As the golden girl of American comedy, Betty White has charmed audiences for nearly seven decades. She began her career on the Los Angeles stage before moving on to radio and locally produced television. In 1952, White cofounded Bandy Productions to create and produce her own self-starring series, which made her, along with Gertrude Berg, one of only two women to have creative control both in front of and behind the camera during the early days of the medium. Her first production was the sitcom Life with Elizabeth, for which she earned the first of her six Emmy Awards. She went on to create, produce, and headline other series as well, including multiple incarnations of The Betty White Show, while also appearing as a frequent and beloved guest contestant on scores of game shows, most especially Password, whose host, Allen Ludden, she married in 1963. In the seventies, White found renewed fame as the sassy Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In the eighties, she further solidified her legacy as the sweet, but slow, Rose on The Golden Girls, a role that earned her an Emmy nomination every year the show was on the air. She has continued to grace prime time with her talents with guest roles on The John Larroquette Show, The Practice, and Boston Legal.
The only child of Horace, an electrical engineer, and Tess, a housewife, Betty Marion White was born in 1922 in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. At the age of two, the family relocated to Los Angeles, where Betty spent her youth writing and appearing in a number of plays. For a time she considered becoming a playwright, but eventually decided to pursue acting instead. Following her graduation from Beverly Hills High School, White made her professional debut at the Bliss Hayden Little Theatre in Beverly Hills, where she essayed leading roles in a number of productions while also performing in popular radio shows like Blondie, This Is Your FBI, and The Great Gildersleeve. In the late forties, she readily found work in the burgeoning medium of television, and made frequent appearances on such locally produced shows as Tom, Dick, and Harry, Dick Haynes Joke Shop, Grab Your Phone, and Al Jarvis’ Hollywood on Television. After several years as Jarvis’s on-air sidekick, which carried with it the moniker “Phone Girl,” White succeeded him as host of the show in the early fifties.
In 1952 she formed Bandy Productions and created her first sitcom. Originating from KLAC-TV in Los Angeles, Life with Elizabeth was a light-hearted comedy that revolved around the domestic misadventures of a young newlywed couple played by White and Del Moore. “We didn’t worry about relevance in those days,” White explained to Washington Post critic Tom Shales in a 1977 interview. “We were trying to be funny. We were more two-dimensional cartoon characters than three-dimensional real people.” Nonetheless, with her curly blonde hair, dimpled smile, and cheery demeanor, White embodied the ideal fifties housewife—and, while TV Guide pondered whether she was “America’s New Sweetheart?,” a Tele-Views poll found that she was the “female personality viewers would most like to invite into their homes.” Beginning in 1953, Guild Films began to syndicate the program nationally, and it continued to air in markets around the country well after production ceased in 1955.
While still involved with Life With Elizabeth, White produced and headlined her own daytime show, The Betty White Show, which debuted in February 1954, and although lasting less than a year, earned White an Emmy nomination. In 1957 she cocreated the prime-time sitcom A Date with the Angels, in which she and Bill Williams portrayed a couple fumbling through their first year of marriage. Cancelled mid-season, it was reformatted in a comedy-variety showcase and retitled as The Betty White Show—although that venture proved to be short-lived, as well. Frustrated with her experience in series television, White spent the next several years on the celebrity guest circuit, particularly the game show Password, whose host, Allen Ludden, she married in 1963. She also appeared regularly on The Jack Paar Show, where her wittily ribald comments made her an audience favorite, and turned up frequently as a panelist on such daytime puzzlers as To Tell the Truth, I’ve Got a Secret, Make the Connection, The Match Game, Win, Lose, or Draw, and Ludden’s edition of Liar’s Club.
White and Ludden were good friends with Mary Tyler Moore and her producer/husband Grant Tinker, the powerhouse couple behind the MTM Enterprises hit The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Once, during a script meeting, line producer Ed Weinberger proposed adding a new character—a “Betty White type”—to the cast. After unsuccessfully auditioning several actresses, MTM decided to offer the real Betty White the part. White joined The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the fall of 1973 as Sue Ann Nivens, the delightfully catty, man-hungry “Happy Homemaker” on WJM-TV, the fictional station around which the show revolved. After years as America’s Sweetheart, White relished playing a character as predatory and calculating as Sue Ann. “So many people [knew] me as that nice lady,” she told TV Guide. “It was great fun for them to see that nice ladies sometimes have claws. For me, it was like being born again.” By the time the show went off the air in 1977, White had netted back-to-back Best Supporting Actress Emmys.
Given such success, it was no surprise that MTM offered White a series of her own. Entitled, once again, The Betty White Show, the intriguing, far-ahead-of-its-time premise featured White playing the second-rate star of a fictional television series called Undercover Woman (loosely modeled on Angie Dickinson’s Police Woman), and was as much a vehicle for White’s comedic talent and likable persona as a biting satire about the state of television at the time. Although bowing to mostly favorable reviews in the fall of 1977, the show faced formidable competition—the NBC Monday Night Movie and ABC’s Monday Night Football—and had little chance to develop a following before being abruptly canceled in January 1978. “There is sadness in me I can’t ignore—and a lot of embarrassment, too,” White said at the time. “You feel like you promised so much and delivered so little.” Nonetheless, she remained before the viewing public with frequent appearances on miniseries such as The Best Place to Be (1979) and made-for-television movies like With This Ring (1978), Before and After (1979), and The Gossip Columnist (1980). She also held a recurring role on the Vicki Lawrence sitcom Mama’s Family (1983–85) and picked up her fourth Emmy in 1983 for hosting the daytime game show Just Men!.
White solidified her television legacy in 1985 when she accepted a part in The Golden Girls, an ensemble comedy about four single women of a certain age who shared a house in Miami, traded sassy one-liners, and ate as much cheesecake as they pleased. As the naïve and sweet Rose, who managed to misunderstand nearly everything said in her presence, White typically delivered hilariously long-winded parables about life back in her hometown of St. Olaf, Minnesota, that both bemused and irritated her housemates Dorothy (Beatrice Arthur), a no-nonsense divorcee; Blanche (Rue McClanahan), a well-preserved Southern belle with a voracious appetite for menfolk; and Sophia (Estelle Getty), Dorothy’s wacky octogenarian mother. Created by Susan Harris, the auteur behind Soap, and executive produced by Tony Thomas and Paul Junger Witt, The Golden Girls won ten Emmy Awards, including a statuette for White, and remained a ratings blockbuster for most of its run. White would go to reprise the character on three other series: Empty Nest (1989, 1992), Nurses (1991), and The Golden Palace (1992–93).
In 1991, White costarred with her old friend Leslie Nielsen, with whom she had often appeared on Password, in the NBC telemovie Chance of a Lifetime, a romantic drama that marked a point of departure for White. “NBC asked me, ‘Is there anything you haven’t done that you’d like to do?’ I said, ‘I’ve never done a love story.’ So they decided to write me one. I had script approval,” she recalled. ‘It was delightful, just great, so I thought, this is going to be fun.” Since then, White has continued to flourish in recurring roles on some of television’s most popular shows, costarring with Bob Newhart on Bob (1993); appearing alongside Marie Osmond in Maybe This Time (1995); winning an Emmy for The John Larroquette Show (1996), and earning Emmy nominations for Suddenly Susan (1997), Yes, Dear (2003), and The Practice (2004). The latter role, in which she played calculating secretary Catherine Piper, led to a recurring part on another David E. Kelly series, Boston Legal (2005– ), for which she has received widespread acclaim.
White’s numerous accolades include three American Comedy Awards (along with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990) and two Viewers for Quality Television Awards. She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1995 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame alongside the one honoring her late husband. White attributes her longevity in show business to a self-deprecating sense of humor and a refusal to “look back and yearn for an earlier age.” “There’s a lot to be said for maturity," she explained. “You tend to ride things out. You’ve learned patience. You understand things come and go, come and go. Nothing is permanent. If the sky should fall, so what? Something else always comes along.” Now entering her seventh decade on television, Betty White can be rest assured that something else will always come along.