Betty White, the vivacious comic actress who had the longest television career in the history of the medium, has died. TMZ first reported her death, which law enforcement authorities confirmed. She was 99.
White is best known for her roles in two of TV’s best sitcom ensembles: The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls. But she also appeared in 30 films, starred in seven decades’ worth of sitcoms, hosted a talk show, was a favorite on the game show circuit, and was one of the first female television producers.
Betty Marion White (she didn’t change her name through three marriages, and Betty wasn’t short for anything—her parents didn’t want to use Elizabeth and risk her being called Beth or Liza) was born in 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois. The family moved to Los Angeles during the Great Depression, and White began writing and performing in high school. Deciding she wanted to be an actress, White auditioned for several movie studios, who decided she wasn’t photogenic. Instead, she played bit parts in radio dramas, sang, modeled, and took whatever work she could get.
Three months after graduating high school in 1939, she landed a gig with an experimental new medium: television. (NBC had launched earlier that year, only in New York and LA) She and a classmate sang a few songs and danced a waltz. The broadcast is lost to history, and even White can’t remember the name of the program. But it was the start of a career that spanned the entire history of television thus far.
However, that career would have to wait. White put her career on hold to volunteer during WWII, driving a truck by day to deliver army supplies and performing by night at dances intended to give soldiers a rousing send-off. She married Army pilot Dick Barker in 1945, but four months after leaving Hollywood to live on his chicken farm, she divorced him and returned to her career. Two years later, she married an agent, Lane Allen, but divorced him as well in 1949 when he pushed her to give up her career.
After a few years of radio work, White co-hosted a live, six-day-a-week TV variety show called Hollywood On Television, and when her co-host departed, she hosted solo. She was able to parlay her success into her first starring sitcom role, Life With Elizabeth, which she co-created, becoming one of television’s first female producers as a result. The show was a hit and netted her a nomination in the first-ever Emmy Best Actress category (her first of 21 nominations over 63 years, both records).
From then on, White was a television staple, and not just in comedy. She hosted the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for ten years and the Tournament of Roses Parade for twenty. She did sketches alongside Johnny Carson and Carol Burnett. She was nicknamed “First Lady of Game Shows” for frequent appearances on shows like What’s My Line?, To Tell the Truth, Match Game, and several incarnations of Password. It was on the latter show that she met her third husband, Allen Ludden, the show’s host. This time, marriage worked out for White—the two stayed together until his death of cancer in 1981.
In 1973, Mary Tyler Moore was casting around for an actress to play a guest role on her eponymous sitcom. Sue Ann Nivens’ central joke was that WJM’s “Happy Homemaker” was sweet as pie on camera and a hard-driving maneater off. Moore suggested they needed “somebody who can play sickeningly sweet, like Betty White.” Rather than settle for an imitation, Moore simply cast White, who gave the already-popular series a shot in the arm and went from guest to series regular.
After Moore wrapped in 1977, White headlined her own sitcom, The Betty White Show, which lasted one season. She then hosted her own game show, Just Men!, for which she became the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host. And in 1985, she got another defining role.
The producers of The Golden Girls, about four friends who move in together after finding themselves widowed or divorced, offered White the role of sexpot Blanche, figuring her experience on Mary Tyler Moore made her a natural. They likewise cast Rue McClanahan as scatterbrained Rose based on her similar role on Maude. But neither actress was thrilled about being typecast, and the pilot’s director, Jay Sandrich, suggested they swap roles. Two iconic characters were born, and White was nominated for Outstanding Actress In A Comedy Series every year the show was on the air.
After a string of guest appearances through the ‘90s, White had no intention of slowing down even after turning 80. She took recurring roles on both Boston Legal and The Bold And The Beautiful, and in 2010 became the oldest-ever host of Saturday Night Live at 88 thanks to a Facebook campaign. By way of thanks, she joked, “Now that I know what [Facebook] is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time.”
That same year, she was cast in the pilot of Hot In Cleveland and ended up staying on for the series entire 6-year run. While acting in Cleveland, she also produced Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, a hidden-camera show in which senior citizens played practical jokes.
During a busy career on screen, White found time to devote to animal rights, working with the Morris Animal Foundation, the African Wildlife Foundation, and serving on the board of directors of the Los Angeles Zoo since 1974. The American Veterinary Medical Association granted her its Humane Award in 1987 for her charitable work. (She turned down a role in the film As Good As It Gets to protest a scene where Jack Nicholson throws a dog down a garbage chute).
White leaves behind a legacy as television’s most enduring performer, who brought laughter to generations.