19 Facts About Betty White, Television’s First Lady
Betty White — comedian, actress, TV star and animal activist — has been in show business for the past 80 years.
Her roles have been iconic. Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls.” And most recently, Elka Ostrovsky in “Hot in Cleveland.” She’s also appeared on the big screen, in made-for-TV movies, on “Saturday Night Live” and way before any of that she regularly turned up on the game-show circuit. In short, she’s an entertainment legend.
Known as an all-around nice person, she loves animals and has long been an activist for their causes. This year she celebrated her 97th birthday, and she shows few signs of slowing down. Let’s take a closer look at the twist and turns her life has taken.
It’s Betty, Not Elizabeth
Betty Marion White was born on January 17, 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois. Her mother, Christine Tess, was a stay-at-home wife and mother, and her father, Horace Logan White, worked as an electrical engineer.
Her parents named her Betty because they didn’t want people calling her any of the possible nicknames associated with Elizabeth, like Beth or Liza. Betty White’s heritage is a mixture of Danish, Greek, Welsh and English.
At the age of two, the family moved to Los Angeles. White never had any siblings.
She Fights Stage Fright
White’s first attack of butterflies happened when she performed a play she wrote for graduation from Horace Mann Grammar School in Beverly Hills, California. She managed to write herself into the lead.
To this day, White still battles stage fright every single time she performs. But, in her traditionally optimistic way, she says it serves a purpose. You must react to it and overcome those jitters and that may be what makes a performance edgy, she says.
She Developed a Love for Animals Early
During her formative years, whenever anyone asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, White’s answer always remained the same. She wanted to be a forest ranger or a zookeeper. That was way before “gender equality,” and at that time women rarely worked those jobs.
Life is a Zoo
Fast forward and she’s been working with the Los Angeles Zoo for more than 45 years.
White loves all animals, but is especially passionate about dogs. During the Depression her dad made radios to sell for extra cash. Nobody had the money to buy them so he traded the radios for dogs. He built kennels in their backyard for those canines, which may have been how White developed her preference to have dogs around her more than people.
She Helped the Troops During World War II
When the Second World War broke out, White was a teenager. She had some jobs in theater, radio and as a model, but she dropped all those to help the troops.
As a member of the American Women’s Voluntary Services, she donned a uniform and drove a Post Exchange (a U.S. Army base retail store) truck through Hollywood Hills delivering supplies to the bivouacs. Come night time, she attended dances thrown to give send-offs to soldiers shipping out.
She Got an Early Start on TV
Not very many homes had televisions before 1947, and when they did very few channels were available. There were only three networks.
“Television and I discovered each other together,” White said in her book, “If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t).” She claims the timing was perfect for her to appear on TV shows.
Her first job was as a phone girl in the series “Hollywood on Television” in 1949. Next, she starred in “Life with Elizabeth,” another TV series, from 1952-1955. Many other series followed.
Third Time’s a Charm
During WWII, White met and married U.S. Army Air Corps Pilot Dick Barker. That marriage lasted six months. In 1945, she wed theatrical agent Lane Allen. They divorced four years later.
In the ‘50s, she became famous as a regular celebrity contestant on “To Tell the Truth,” “What’s My Line,” “The Match Game,” “Pyramid” and other TV game shows. But it was on “Password” where she met Allen Ludden, the love of her life, in 1961.
18 Years With Allen Ludden
They enjoyed 18 harmonious years of marriage until he passed away. She’s never remarried.
She’s Addicted to...Word Puzzles
White refers to her obsession with crosswords as “mental gymnastics” in “If You Ask Me.”
She played Scrabble every lunch break on the set of the Hallmark movie “The Lost Valentine.” Wherever she goes, White always has crossword puzzles and acrostics in her purse. She has subscriptions to two puzzle clubs and receives a new set every month, so she’ll never run out.
They seem to be keeping her in good mental health.
She Made a Splash as Sue Ann
White’s TV career really took off when she nailed the role of the saccharine Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” from 1973-1977. Nivens hosted a fictional television series titled “The Happy Homemaker.” So, it was one TV show insider another TV show.
White’s character was bouncy and energetic, the perfect wife and homemaker. The final episode, in which Nivens gets fired, won an Emmy for “Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series.”
She’s Won Awards Galore
As a nod to her incredible acting chops, White has been honored numerous times. She’s taken home eight Emmys, three American Comedy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, one People’s Choice Award and numerous others.
White’s take on any of these awards is it’s an honor just to be nominated. She says that’s a good time to tell yourself that you’re not going to win. Because of that mindset she has never in her life written an acceptance speech.
She’s a True Golden Girl
For eight years, beginning in 1985, White portrayed Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls” alongside Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty. Rose was naïve, funny and not too bright. The four of them lived in Miami, but the actual house where the series was filmed was in Los Angeles. White and McClanahan often played word games during breaks from filming.
Currently White is the only remaining cast member still living. You can still catch this hilarious comedy in reruns.
Also, now try to get the song “Thank You for Being a Friend” out of your head.
Hotter in Cleveland
White joined Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick for a six-year run in “Hot in Cleveland,” which aired on TV Land.
For her portrayal of the character, Elka Ostrovsky, White won a Screen Actors Guild award. She was nominated for many other awards including a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
A Facebook Campaign Landed Her on “Saturday Night Live”
Seemingly out of nowhere, in 2010 a fan named David Matthews of San Antonio, Texas, began a Facebook campaign encouraging White to host “SNL.” Several hundred thousand people signed his petition on the Facebook page “Betty White to Host SNL (please?)” and her agent finally agreed that she’d do so on the Mother’s Day episode in 2010.
Fifth Prime-Time Emmy
Riddled with stage fright, she still rehearsed like a trooper. Turns out, she did such a good job with the hosting gig, that she won her fifth prime-time Emmy for her performance.
She’s Graced the Big Screen, Too
Although White has made her name in long-running TV sitcoms, she has also appeared in movies. The best known was “The Proposal” with Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock, where she plays Reynolds’ kind, sweet grandmother. Watch “Lake Placid” if you want to see her play an opposing role.
And That’s Not All She Can Do
White won her first Grammy in 2012, but not for singing. Instead it was for recording the book she wrote, “If You Ask Me.”
In her spare time, she writes books – four bear only White’s name – “Here We Go Again,” “Betty White in Person,” “Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo” and “If You Ask Me.”
She’s written two others with a co-author.
She’s Never Going to Retire
White has no plans to quit show business. She says she needs the money to support her charity habit.
First Lady of Television
One of her latest projects was the PBS tribute ”Betty White: First Lady of Television." Filmed over 10 years, this show took a close look at the Hollywood legend with humorous clips and adoring comments from friends and co-stars like Valerie Bertinelli, Tina Fey, Ryan Reynolds and Alex Trebek.
The film captures the magic that is Betty White, but it leaves one question: Where will she appear next?