The Life and Legacy of Betty White

Penny Rabatsky, Scarlet Staff

Betty White, an actress, activist, comedian, author, radio host, talk show host, and producer, was an icon in Hollywood for over 70 years. She was known by her peers and fans as light-hearted, hilarious, upbeat, effortless, a flirt, a pioneer, and kind. On December 31, 2021, eighteen days before her 100th birthday, she passed away.

White was born on January 17, 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois and shortly after moved to Los Angeles. As a graduate of Beverly Hills High School class of 1939, White acted in shows and wrote and stared in her class’ graduation play. She drove a PX truck during World War II as part of the American Women’s Voluntary Services, delivering soap, toothpaste, and candy to soldiers in Santa Monica and Hollywood. She married and divorced Dick Parker in less than a year.

White began acting at the Bliss-Hayden Little Theater. She starred in “Dear Ruth” and was spotted by Lane Allen, an actor and later agent, who emboldened her to pursue a career in acting. The two were married and later divorced.

In 1949, White had her first big break into television on “Al Jarvis’s Hollywood on Television.” She became the host after he left. In the following decade of the 1950s, she was on two sitcoms that were fairly short-lived, one of those being “Life of Elizabeth” in 1952, her first sitcom. She also had a variety show in 1954 that showcased a Black tap dancer named Arthur Duncan as a regular. Although this was unusual at the time and she was pressured to remove him from the show, White refused to let him go. Duncan referred to White as the “biggest influence on his career.” White produced “The Betty White Show” during a time where it was extremely rare to be a female producer.

Betty White became a frequent guest on shows in the 1960s such as “To Tell the Truth,” “I’ve Got a Secret,” “The Match Game,” and “What’s My Line.” She was most known for “Password” where she met Allen Ludden, the host. The two married in 1963 and remained so until 1981 upon Ludden’s death. The two never had any children together, and White was a step mother to Ludden’s three children from a previous marriage.

White’s three successful sitcoms began with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977). She played Sue Ann Nivens from 1973-1977. The second was “The Golden Girls” where she appeared on the entirety of the show from 1985-1992 as Rose Nylund. The third was “Hot in Cleveland” where she again appeared on the entirety of show from 2010-2015 as Elka Ostrovsky. The three sitcoms not only span decades but generations.

White also appeared as a guest on numerous shows over the years such as “The Sonny and Cher Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “30 Rock,” “Ally McBeal,” and “Community.” Beyond television, White stared in films such as “The Proposal” alongside Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds and “You Again” with Kristen Bell and Sigouney Weaver.

A fan of White’s started a Facebook campaign for her to host “Saturday Night Live,” and it paid off. White hosted the Mother’s Day episode in 2010, and it was the highest rated episode in over a year. She appeared on “SNL” again for the 40th anniversary special.

Over her career, she won 5 Primetime Emmys (her final one for her “SNL” episode), 1 competitive Daytime Emmy,  a Los Angeles regional Emmy, and a lifetime achievement Daytime Emmy (2015). She was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1995 and won a Screen Actors Guild lifetime achievement award in 2010. Guiness World Records named her the longest female television career in 2014.

Beyond television, it was important to White to be remembered for her love for animals. Throughout her life, she was an animals rights activist. She hosted “The Pet Set” in 1971 and donated her time, energy, and money to animal shelters and organizations such as the American Humane Association and Fund for Animals. In 2006, she was named “ambassador to the animals” by the Los Angeles Zoo.

At the Emmys in 2018, one of White’s last in-person appearances, she said, “It’s incredible that you can stay in a career this long and still have people put up with you. I wish they did that at home.” She considered herself “born a cockeyed optimist.” Her carefree attitude came from not taking things and herself too seriously.

Days before her passing, she made a video that was meant to be showed at her 100th birthday celebration thanking her fans and affirming that her birthday celebration was in honor of and for her fans. She referred to herself as a “lucky old broad.”

In honor of her 100th birthday, a group of her friends and costars including Drew Barrymore, Bryan Cranston, Tina Fey, Ellen DeGenerous, and Tracy Morgan got together on NBC to remember Betty White. It includes a clips of her throughout her career, a message from Joe Biden, a performance from Cher, and more.

Betty White will be remembered for her groundbreaking career who loved people and animals. She will be deeply missed by all.

Here is a link to her final message to her fans: Betty White had one final message for fans before her death | ABC7 – YouTube