Betty Marion White Ludden (January 17, 1922 – December 31, 2021) was an American actress and comedian. A pioneer of early television, with a career spanning over nine decades, White was noted for her vast work in the entertainment industry. She was among the first women to exert control in front of and behind the camera, and the first woman to produce a sitcom (Life with Elizabeth), which contributed to her being named honorary Mayor of Hollywood in 1955. Her most notable roles include Sue Ann Nivens on the CBS sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973–1977), Rose Nylund on the NBC sitcom The Golden Girls (1985–1992), and Elka Ostrovsky on the TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland (2010–2015).
White was eight years old when she made her radio programming debut in 1930. Several years later in young adulthood, she began working as a radio personality in Los Angeles under the guidance of disc jockey Al Jarvis. After making the transition to television, White became a staple panelist of American game shows, including Password, Match Game, Tattletales, To Tell the Truth, The Hollywood Squares, and The $25,000 Pyramid; dubbed "the first lady of game shows", White became the first woman to receive the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Game Show Host for the show Just Men! in 1983. She was also known for her appearances on The Bold and the Beautiful, Boston Legal, The Carol Burnett Show, and Saturday Night Live.
With a television career spanning over nine decades, White worked longer in that medium than anyone else in the television industry, earning her a Guinness World Record in 2018. White received eight Emmy Awards in various categories, three American Comedy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a Grammy Award. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was a 1985 Television Hall of Fame inductee.
Betty Marion White was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on January 17, 1922. She stated that Betty was her legal name and not a shortened version of Elizabeth. She was the only child of Christine Tess (née Cachikis; 1899–1985), a homemaker, and Horace Logan White (1899–1963), a lighting company executive. Her paternal grandfather was Danish and her maternal grandfather was Greek, with her other roots being English and Welsh (both of her grandmothers were Canadians).
White's family moved to Alhambra, California, in 1923 when she was a little over a year old, and later to Los Angeles during the Great Depression. To make extra money, her father would build crystal radios and sell them wherever he could. Since it was the height of the Depression, and hardly anyone had a sizable income, he would trade the radios in exchange for other goods, including dogs on some occasions.
White attended the Beverly Hills Unified School District in Beverly Hills, and Beverly Hills High School, graduating in 1939. Her interest in wildlife was sparked by family vacations to the Sierra Nevada. She initially aspired to a career as a forest ranger but was unable to accomplish this because women were not allowed to serve as rangers at that time. Instead, White pursued an interest in writing. She wrote and played the lead in a graduation play at Horace Mann School, and discovered her interest in performing. Inspired by her idols Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, she decided to pursue a career as an actress.
1930s and 1940s
White's earliest work in entertainment came in 1930 when she was eight years old and appeared on an episode of a radio program called Empire Builders which was the first broadcast on December 22 that year.
White began her television career in 1939, three months after her high school graduation, when she and a classmate sang songs from The Merry Widow on an experimental television show. White found work modeling, and her first professional acting job was at the Bliss Hayden Little Theatre. When World War II broke out, she put her career on hold and volunteered for the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her assignment included the transportation of military supplies through California. She also participated in events for troops before they were deployed overseas.
After the war, White made rounds to movie studios looking for work, but was always turned down because she was "not photogenic". So then she started to look for radio jobs where being photogenic did not matter. Her first radio jobs included reading commercials and playing bit parts and sometimes even doing crowd noises. She made about five dollars a show. She would do just about anything, like singing on a show for no pay or making an appearance on the local game show. She appeared on shows such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This Is Your FBI. She was then offered her own radio show, called The Betty White Show. In 1949, she began appearing as co-host with Al Jarvis on his daily live television variety show Hollywood on Television, originally called Al Jarvis' Make-Believe Ballroom on KFWB and on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles.
White began hosting the show by herself in 1952 after Jarvis's departure, spanning five and a half hours of live ad-lib television six days per week, over a continuous four-year span. In all of her various variety series over the years, White would sing at least a couple of songs during each broadcast. In 1951, she was nominated for her first Emmy Award as "Best Actress" on television, competing with such legendary stars as Judith Anderson, Helen Hayes, and Imogene Coca, but the award went to Gertrude Berg. This was the first award in the new Emmy category designated for women on television.
White on The Betty White Show in 1954
In 1952, the same year that she began hosting Hollywood on Television, White co-founded Bandy Productions with writer George Tibbles and Don Fedderson, a producer. The trio worked to create new shows using existing characters from sketches shown on Hollywood on Television. White, Fedderson, and Tibbles created the television comedy Life with Elizabeth, with White portraying the title character. The show was originally a live production on KCOP-TV in 1951 and won White a Los Angeles Emmy Award in 1952.
Life with Elizabeth was nationally syndicated from 1952 to 1955, allowing White to become one of the few women in television with full creative control in front of and behind the camera. The show was unusual for a sitcom in the 1950s because it was co-produced and owned by a twenty-eight-year-old woman who still lived with her parents. White said they did not worry about relevance in those days, and that usually the incidents were based on real-life situations that happened to her, the actor who played Alvin, and the writer.
White also performed in television advertisement seen on live television in Los Angeles, including a rendition of the "Dr. Ross Dog Food" advertisement at KTLA during the 1950s. She guest-starred on The Millionaire in the episode "The Virginia Lennart Story", as the owner of a small-town diner that received an anonymous gift of $1,000,000, in 1956.
In 1954, White hosted and produced her own daily talk/variety show, The Betty White Show, on NBC (her second show to feature that title). Like her sitcom, she had creative control over the series and was able to hire a female director.[ The show faced criticism for the inclusion of Arthur Duncan, an African-American performer, as a regular cast member. The criticism followed when NBC expanded the show nationally. Local Southern stations threatened to boycott unless Duncan was removed from the series. In response, White said "I'm sorry. Live with it," and gave Duncan more airtime. Initially a ratings success, the show repeatedly changed time slots and suffered lower viewership. By the end of the year, NBC quietly cancelled the series.
Following the end of Life with Elizabeth, she appeared as Vicki Angel on the ABC sitcom Date with the Angels from 1957 to 1958. As originally intended, the show, loosely based on the Elmer Rice play Dream Girl, would focus on Vicki's daydreaming tendencies. However, the sponsor was not pleased with the fantasy elements and was pressured to have them eliminated. "I can honestly say that was the only time I have ever wanted to get out of a show," White later said. The sitcom was a critical and ratings disaster, but ABC wouldn't allow White out of her contractual agreement and required her to fill the remaining thirteen weeks in their deal. Instead of a retooled version of the sitcom, White rebooted her old talk/variety show, The Betty White Show, which aired until her contract was fulfilled."
In July 1959, White made her professional stage debut in a week-long production of the play, "Third Best Sport", at the Ephrata Legion Star Playhouse in Ephrata, Pennsylvania.
By the 1960s, White was a staple of network game shows and talk shows: including both Jack Paar and later Johnny Carson’s era of The Tonight Show. She made many appearances on the hit Password show as a celebrity guest from 1961 through 1975. She married the show's host, Allen Ludden, in 1963. She subsequently appeared on the show's three updated versions, Password Plus, Super Password, and Million Dollar Password having been on versions of the game with five different hosts (Allen Ludden, Bill Cullen, Tom Kennedy, Bert Convy, and Regis Philbin). White made frequent game show appearances on What's My Line? (starting in 1955), To Tell the Truth (in 1961, 1990, and 2015), I've Got a Secret (in 1972–73), Match Game (1973–1982), and Pyramid (starting in 1982). Both Password and Pyramid were created by White's friend Bob Stewart.
She made her feature film debut as Kansas Senator Elizabeth Ames Adams in the 1962 drama Advise & Consent. Although her performance was well-received, it would be her only big-screen appearance for decades.
NBC offered her an anchor job on their flagship breakfast television show Today. She turned the offer down because she didn't want to move to New York (where Today is produced) permanently. The job eventually went to Barbara Walters. Through the 1950s and 1960s, White began a nineteen-year run as hostess and commentator on the annual Rose Parade broadcast on NBC (co-hosting with Roy Neal and later Lorne Greene), and appeared on a number of late-night talk shows, including Jack Paar's The Tonight Show, and other daytime game shows.
White as Sue Ann Nivens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show
In 1973, White made several appearances in the fourth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as the "man-hungry" Sue Ann Nivens. The role garnered White her second and third Emmy Awards. Although considering the role a highlight of her career, she has described the character's image as "icky sweet", feeling she was the very definition of feminine passivity, owing to the fact she always satirized her own persona onscreen in just such a way.
A running gag was how Sue Anne's aggressive, cynical personality was the complete opposite of her relentlessly perky TV persona on the fictional WJM-TV show The Happy Homemaker. "We need somebody who can play sickeningly sweet, like Betty White," Moore herself suggested at a production meeting, which resulted in casting White herself. White won two Emmy Awards back-to-back for her role in the hugely popular series.
In 1975, NBC replaced her as commentator hostess of the Tournament of Roses Parade, feeling that she identified too heavily with rival network CBS' The Mary Tyler Moore Show. White admitted to People that it was difficult "watching someone else do my parade", although she would soon start a ten-year run as hostess of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for CBS.
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 (the first a quarter-century earlier). She co-starred with John Hillerman and former Mary Tyler Moore co-star Georgia Engel, but it was canceled in 1978, after only one season.
White appeared several times on The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson appearing in many sketches and began guest-starring in a number of television movies and television miniseries, including With This Ring, The Best Place to Be, Before and After, and The Gossip Columnist.
The Golden Girls ended in 1992 after Arthur announced her decision to depart the series. White, McClanahan, and Getty reprised their roles Rose, Blanche, and Sophia in the spin-off The Golden Palace. The series was short-lived, lasting only one season. In addition, White reprised her Rose Nylund character in guest appearances on the NBC shows Empty Nest and Nurses, both set in Miami.
After The Golden Palace ended, White guest-starred on a number of television programs including Suddenly Susan, The Practice, and Yes, Dear where she received Emmy nominations for her individual appearances. She won an Emmy in 1996 for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, appearing as herself on an episode of The John Larroquette Show. In that episode, titled "Here We Go Again", a parody on Sunset Boulevard, a diva-like White convinces Larroquette to help write her memoir. At one point Golden Girls co-stars McClanahan and Getty appear as themselves. Larroquette is forced to dress in drag as Bea Arthur when all four appear in public as the "original" cast members. White comically envisions her Rose as the central character with the others as mere supporting players.
In December 2006, White joined the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful in the role of Ann Douglas (where she would make 22 appearances), the long-lost mother of the show's matriarch, Stephanie Forrester, played by Susan Flannery. She also began a recurring role in ABC's Boston Legal from 2005 to 2008 as the calculating, blackmailing gossip-monger Catherine Piper, a role she originally played as a guest star on The Practice in 2004.
White appeared several times on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson appearing in many sketches and returned to Password in its latest incarnation, Million Dollar Password, on June 12, 2008, (episode #3), participating in the Million Dollar challenge at the end of the show. On May 19, 2008, she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, taking part in the host's Mary Tyler Moore Show reunion special alongside every surviving cast member of the series. Beginning in 2007, White was featured in television commercials for PetMed Express, highlighting her interest in animal welfare.
In 2009, White starred in the romantic comedy The Proposal alongside Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. The film was a box-office and critically acclaimed success.
Also in 2009, the candy company Mars, Incorporated launched a global campaign for their Snickers bar; the campaign's slogan was: "You're not you when you're hungry". White appeared, alongside Abe Vigoda, in the company's advertisement for the candy during the 2010 Super Bowl XLIV. The advertisement became very popular and won the top spot on the Super Bowl Ad Meter.
Following the success of the Snickers advertisement, a grassroots campaign on Facebook called "Betty White to Host SNL (Please)" began in January 2010. The group was approaching 500,000 members when NBC confirmed on March 11, 2010, that White would in fact host Saturday Night Live on May 8. The appearance made her, at age 88, the oldest person to host the show, beating Miskel Spillman, the winner of SNL's "Anybody Can Host" contest, who was 80 when she hosted in 1977. In her opening monologue, White thanked Facebook and joked that she "didn't know what Facebook was, and now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time." The appearance earned her a 2010 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, her seventh Emmy win overall.
In June 2010, White took on the role of Elka Ostrovsky the house caretaker on TV Land's original sitcom Hot in Cleveland along with Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendie Malick. Hot in Cleveland was TV Land's first attempt at a first-run scripted comedy (the channel has rerun other sitcoms since its debut). White was only meant to appear in the pilot of the show but was asked to stay on for the entire series. In 2011, she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Elka but lost to Julie Bowen for Modern Family. The series ran for six seasons, a total of 128 episodes, with the hour-long final episode airing on June 3, 2015.
White also starred in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of The Lost Valentine on January 30, 2011 (this presentation garnered the highest rating for a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation in the previous four years and according to the Nielsen Media Research TV rating service won first place in the prime time slot for that date.) and from 2012 to 2014, White hosted and executive produced Betty White's Off Their Rockers, in which senior citizens play practical jokes on the younger generation. For this show, she received three Emmy nominations.
A Betty White calendar for 2011 was published in late 2010. The calendar features photos from White's career and with various animals. She also launched her own clothing line on July 22, 2010, which features shirts with her face on them. All proceeds go to various animal charities she supports.
White's success continued in 2012 with her first Grammy Award for a spoken word recording for her bestseller If You Ask Me. She also won the UCLA Jack Benny Award for Comedy, recognizing her significant contribution to comedy in television, and was roasted at the New York Friars Club.
A television special, Betty White's 90th Birthday Party, aired on NBC a day before her birthday on January 16, 2012. The show featured appearances of many stars with whom White has worked over the years, as well as a message from sitting president Barack Obama. In January 2013, NBC once again celebrated Betty White's birthday with a TV special featuring celebrity friends, including former president Bill Clinton; the special aired on February 5.
On August 18, 2018, White's career was celebrated in a PBS documentary called Betty White: First Lady of Television. The documentary was filmed over a period of ten years and featured archived footage and interviews from colleagues and friends.
In 2019, White joined the voice cast of Pixar's Toy Story 4. She provided the voice of Bitey White, a toy tiger that was named after her. The other toys she shared a scene with were named and played by Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner, and Mel Brooks. White commented that "It was wonderful the way they incorporated our names into the characters … And I'm a sucker for animals, so the tiger was perfect!"
In December 2021, before White's death, it was announced that White's 100th birthday would be celebrated on January 17, 2022, at theatres across the United States with the showing of a new documentary-style movie celebrating White’s life and career titled; Betty White: 100 Years Young - A Birthday Celebration. A cast of friends including Ryan Reynolds, Tina Fey, Robert Redford, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Jay Leno, Carol Burnett, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, Valerie Bertinelli, James Corden, Wendy Malick, and Jennifer Love Hewitt would have been featured on the celebration.