the sure cure for anything was backgammon. She made me laugh in spite of myself’
After the war was over, White returned to radio work, mostly reading commercials, playing bit parts and sometimes as a ‘noisemaker’ in the crowd. Eventually she landed her own half-hour radio spot called The Betty White Show where she was paid $5 per week.
She remarried in 1947 to a Hollywood agent named Lane Allen. ‘We had a couple of very good years,’ she told Newsweek in 2017. ‘But he wanted me to stop working. He didn’t want me to be in show business.’ Allen wanted his new wife to have children and become a homemaker. ‘Barbara Walters once asked me if I ever had desired to have a child. The answer is, I never did think about it,’ wrote White in her 2011 book, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t).
‘I knew that I wasn’t gonna be content to just stay home. I knew that a career was very much in my future, so I decided not to have children,’ she said in her Lifetime Intimate Portrait.
‘When you have a calling you have to follow it, so I made the choice, blew the marriage, and I’ve never regretted it.’
It was 1949 and White’s professional efforts paid off when she grabbed the attention of veteran disc jockey, Al Jarvis who asked her to co-host his new daily live television show, Hollywood on Television. ‘When Al called, I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll get another $5! Instead, Al offered me $50 a week!”
It was still the nascent days of television, and the small-screen had yet to define its role and purpose in entertainment.’I was there when television first started. We grew up together,’ explained White. That allowed her and Jarvis creative freedom beta-test and try whatever they wanted to fill the 5.5 hours of free airtime, six days a week.
White and Jarvis would riff off each other, interview celebrity guests, crack a few jokes and perform sketch comedy acts. The marathon show taught White how to improv and think on her feet. Commercials in the early days of television were also live, which meant White filmed as many as 58 in one day. ‘There was no script, no anything, it was like going to television college,’ said White in her 2018 PBS special.
Allen Ludden, 45, and Betty White, 41, embrace following their 1963 wedding at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Though White never had children of her own, she became a stepmother to Ludden’s three teenage children from his first marriage. She never remarried after Ludden’s death in 1981, telling Anderson Cooper in 2011: ‘I had the love of my life. If you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?’
Betty White, an outspoken animal rights activist poses with her dog in 1972. She often said that she preferred animals over human company.’Can you blame me? Animals don’t lie. Animals don’t criticize. If animals have moody days, they handle them better than humans do’
White won her first Emmy in 1952 for her role in Life With Elizabeth. The sitcom was centered around a married couple that fell into various arguments and predicaments. It was co-produced, co-owned and starred 28-year-old Betty White who was still living with her parents at the time. The show was a massive success and nationally syndicated to 102 channels across the county which led to White being dubbed as ‘America’s sweetheart’
Hollywood on Television was wildly successful and White was nominated for her first Emmy Award in 1951 but lost to Gertrude Berg. She inherited the show when Jarvis left in 1952; that same year she co-founded Bandy Productions (named after her beloved Pekingese) with writer George Tibbles and producer Don Fedderson.
The trio worked on expanding new shows using existing characters from comedy sketches performed on Hollywood on Television. One of these offshoots became Life With Elizabeth, a sitcom about a married couple that inevitably fell into various arguments and predicaments. White won her first Emmy for the role as Elizabeth in 1952. Author Michael McWilliams wrote: ‘If Lucille Ball was the Queen of television, then its princess is Betty White.’
The sitcom was unusual for 1950s standards (and even for today) in that it was co-produced, co-owned and starred a 28-year-old woman who still lived with her parents. The show was nationally syndicated to 102 channels across the county and White was dubbed, ‘America’s sweetheart.’
‘I was thrilled to be one of the very first female producers. That was so before the women’s movement, that I don’t think we even thought of it,’ she explained to PBS. ‘I never even thought of being a different gender, you just did whatever the job was and whatever job you could get.’
Despite many initial setbacks, Betty White was a plucky ‘Television and I discovered each other together. It was a very short window to get in, timing-wise. I was blessed with that timing, because we were inventing as we went along in those first days of television. And I joined the parade,’ she said.
NBC offered her a contract to produce another sitcom in 1954, it was a television reincarnation of her radio variety spot, The Betty White Show. For a while, the comedienne simultaneously starred in two nationally broadcast sitcoms, which required her to wake up at 4:30am to complete her exhausting work schedule, but now White was making $750 per week.
Her meteoric success came crashing down when The Betty White Show was cancelled after only 11 months due to bad ratings. She experienced another professional set back with her second sitcom (Date With the Angels) was also cancelled after six months in 1957.
Out of work, White turned her attention to making appearances on network game shows like To Tell the Truth, Whats My Line? and Password. It was on the latter, that she eventually met the love of her life, Allen Ludden.
After two failed marriages, White was dead set on remaining, ‘militantly single.’ The dapper game show host spent an entire year being rebuffed until his incessant marriage proposals finally prevailed in 1963. ‘Finally, Easter came along. He sent me a white stuffed bunny with diamond earrings clipped to its ears and a card that said, ‘Please Say Yes?’ So when I answered the phone that night, I didn’t say hello, I just said, ‘Yes.” The couple spent 18 blissful years together until Ludden died of cancer in 1981.
‘He was enthusiastic about everything. He was intellectually wonderful. He was silly. He was romantic. He knew how to court a lady,’ recalled White. She later said that her greatest regret in life was ‘wasting an entire year’ that they ‘could have had together.’
White became a stepmother to Ludden’s three teenage children: David, Martha and Sarah. Despite reports that her relationship with Martha was originally strained, she said they got along great. ‘So great, they called me ‘Dragon Lady,’ lovingly,’ she wrote in her autobiography. ‘Even after all these years, we love each other dearly, and I am most proud of the children this career girl inherited. A major blessing—yet again.’
All three stepchildren survive White in death and chose private lives away from the glare of Hollywood. She never remarried after Ludden’s devastating death, explaining to Anderson Cooper in 2011: ‘I had the love of my life. If you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?’
White (right) was asked to guest star as Sue Ann Nivens on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. The character was written as an ‘icky-sweet Betty White type’ with a secret life as a promiscuous man-eater. Producers were hesitant to actually cast White on account of her close relationship with Moore. They worried it would create bad blood between the best friends if the part didn’t work out. Nonetheless, she was cast for the role and became an instant sensation
‘Sue Ann Nivens really did change my career,’ she said. ‘That sickly sweet image I’d grown up with expanded to another context. She was the Happy Homemaker who could fix anything, cook anything, clean anything, and sleep with anyone who would stand still’
In 1985, at the age of 63, Betty White (right) scored her second signature role and the biggest hit of her career as the naive and tenderhearted ‘Rose Nylund’ on The Golden Girls. Starring alongside, Rue McClanahan (left), Estelle Getty (center left) and Bea Arthur (center right). The heartwarming show followed four women over the age of 50, who lived together and navigated the stresses of modern life
In 1973, White reentered primetime television as Sue Ann Nivens, ‘the neighborhood nymphomaniac’ on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. The character was written as an ‘icky-sweet Betty White type’ but producers were hesitant to actually cast White on account of her close relationship with Moore. They worried it would create bad blood between the best friends if the part didn’t work out. Nonetheless, she was cast for the role and became an instant sensation.
‘Sue Ann Nivens really did change my career,’ she said. ‘That sickly sweet image I’d grown up with expanded to another context. She was the Happy Homemaker who could fix anything, cook anything, clean anything, and sleep with anyone who would stand still.’ The role re-branded White as an actress and also highlighted her skill as comedian that could satirize her saccharine, innocent persona.
When an interviewer asked Allen Ludden how the promiscuous, man-eating Sue Ann Niven’s character compared to the real Betty White, he joked: ‘They’re really the same character—except Betty can’t cook.’
Betty White is pictured in May 2001
Following the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977, White was offered her own sitcom on CBS; her fourth entitled, The Betty White Show. It was again cancelled after one season and she acknowledged her disappointment: ‘…there’s a sadness in me I can’t ignore – and a lot of embarrassment too. You feel you promised so much and delivered so little.’
Meanwhile, Allen Ludden was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1979. The couple chose to keep his illness a secret. ‘When you know someone is ill, that death is present, it can create an awkwardness,’ she said. White kept busy by working and appearing as guest-star roles in various films and television shows and the couple continued to build their dream house in Carmel, California. Ludden died just three days shy of their 18th wedding anniversary in June, 1981. ‘I think the toughest thing about loss, and the hardest challenge, is the isolation you feel in its aftermath,’ she said. ‘My animals and work got me through it.’
In 1985, at the age of 63, Betty White scored her second signature role and the biggest hit of her career as the naive and tenderhearted Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. Starring alongside, Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty, the heartwarming show followed four women over the age of 50, who lived together and navigated the stresses of modern life. The groundbreaking plot was the first to cast exclusively older women and became an instant hit among audiences and critics.
Marvin Kitman wrote: ‘They are the Marx Brothers or Sisters of TV sitcoms today. They can do ‘the look,’ the double-take, the throwaway line. They know how to squeeze the juice out of every line and situation.’
White was originally cast to play Rue McClanahan’s part of ‘Blanche Devereaux’ – the licentious Southern belle with a penchant for male companionship. The outlandish character was very similar to White’s former role as Sue Ann Nivens and in order to avoid type-casting; the director asked the actresses to switch parts in the last minute of the pilot episode. The split-second decision ended up being fortuitous for White, who eventually won an Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a comedy series for her portrayal as Rose Nylund.
White (right) was originally cast to play Rue McClanahan’s part of ‘Blanche Devereaux’- the licentious Southern belle with a penchant for male companionship. The outlandish character was very similar to White’s former role as Sue Ann Nivens and in order to avoid type-casting; the director asked the actresses to switch parts in the last minute of the pilot episode. The split-second decision ended up being fortuitous for White, who eventually won an Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a comedy series for her portrayal as Rose Nylund
Golden Girls was a critical success that garnered 58 Emmy nominations and 11 wins over its seven year run. ‘They are the Marx Brothers or Sisters of TV sitcoms today,’ wrote TV critic Martin Kitman. ‘They can do ‘the look,’ the double-take, the throwaway line. They know how to squeeze the juice out of every line and situation’
Golden Girls ended 1992 after Bea Arthur left the show. Despite their on-air friendship and chemistry, the working relationship between White (left) and Arthur (right) was tumultuous and strained. ‘She was not that fond of me,’ White said to the Village Voice in 2011. ‘She found me a pain in the neck sometimes. It was my positive attitude — and that made Bea mad’
The Golden Girls ran until 1992 after the departure of Bea Arthur ended the show. Despite their on-air friendship and chemistry, the working relationship between White and Arthur was tumultuous and strained. ‘She was not that fond of me,’ White said to the Village Voice in 2011. ‘She found me a pain in the neck sometimes. It was my positive attitude — and that made Bea mad. Sometimes if I was happy, she’d be furious!’
Arthur’s son confirmed the feud in a 2017 interview when he said: ‘My mom unknowingly carried the attitude that it was fun to have somebody to be angry at. It was almost like Betty became her nemesis, someone she could always roll her eyes about at work.’
White, McClanahan, and Getty reprised their roles as Rose, Blanche, and Sophia in a Golden Girls spin-off titled, The Golden Palace, but the show was short-lived and White returned to her usual game-show and guest appearance circuit.
Nonetheless, she had nothing bad to say about her cast-mates. ‘We adored each other,’ she wrote. After Rue McClanahan died in 2010 from a stroke at the age of 76, she told OK! Magazine: ‘It hurts more than I even thought it would, if that’s even possible. She was everything, as far as a friend is concerned.’
‘I always thought I would be the one who would go—particularly with the Golden Girls, because I was the oldest,’ she wrote in her autobiography. ‘But then we lost all of them, and I’m the only one left and I’m still functioning. I think, How did that happen?’
White continued to pick up small parts on various sitcoms throughout the 90s. It wasn’t until 2009 (at the age of 87), when she staged a third big comeback in The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.
One year later, the octogenarian funny-girl stole the show as a tough-talking granny in a Super Bowl Snickers commercial and thus a new generation of fans were born.
Around that same time in January 2010, a campaign called ‘Betty White to Host SNL (Please)’ that was started by a young fan on Facebook was getting a lot of play.
‘The silly part about everything is that I didn’t know I’d been away, and then all of a sudden that Snickers commercial kind of turned a lot of other things on,’ she said to Oprah in 2010. ‘Now I’m busier than I’ve ever been.’
After having declined an invitation to host Saturday Night Live three times in her career, White finally relented.
‘I was so afraid it was so New York and I’m so west coast, I thought I’d be like a fish out of water. Which I probably was, but I was too dumb to know it!’ she joked on The View.
SNL producer and creator, Lorne Michaels brought back a star studded cast for the Betty White special: Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Maya Rudolph, Molly Shannon, and Amy Poehler. Despite their warm welcome, White suffered a serious bout of stage fright which was compounded by SNL’s notoriously grueling week of rehearsals. ‘Normally, I memorize my lines. But with forty-plus sketches to weed out, that was impossible, and I was told we’d be using cue cards (anathema to me). That only added to the panic.’ At one point, she turned to her agent Jeff Witjas with a steely look and said, ‘never again.’
‘I sat back and I thought, ‘Maybe I pushed her, maybe I did’ but then I said ‘No no, shes still going to deliver, shes still going to come through,’ said Witjas to PBS.
In spite of her original misgivings, White’s performance and bawdy joke telling on SNL was a tremendous hit that earned her a seventh Emmy Award for Best Guest Actress in a comedy series.
Betty White performs onstage at the 39th AFI Life Achievement Awards honoring Morgan Freeman in 2011. ‘Perhaps it’s a real character flaw, but, even at this late date, I still get a big kick out of meeting famous people,’ she said in her autobiography. ‘At least I’m admitting it and not trying to play cool’
In 2010, Betty White became the oldest person to host SNL at the age of 88. Though she struggled with stage fright and the grueling work schedule, her misgivings paid off when she won her seventh Emmy Award for Best Guest Actress in a comedy series
Betty White poses with the Life Achievement Award at the 2010 Screen Actors Guild Awards, she also won eight Emmys, and holds the record in the Guinness Book for ‘Longest TV Career for an Entertainer’
At the age of 88, Betty White was in the midst of a third career rally and busier than ever before. She told Oprah: ‘I don’t know where the ‘comeback’ story came from. I’ve been working steadily for the last 70 years!’
The Golden Girl turned Hollywood ‘it girl’ added another feather to her cap when she was asked to do a guest stint on a pilot called Hot in Cleveland starring Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick, and Jane Leeves. She agreed to film the pilot under the proviso it would be ‘one and done.’ Then the TV network ordered ten more episodes, which turned into 20, and suddenly Betty White was a full time cast member.
‘Sixty-three years in this business and I still find it difficult to refuse a job offer. That could be a hangover from the early days when jobs were hard to come by and I always thought each one might be my last,’ she wrote.
Hot in Cleveland was another hit which earned White a Screen Actors Guild Award in 2011 for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series. She credited the show’s success to ‘some of the best writing in the business’ and the instant rapport she felt among her cast mates.
‘I feel so fortunate to be on another show with the rare chemistry and goodwill that I experienced on The Golden Girls. It feels a little bit like lightning striking twice.’
The show lasted six season and finished in 2015. While writing her 2011 autobiography, White wrote: ‘What absolutely boggles my mind is that I find myself in yet another hit series, having a ball with a wonderful cast and crew. One of those in a lifetime is a blessing, two of them is a privilege, but three out of three? I owe Someone, big time.’
In addition to her decorated career in show business, White was an outspoken animal rights activist who tirelessly worked on behalf of the Los Angeles Zoo, the Morris Animal Foundation, the African Wildlife Foundation, and Actors & Others for Animals. Her interest in animal rights and welfare began in the early 1970s while she was both producing and hosting the syndicated series, The Pet Set, which spotlighted celebrities and their pets.
In 2010, at the age of 88, White joined the cast of Hot in Cleveland starring alongside Wendie Malick, Valerie Bertinelli, and Jane Leeves. She agreed to film the pilot under the proviso it would be ‘one and done.’ Then the TV network ordered ten more episodes, which turned into 20, and suddenly Betty White was a full time cast member. ‘Sixty-three years in this business and I still find it difficult to refuse a job offer’
Hot in Cleveland was another hit which earned White a Screen Actors Guild Award in 2011 for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series. She credited the show’s success to ‘some of the best writing in the business’ and the instant rapport she felt among her cast mates. ‘I feel so fortunate to be on another show with the rare chemistry and goodwill that I experienced on The Golden Girls. It feels a little bit like lightning striking twice’
White credited ‘vodka and hot dogs’ for her long and healthy life and added trips up and down the stairs of her two-story house kept her in shape. Most importantly, she said: ‘It’s your outlook on life that counts. If you take yourself lightly and don’t take yourself too seriously, pretty soon you can find the humor in our everyday lives’
‘I’m so fortunate that I not only have a passion for my profession but that that profession allows me to indulge my other passion—for animals—and work for their welfare,’ she said.
Her undying love for animals began as a child when her father (who worked as a lighting executive), built radios during the Great Depression to make extra money. Nobody had money for the radios so he would often trade them for other goods, including dogs. At one point, the Whites owned up to 15 ‘well-loved’ dogs, ‘Now, radios didn’t eat, but the dogs did. So it was not the best business venture,’ she added.
White made no bones about her preference to animals over human company. ‘Can you blame me?’ she said. ‘Animals don’t lie. Animals don’t criticize. If animals have moody days, they handle them better than humans do.’
In addition to real animals, White also had a quirky obsession for stuffed animals – a subject that she risked ‘having a net thrown over me’ for discussing it in her book. Two rooms in her Los Angeles and Carmel homes were devoted to her plush pets. ‘I especially love the exotic ones — there is an anteater, a rhinoceros, a beluga whale, an armadillo, a bear—not a Teddy, a grizzly—the list goes on.’
She explained, ‘When a new member joins the group, I introduce him to the others. The animals have been collected over the years — I don’t actually go out and buy them.’
Toward the end of her life, Betty White became just as famous for her longevity as much as anything else. She credited her long healthy life to ‘vodka and hot dogs,’ a healthy dose of humor and her tenaciously optimistic spirit.
When White’s late husband, Allen Ludden, was asked how close her character Sue Ann Nivens, the home economist/ neighborhood nymphomaniac on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, was to the actual Betty White. He responded that they were ‘the same person — except Betty can’t cook!’
‘I love games,’ said White, who appeared on over 50 televised game shows over the course of her career. ‘Of course, I met my husband on Password, so that one is extra special,’ she told Parade Magazine
‘One thing they don’t tell you about growing old—you don’t feel old, you just feel like yourself. And it’s true. I don’t feel eighty-nine years old. I simply am eighty-nine years old,’ she said in 2011
Betty White accepts the Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series award for Hot In Cleveland in 2011 (left). In her acceptance speech, White said: ‘I’ve had the privilege of knowing many of you and working with some of you- I’ve even had a few of you!’ In response George Clooney took the podium and joked, ‘While I’m here, I’d like to thank Betty White for her discretion’
‘Old age isn’t for sissies,’ she said, but ‘If one is lucky enough to be blessed with good health, growing older shouldn’t be something to complain about. It’s not a surprise, we knew it was coming—make the most of it… if you are still functioning and not in pain, gratitude should be the name of the game.’
White said her enthusiasm for life and passion for work kept her young at heart. ‘I have to keep reminding myself of how old I am, because I don’t feel like I’m that old.’
She added that old age isn’t something she accomplished, but rather, something that snuck up on her. ‘Somewhere along the line there is a breaking point, where you go from not discussing how old you are to bragging about it.’
White’s ability to re-invent herself made her one of the most enduring faces on television; her gracious demeanor, relentless wit and comic timing endeared her to millions over the course of her 80-year-long career in television.
Without ever having taken a single acting lesson, White made her mark on the small screen playing every role imaginable: singer, hostess, comedienne, sitcom co-star, sitcom star (several times over), much in demand game show fixture.
‘Television and I discovered each other together. It was a very short window to get in, timing-wise. I was blessed with that timing, because we were inventing as we went along in those first days of television. And I joined the parade,’ she said.
Her longtime friend, Carl Reiner told PBS: ‘She’s one of the pioneers. A lot of us are here because she was there at the beginning, she set the standard, she set the way for many people to come.’
‘I’m the luckiest broad on two feet,’ she said.
In 2018, White told Parade Magazine that she wanted to be remembered warmly.
‘I hope they remember something funny. I hope they remember a laugh.’
Betty White’s take on life:
On aging: ‘Somewhere along the line there is a breaking point, where you go from not discussing how old you are to bragging about it.’
Graying hair: ‘As for my hair, I have no idea what color it really is, and I never intend to find out. My mother’s hair never went gray, it just went mousy. So when mine started going that way, I just started tinting it and haven’t stopped. And I never will!’
Gaining weight: ‘I weigh myself every morning…It’s easy to take a pound off, you just skip something. But if it goes to three pounds, it becomes more difficult and one of them usually just stays there. Or five pounds—even worse—sometimes those just stay.’
Exercise: ‘I have a two-story house and a bad memory, so all those trips up and down the stairs take care of my exercise.’
Diet: ‘I don’t have a sweet tooth, but I do have a cocktail before dinner. I also love french fries and hot dogs. The famous Pink’s hot dog company in California actually named a hot dog after me, and since I eat mine plain with no condiments, it’s the Betty White ‘Naked’ Dog’
Staying mentally sharp: ‘My obsessive addiction to crossword puzzles I chalk off as mental gymnastics.’
Taking medicine: ‘I’m not a big pill-taker, and almost never have a headache…I started taking vitamin C every morning. I haven’t had a cold in twenty years.’
Going deaf: ‘I can remember accusing my dad of selective hearing—hearing only what he wanted to hear. Shame on me. That was before I learned how isolated one can feel when she misses a key remark and loses track of the conversation but is loath to admit it.’
Losing eyesight: ‘I had my eyes done in 1976 and have let nature take its course ever since.’
On animals: ‘It’s been widely reported that I prefer the company of animals to humans…Can you blame me? Animals don’t lie. Animals don’t criticize. If animals have moody days, they handle them better than humans do.’
On humor: ‘For me, humor is about rhythm. It’s like an ear for music. It’s hard to explain.’
Passion: ‘I think everybody needs a passion. Whether it’s one passion or a hundred, that’s what keeps life interesting…I can’t imagine living any other way.’
On saying ‘no’: ‘I have the backbone of a jellyfish.’
Celebrities: ‘I’ve never gotten used to running across a celebrity. I’m always impressed. I’ve never outgrown it.’
Stage fright: ‘Ballplayers have rituals. They may touch each corner of the plate with the bat to calm themselves down. I have no ritual. I have—butterflies.’
The red carpet: ‘I would rather go to the dentist for a root canal.’
Her role as Sue Ann Nivens: ‘The neighborhood nymphomaniac on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a surprise to everyone (including me)!’
Her culinary skills: ‘I’m not a big cook. I only go in the kitchen to feed my dog.’
Divorce: ‘You really feel like a failure when your marriage doesn’t work. But they did make me appreciate it when the perfect one came along.’
Dating: ‘Well, animal lover that I am, a cougar I am not…Once in a while I meet a man who seems a trifle more interesting than usual. Then reality kicks in and it cracks me up. This guy is probably a much younger man – maybe only eighty – and not about to look my way.’
Older men: ‘I’ve always liked older men. They’re just more attractive to me. Of course, at my age there aren’t that many left!’
Her third husband: ‘I had the love of my life. If you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?’
Grief: ‘There’s no formula. Keep busy with your work and your life. You can’t become a professional mourner. It doesn’t help you or others. Keep the person in your heart all the time. Replay the good times. Be grateful for the years you had.’
Regrets: ‘I have no regrets at all. None. I consider myself to be the luckiest old broad on two feet.’
Having children: ‘Barbara Walters once asked me if I ever had desired to have a child. The answer is, I never did think about it.’