Betty White: 10 Facts About the TV Icon
Creating an unforgettable character is a rare achievement on TV. Betty White is one of the rare television icons who’s done it three times!
First came Sue Ann Nivens, the “neighborhood nymphomaniac” on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1973. Next was Rose Nylund, the naïve native of St. Olaf, Minnesota, on The Golden Girls in 1985. And then there was Elka Ostrovsky, the octogenarian hipster on Hot In Cleveland in the 2010s. Each character is very different — Rose would never be as biting as Sue Ann or Elka can be — but each is close to her heart. “There’s a little bit of Betty in everything I’ve played,” she once said.
Even with their long runs, these three popular sitcoms combined only add up to a quarter of Betty’s career. She’s also been a game show icon, written six books, won six Emmys (with 21 nominations), is the holder of the Guinness World Record for Longest Career for a Female Entertainer and has dedicated her off-screen life to animal causes!
Here are just a few fun facts about the First Lady of Television:
1. Her secret to staying young may surprise you.
Vodka and hot dogs, “in that order,” she told Parade magazine in 2018. Betty also has a rigorous workout regimen, as she explained to The New York Times in 2012: “I have a two-story house and a very bad memory, so I’m up and down those stairs all the time. That’s my exercise.” But mostly, the self-proclaimed optimist credits her positive attitude. “If you are still functioning and not in pain, gratitude should be the name of the game,” she wrote in her 2011 book If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t).
2. She’s been married three times.
In 1945, Betty was married to an Army Air Corps pilot for less than a year. In 1947 she tied the knot with a talent agent, but the couple divorced two years later. In 1963 she married “the love of her life”— game show host Allen Ludden, who had already proposed twice since Betty’s first appearance on his show Password in 1961. Sadly, Ludden died of stomach cancer in 1981. Her biggest regret, according to an interview with Oprah in 2015 is “that I wasted a whole year that Allan and I could have had together saying, “No, I wouldn’t marry him.” She hasn’t remarried since. “Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?” she told Larry King in 2011.
Allen Ludden and Betty White on the set of Stumpers!
3. She got her start on radio.
Betty began pursuing acting after graduating high school in 1939 but didn’t land her first professional gig until the mid-1940s — on radio. After weeks of hanging out in the casting office, the producer of The Great Gildersleeve gave her a single word in the sponsor’s commercial: “Parkay.” That got her into the union — and paid her $37! The show soon asked her back, and her radio career was off and running with appearances on Blondie (based on the comic strip and film series) and This Is Your FBI.
4. She was one of TV’s first female hosts.
Betty’s big break on TV came in 1949 when she was hired to co-host Hollywood On Television on KLAC- Los Angeles for five and a half hours a day, six days a week — all with no script! After the format exhausted her co-hosts (first, radio D.J. Al Jarvis, then actor Eddie Albert), Betty became the sole on-camera talent — making her one of the first women in TV history to solo host her own show.
5. Her first sitcom debuted in 1952.
When the station ordered a sitcom based on a regular sketch on Betty’s show, Betty became one of TV’s first female producers. She formed Bandy Productions (named after her dog Bandit) with station manager Don Fedderson (who helped make a national star of Liberace) and writer George Tibbles. Together they launched Life With Elizabeth, starring Betty as a typical 1950s housewife, Del Moore as her husband and Jack Narz as the announcer. Soon after, the series was sold into syndication, making Betty a national TV star — and an Emmy nominee for the first time.
6. She scored her first network TV series in 1954.
Thanks to the success of Life With Elizabeth, NBC offered Betty her own daily talk-variety show. The Betty White Show debuted in 1954 and featured Betty singing, reading viewer mail and welcoming guests. Now in her early 30s, Betty was headlining two national TV shows, and she soon added hosting duties on the annual Tournament of Roses Parade, which Betty would host for 20 years. Betty would reuse The Betty White Show name for a short-lived variety show she hosted on ABC in 1958 and a single-season sitcom she headlined after Mary Tyler Moore ended in 1977. The 1970s Betty White Show was produced by MTM Enterprises (Mary’s company), co-starred John Hillerman as her ex-husband, and reunited Betty with Georgia Engel as her best friend. Betty and Georgia would play best friends again in 2012 when Georgia joined the cast of Hot In Cleveland as lovably ditsy Mamie Sue!
The Betty White Show: Betty White and Georgia Engel.
7. She’s the queen of the game shows.
Nowadays, Betty is best known for her iconic sitcom roles. But for years she reigned supreme as the queen of the game shows. That tenure started in the mid-1950s when she joined the panel of Make The Connection. She would go on to be a regular on To Tell The Truth, Liar’s Club, Match Game, You Don’t Say, Chain Reaction, and of course Password, where she often served as Allen Ludden’s co-host. She also hosted her own show Just Men! on NBC in 1983 — and became the first woman to win an Emmy as Outstanding Game Show host.
8. Her Mary Tyler Moore character was supposed to be a one-shot.
"They (the Mary Tyler Moore writers) wrote a character that was described as being, ‘as sweet as Betty White, but as vicious as a barracuda,’” star and producer Mary Tyler Moore told the TV Academy in 2010. “It was supposed to be a one-shot, but it went on to be a continuing character,” Mary added. “(Because) she was so good, so great, so inventive that you couldn’t not have her back on.” Betty made her first appearance as Sue Ann on September 15, 1973. Forty years later — on September 4, 2013 — Betty, Mary, and their Mary Tyler Moore castmates Georgia Engel (Georgette), Valerie Harper (Rhoda) and Cloris Leachman (Phyllis) reunited on the Hot In Cleveland episode “Love Is All Around.”
9. She had a complicated relationship with a Golden Girls co-star.
“I was crazy about Bea (Arthur) and I admired her work and I loved her, but she was not that fond of me,” Betty told Times Talks in 2011. “She found me a pain in the neck sometimes because of my positive attitude. I’m happy all the time, and that made Bea mad sometimes.” Betty was also the first of the four women to win an Emmy for The Golden Girls in 1986, with Rue McClanahan following in ’87, and Bea Arthur in '88. (Estelle Getty won as Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy in ’88.)
The Golden Girls: Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty.
10. At age 99, Betty White is not done yet!
Queen Betty may be turning 99 in January of 2021, but she’s still working! After her six-season stint on Hot In Cleveland ended in 2015, she made appearances on the TV series Bones, Crowded and Young & Hungry. She also voices a toy called “Bitey White” in the brand new Toy Story 4 (which also features her Cleveland co-stars Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner and Don Rickles! “I just love to work,” Betty told Parade magazine. “So I’ll keep working until they stop asking.”
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