Betty White's Relevance and Appeal Spanned 7 Decades

Emmy-winning star of ' the Golden Girls' and 'the Mary Tyler Moore Show' was 99
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 31, 2021 3:20 PM CST
Betty White's Roles Evolved With Television
Cast members of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," pose with their Emmys in Los Angeles in 1976. From left are Ed Asner, Betty White, Mary Tyler Moore, and Ted Knight.   (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, file)

Betty White, the comedic actress whose award-winning TV career began before there were broadcasts, has died. She was 99 and died at her Brentwood, California, home overnight. "Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever," Jeff Witjas, her agent and friend, said Friday, People reports. Her appeal to viewers remained strong over seven decades on such shows as the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the Golden Girls, and, recently, Hot in Cleveland. She developed a reputation as a character offscreen, as well, as recently as this week engaging actor Ryan Reynolds in a back-and-forth about whether she was his "ex-girlfriend," per CNN.

Her TV debut was in 1939, two months after she graduated from Beverly Hills High School, when White sang "The Merry Widow" on an experimental local transmission. As television took off, White went with it. For years, White was omnipresent in domestic sitcoms, soap operas, and made-for-television movies, as well as game shows and talk shows, per the Washington Post. She landed a starring role in Life With Elizabeth, a 1950s suburban character who grated on her. The plots were mostly about "Elizabeth's biscuits not turning out," she later said. "We were more two-dimensional cartoon characters than three-dimensional real people."

White put such characters to rest two decades later, when she played host Sue Ann Nivens on the Mary Tyler Moore Show—the sweet, wholesome "Happy Homemaker" on her WJM show and randy, biting careerist off camera. The script had called for "an icky-sweet Betty White type," per Page Six; White called her character the "neighborhood nymphomaniac." After years of showing viewers "that nice lady," she said in 1974, "it was great fun for them to see that nice ladies sometimes have claws. For me, it was like being born again." In the '80s, White was a hit as the airy, kind Rose Nyland on the Golden Girls. A Super Bowl commercial in 2010 sparked a campaign to have her host Saturday Night Live, a gig that became a triumph for her at age 88.

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An animal advocate, White was involved with the Los Angeles Zoo, American Humane Association and the Fund for Animals, per the New York Times. She once turned down a movie part because of a scene in which Jack Nicholson dropped a dog down a laundry chute, per the AP. White was married three times, the final time to Allen Ludden, from 1963 until he died in 1981. She won five Primetime Emmy Awards, one daytime Emmy and a daytime lifetime achievement Emmy, and one regional award. When she died, White was planning her 100th birthday celebration Jan. 17. "Being remembered for Rose and Sue Ann and the others would be wonderful," White once told the Chicago Sun-Times, "but I also want to be remembered as a lady who helped the animals." (More obituary stories.)

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