29 Facts About Betty White, Television’s True 'Golden Girl'
This is how Betty White, the "Golden Girl" of Hollywood, became television's First Lady and built a storied career of 80 years.
29 Facts About Betty White, Television’s First Lady
Betty White — comedian, actress, TV star and animal activist — was in show business for over 80 years until her death of natural causes on Dec. 31, 2021, a few weeks before her 100th birthday.
Her roles were iconic. She was Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Rose Nylund on "The Golden Girls," and most recently, as 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 was an entertainment legend.
Known as an all-around nice person, she loved animals and was also known as an activist for their causes. Let’s take a closer look at the twist and turns that her 99-year life took.
It Was Betty, Not Elizabeth
Betty Marion White was born on Jan. 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 was a mixture of Danish, Greek, Welsh and English.
At the age of 2, the family moved to Los Angeles. White never had any siblings.
She Wanted to Be an Opera Singer
If White had stuck with her childhood dream, she may have had an entirely different career. She initially wanted to be an opera singer.
"I don’t work at [singing] anymore as far as having a repertoire and stuff, but when I was a youngster, I wanted to be an opera singer so I took very serious singing lessons," she said in an interview.
White has been known to belt out a tune or two, particularly during the early days of television.
White Also Considered Being a Writer
Before becoming an entertainer, White also thought about being a writer. She was a teen when she wrote her first book.
"I wrote it with a pen dipped in ink, in longhand. It was a wonderful original story—girl on a ranch and her brother was sick. I didn’t know quite how to finish it off. It was 106 pages. Finally I had an idea: It turned out to be a dream. She woke up and her brother was well and everything was fine. I just thought it was genius."
Better never gave up on this dream and wrote several books later in life.
Her First On-Camera Job Was Introducing Television to the Masses
Her first TV job was in early 1939. RCA introduced the medium at the New York World's Fair that year, and Betty was in one of the first-ever broadcasts to show how television worked.
"I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the West Coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the 'Merry Widow Waltz.'"
She Fought 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.
Until her death, White would battle stage fright every single time she performed. But, in her traditionally optimistic way, she said it served a purpose. "You must react to it and overcome those jitters and that may be what makes a performance edgy," she said.
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 Was a Zoo
She worked with the Los Angeles Zoo for more than 45 years.
She was especially passionate about dogs, though. 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 nighttime, she attended dances thrown to give send-offs to soldiers shipping out.
She Came to the Aid of Aquarium Animals During Hurricane Katrina
According to a spokesperson for the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans, White paid for a plane to move the aquarium's otters and penguins to California's Monterey Bay Aquarium during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"Audubon did not find out until after the trip that Betty White had paid for a portion of the trip," said spokesperson Annie Matherne. "Betty was a huge animal advocate and conservationist. She did not want any fanfare surrounding her part in the relocation. She just wanted to help how she could."
She Is One of Television's Early Pioneers
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.
She Was an Ally for People of Color
In 1954, White produced, directed and starred in "The Betty White Show," a rarity for women at the time.
She made Arthur Duncan, a black tap dancer, a regular on the series, but certain affiliates around the country, particularly in the South, complained about him being on the show.
Her response? "Sorry. Live with it." She ended up giving him even more screen time.
She Loved a Parade
White was a parade coverage veteran and hosted the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade, as well as Portland's Grand Floral Parade.
She eventually stopped due to scheduling conflicts with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
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 1950s, 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 in 1981.
She never remarried.
She Was Addicted to ... Word Puzzles
White referred 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 went, White would always have crossword puzzles and acrostics in her purse. She had subscriptions to two puzzle clubs and received a new set every month, so she never ran out.
Maybe that was the secret to her 99-year success?
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 inside 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 Won Awards Galore
As a nod to her incredible acting chops, White was honored numerous times. She took 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 was that it was an honor just to be nominated. She said that was also a good time to tell yourself that you’re not going to win. Because of that mindset, she never wrote an acceptance speech.
She Was 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.
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.
She Was Almost Cast as a Blanche
When producers were casting "The Golden Girls," they wanted White to play the lusty Southern belle Blanche Devereaux due to her earlier turn as sexually voracious Sue Ann Nivens.
The director, however, was worried about typecasting her, so she and Rue McClanahan switched parts in their audition.
And the rest is sitcom history.
She Would Turn Down Roles That Went Against Her Beliefs
Betty White could have been in the Oscar-nominated film, "As Good As It Gets," with winners Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt.
White turned down the role of Helen Hunt’s mother because Nicholson’s character shoves a dog down a laundry chute.
Even though the move was only for the camera, her passion for animals ran so deep that she declined that part.
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 "Saturday Night Live."
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.
She Won a Grammy
White won her first Grammy in 2012 but not for singing. Instead, it was for recording the book she wrote, "If You Ask Me."
She Never Offically Retired
White never officially quit show business.
She always said she needed the money to support her charity habit.
She Was a Guinness World Record Holder
White won the coveted title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) in the 2014 edition of "Guinness World Records."
She began entertaining for the cameras in 1939.
First Lady of Television
One of her last 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 costars like Valerie Bertinelli, Tina Fey, Ryan Reynolds and Alex Trebek.
The film captures the magic that is Betty White if you want a closer look at this "Golden Girls" icon.
Her Last Words Were for the Love of Her Life
When White, it was initially reported that she died in her sleep, but her long time friend, actress Vicki Lawrence, set the record straight:
"I talked to Carol [Burnett] yesterday, and we agreed it is so hard to watch the people you love go away. She said she spoke to Betty’s assistant, who was with her when she passed, and she said the last word out of her mouth was 'Allen.' That’s so lovingly sweet. I hope that is true."