Georgiann Potts

Writer’s Note: How do you “know” Betty White? As Sue Ann Nivens? Rose Nylund? Elka Ostrovsky? Ann Douglas? Catherine Piper? Or as a spunky late-night show guest? Or as the voice of Bitey White, a tiger teething toy in Toy Story 4? Or as an irrepressible game show host or contestant?

I first “met” White in 1973 when I was 24 and at the beginning of my own career. Although the character that White played — Sue Ann Nivens — was, like White herself, well-established in her career, there was still something about her spunk — and that of the entire cast of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — that resonated with me as a young career woman. Within that star-studded ensemble, it was White who most often caused me to laugh out loud.

Some years later I “met” her again. This time she was Rose Nyland on “The Golden Girls”. Once again, even though she was part of an amazing ensemble, it was White who made me laugh the most.

This past New Year’s Eve, several weeks before her 100th birthday, White passed away. Recent reports suggest that she had suffered a slight stroke days before, and that she had died peacefully in her sleep. Condolences poured in when the news broke.

When I began reading the numerous obituaries that were written announcing White’s death and recounting her career, I quickly realized that there was much more to this woman than the two roles I associated with her. Frankly, I had no idea what a pioneer she was for women in television — both onscreen and behind the screen. White was the first woman to produce a sitcom in the U.S. Only Lucille Ball, a close friend of White’s (some reports say that their mothers had been best friends), made a bigger mark on the industry

White was as universally beloved a personality as has ever lived. With very few exceptions, everybody loved her, admired her, and will miss her. I surely will. — GP

Betty White (1922-2021)

Actress, Producer, Animal Rights Advocate

When asked what made Betty White so special, people give surprisingly similar answers. Some say that her “down to earth” quality came through and made her seem both approachable and relatable. Doris Williams said that White “. . . could be the grandma down the street.” Sue Nawas described White as having a “kind, next-door neighbor personality”. Many said that her kindness to people and animals impressed them even more than her outstanding acting career.

What were the secrets to her longevity both in her career and in her life? Most agree that her career success was based on her talent, her optimism, and her determination to work harder than most to achieve goals. She was careful not to allow her public life to become “too political” — a mistake she saw being made by others. Perhaps even more important, she kept her private life just that — private. Even as I’m writing this, there has not been a definitive statement concerning her funeral and final resting place. The only detail known for certain is that she is not buried next to her late husband, Allen Ludden (reporters checked). She was often quoted as saying that she didn’t want “any fuss” when she died, and she did everything she could to make that possible.

As for any secrets concerning her physical longevity, White credited several things. For one, a Grey Goose vodka on the rocks before dinner was a ritual. For another, she explained that she never ate anything green. Mostly, though, she credited her parents’ genes for her remarkable health and energy.

Growing Up Betty

Betty Marion White was born on January 17, 1922, in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb. Her parents (Horace White, an electrical engineer, and Christine Tess Cachikis, a homemaker) moved the family to California when she was a toddler. White remembered her parents having wonderful senses of humor, and that the three of them filled their home with laughter.

White’s father began building crystal radios to supplement family income during the Depression. He often traded them for things that the family needed --- once trading them for enough dogs that he thought he might use to start a business. White remembered at one time the family had nearly two dozen dogs. Clearly, their love of animals and senses of humor impacted White.

White graduated in 1939 from Beverly Hills High School at 17. As a senior, she wrote and starred in the senior play. During the same year, she danced to the “Merry Widow Waltz” with her high school’s student body president on an experimental Los Angeles television channel. Television was in its infancy, so only experimental work was being done during these early days. The technology wasn’t made public for the first time until the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Instead of attending college, White chose to study classical vocal training and acting while continuing to write. White also worked as a model but had to forego that career when WWII broke out. Like many others, she served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services driving a PX truck, making deliveries to soldiers in the gun emplacements in the Santa Monica and Hollywood hills. In 1945, she made her movie debut in Time to Kill, a short film about education programs available for servicemen.

Radio, Live Theater

and TV

As WWII wound down, White worked in theater and radio. She made her formal acting debut in “Dear Ruth” a comedy at the Bliss Hayden Little Theatre. White had bit parts in the 1940’s on “Blondie” and “This Is Your F.B.I.” radio favorites.

White got her own local radio program (“The Betty White Show”) after the war. In 1949 she became half of a two-person televised variety show (“Hollywood on Television”) with Al Jarvis. When Jarvis left in 1952, White became the host. White and two others formed their own production company, Bandy Productions. Their first TV sitcom, “Life With Elizabeth”, ran from 1951 to 1955. It was syndicated, very popular, and won White her first of 8 Emmy awards. While it was airing, White co-produced several other shows. At 28, White co-produced and owned a sitcom while still living with her parents!

Three Time’s A Charm

It took White three tries to find her “forever after” love. She rarely publicly discussed her first and second marriages. Her first marriage was to an Air Corps P-38 pilot and lasted less than a year. When they moved to his home, an Ohio chicken farm, White quickly discovered that she was not cut out for the rural life. In 1947 she married a Hollywood talent agent, but that ended in 1949 when he wanted children and she wanted a career. She often said that she never regretted not having children.

The third marriage, to actor Allen Ludden, was a decided success. They met when she appeared on game shows he was hosting and also in summer stock where they were both performing. They married in 1963, a full year after he first proposed to her. According to reports, Ludden bought White a wedding ring and proposed several more times before she finally accepted. Later White expressed regret over that “lost year”. They were married until he died in 1981. When asked why she never remarried, she said that she had had the best and there was simply no need. She did admit to several “crushes” through her later years, with Robert Redford heading the list.

Sue Ann Nivens, Rose Nylund, and Beyond

It is remarkable for a television actor to get two “once-in-a-lifetime” roles, but White did. When she was cast as Sue Ann in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, she was over 50 years old and had already been in show business for over 3 decades. Lightning struck twice, and several years later she was cast as Rose Nylund in “The Golden Girls”. Both roles suited White perfectly, showcasing her comedic sense and impeccable timing when delivering lines.

White worked steadily through the remainder of her life. She guest-starred on several television series including “Boston Legal” and “The Bold and the Beautiful”. In 2010 she appeared in a hugely popular Snickers commercial for the Super Bowl, and that May she became the oldest person to host “Saturday Night Live”. Also in 2010, she began starring in “Hot in Cleveland” a prime-time sitcom that ran for 6 seasons.

During her career, White amassed an impressive list of awards. She has been called the “First Lady of Television” and the “First Lady of Game Shows”. In many instances, she was the first woman to receive recognition. In 2014 she was listed in the Guinness World Records for the “longest TV career by an entertainer (female)”.

For the Love of Animals

White often said that she hoped to be remembered for her work on behalf of animals — her passion for over 50 years. Animal welfare was foremost in her mind, and she actively supported groups such as the Los Angeles Zoo Commission, the Morris Animal Foundation, African Wildlife Foundation, the American Humane Association, and Actors and Others for Animals with her time and money.

White’s love of animals was clearly nurtured when she was growing up. One of her earliest career dreams was to become a forest ranger, but at that time women were not allowed. In 2010, The USDA Forest Service named White an honorary forest ranger. Interestingly, by then over 1/3 of the Forest Service employees were women.

The following year, Washington State University awarded White an honorary degree and white doctor’s coat at the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association’s centennial gala.

Finally, In Her Own Words

Classic Betty White:

“If one has no sense of humor, one is in trouble.”

“If you live without passion, you can go through life without leaving any footprints.”

“Butterflies are like women — we may look pretty and delicate, but baby, we can fly through a hurricane.”

“I like double entendre because then the people who get it enjoy it, and the people who don’t get it don’t know about it.

“I just don’t know how I would have lived without animals around me. I’m fascinated by them - both domestic pets and the wild community. They just are the most interesting things in the world to me, and it’s made such a difference in my lifetime.”

“Get at least eight hours of beauty sleep. Nine if you’re ugly.”

Rest in peace, Betty White. Your legacy is secure.

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