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Goodbye, Golden Girl: How Betty White Conquered TV Over Six Decades

TV critic Alan Sepinwall pays tribute to the legendary actor, multiple Emmy-winner and sitcom hall-of-famer who did it all

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“You know, being together every week is getting to be a very, very nice habit. I hope you’ll keep it up, will ya?”

This was Betty White’s line at the end of each episode of her very first sitcom, Life with Elizabeth, in which she and Del Moore played a married couple who kept stumbling into various hijinks. White first played Elizabeth in a series of sketches in Hollywood on Television, a local Los Angeles talk show that debuted in 1949. (When the sketches spun off into their own show in the early Fifties, she became one of the first women, along with Gertrude Berg and Lucille Ball, to produce a TV comedy.) White’s plea for the audience to come back next week was typical for sign-offs of the period — her equivalent of George Burns quipping, “Say goodnight, Gracie” to wife Gracie Allen — but it was an unusually prophetic one. Practically from the moment that television was born as a medium, Betty White was the kind of warm, universally-beloved presence whom we were all happy to keep up with week after week, decade after decade, up to her death yesterday, only weeks ahead of when she would have turned 100.

To call White a fundamental part of the very fabric of American television would almost undersell how ubiquitous and likable she was. She was everywhere throughout TV history, doing a little bit of everything.

She starred in numerous sitcoms, and was an indelible part of two of the great comedy ensembles ever, as man-hungry local TV host Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the Seventies, and as daffy retiree Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls in the Eighties. Over the years, she fronted three different TV series called The Betty White Show, in different genres: a talk show and then a variety show in the Fifties, and a sitcom in the late Seventies. Talk shows couldn’t get enough of her as a guest; she sat on The Tonight Show couch alone nearly 100 times, from the Jack Paar era through the second Jay Leno era. And she was a game show mainstay across multiple generations, usually as a crackerjack celebrity guest on the likes of Password and To Tell the Truth, but at times as an emcee herself(*). (She was the first woman to win an Emmy — one of eight she received, counting daytime, primetime, and local awards — for hosting a game show with 1983’s Just Men!) White never really stopped working, and she somehow leveled up her celebrity in the 21st century, in which she became America’s Most Beloved Senior Citizen, playing tackle football in Super Bowl ads and hosting Saturday Night Live thanks to a relentless fan campaign.

(*) Occasionally, her disciplines intersected, like in the iconic Odd Couple episode where Felix and Oscar competed against her on Password.

Even when this accursed year claimed the lives of her MTM co-stars Cloris Leachmn, Gavin MacLeod, and Ed Asner, it felt as if we would get to enjoy Betty White forever.

Until we didn’t.

White’s first recorded performance was in a 1931 episode of the radio show Empire Builders, where she played the voice of a crying baby on a train. And she performed songs from The Merry Widow on television in 1939 — a time when few families even owned a TV set. But her performing career didn’t really begin in earnest until after she had served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services during World War II. Legend has it that a movie studio casting director told her she was “not photogenic,” which in hindsight is a bit like the Decca Records executive who opted not to sign the Beatles because “guitar groups are on their way out.” White was handsome rather than classically beautiful, but she was a great screen subject in every phase of adulthood, and when she played the oversexed Sue Ann Nivens, the joke was about White’s real-life nice girl image rather than her appearance.

But with film roles out of reach, White returned to the radio world. Just as she would on television from the Fifties onward, she wore many hats: commercial pitchwoman, game show contestant, actress, and hostess (Including yet another The Betty White Show). She joined disc jockey Al Jarvis for Hollywood on Television. At first, she and Jarvis played records like he did on the radio, Viewers complained that they could see the hosts talking but not hear them as the songs played, and soon the records were gone, while White and Jarvis were ad-libbing the bulk of the show, which could run an absurd five-plus hours most episodes. It takes a quick mind to pull that off five times a week for years, and the improvisatory muscles she built up in those early days would serve her well for the rest of her career.

But it also takes a fundamentally endearing personality to carry so much air time, and White had that in spades, which is why she’s just as famous for playing herself as she is for being Sue Ann, or Rose, or Elka on Hot in Cleveland (a spiritual Golden Girls remake where White got to play the Estelle Getty part). She was just someone people enjoyed being with, whether through the TV screen or in real life. She and her husband, game show producer Allen Ludden, became close friends with Mary Tyler Moore and her then-husband, TV producer Grant Tinker, which in turn inspired the MTM producers to cast her as Sue Ann when that show needed fresh blood in the wake of the departure of Valerie Harper’s Rhoda to her own spinoff.

Sue Ann was at once a departure from White’s familiar persona and one that leaned heavily upon it. Though Sue Ann and Mary Richards eventually became friends, their relationship was passive-aggressive and filled with tension, rather than the relatively cozy bonds Mary had shared with either Valerie or Leachman’s Phyllis (who departed not long after Sue Ann arrived). For The Mary Tyler Moore Show to work with such an altered interpersonal dynamic, and for viewers to not resent this catty interloper, required an actor who not only arrived with built-in audience goodwill, but a radiant screen personality that made Sue Ann irresistible despite her insults and competitive behavior.

Sue Ann was such a thorough and effective reinvention for White that when The Golden Girls — about three friends (plus one of their mothers) enjoying the retired life down in Florida — was first being developed, the plan was for White to play the lustful Blanche, and for Rue McClanahan to play close to type as naive small-town girl Rose. Instead, both actors were smart enough to realize that both they and the audience would have more fun if they swapped roles, and White made a meal out of Rose’s surreal monologues about life back in St. Olaf, Minnesota. At times, she was so committed to the bit that even veteran co-stars like McLanahan and Bea Arthur wound up breaking character.

After the end of Golden Girls (and its short-lived spinoff, The Golden Palace), White never found another scripted role as iconic as Sue Ann or Rose. But that was okay, because being Betty White was pretty damn iconic in its own right. She won her last two Emmys for playing herself on an episode of The John Larroquette Show and for hosting SNL. That Super Bowl ad — where technically she was playing a backyard football player who was just acting like Betty White due to extreme hunger — only served to accelerate her transformation into a kind of comic institution whose very arrival on screen made you smile. In this phase of her career, even when she would play characters — dancing with Sandra Bullock in The Proposal or rapping with Troy and Abed on Community — she was implicitly being Betty White, elderly legend, whose long screen history was as much of an asset as her impeccable timing or her gameness for almost anything.

In the PBS series Pioneers of Television, White looked back with humility and self-deprecation at the transition of Life with Elizabeth from brief sketches on Hollywood on Television into a standalone series: “I said, ‘It won’t work. A half-hour, you know, stretched, the jokes won’t hold up that long. You can’t do a half-hour show!’ That’s how much I knew!” Her skepticism was fair. At the time, half-hour sitcoms were still a relative novelty, and who could have expected the form to prove so durable that anyone would still be making them 70 years later — much less that White herself would keep appearing in them for most of that time?

Being together with Betty White for so long was a very, very nice habit indeed. A shame we couldn’t keep the visits going for a few more weeks, at the very least.

From Rolling Stone US