One of Hollywood’s legendary icons has passed away just shy of her 100th birthday, her name was Betty White. What can you say about a woman that’s probably been through it all? She’s one of the most amazing women in Hollywood whose career spanned several decades. She lived through the great depression, WW2, the era of segregation, and everything in between! She’s one of early television’s pioneers whose inspiration paved the way for generations of young actresses. Her personality is almost second to none.
And some people have jokingly referred to her (in a nice way), that Betty White was older than the invention of sliced bread.
To her fans: she’s our favorite “aunt”, favorite “grandma”, and all-around amazing human being that’s lived her life to the fullest.
Betty Marion White was born on January 17, 1922 in Oak Park, IL to Christine Tess and Horace Logan White.
During the great depression, the family moved to California where she attended the Beverly Hills Unified School District in Beverly Hills, and Beverly Hills High School, and graduated in 1939. On one of her vacations to the Sierra Nevada, she was inspired to become a forest ranger – but was denied because women weren’t allowed in the service back then.
With that avenue of career out, she began taking an interest in writing. She wrote and played the lead in a graduation play at Horace Mann School – and that’s where she discovered her love of acting while doing so.
White’s earliest career start can be traced back to being a guest caller on a radio show in the 1930’s when she was 8 yrs old. She starred in one of the episodes of an old show called Empire Builders in December 22, 1930. After that, she found work modelling and an acting job at the Bliss Hayden Little Theatre. She put her acting career on hold when WW2 broke out and volunteered at the American Women’s Voluntary Services.
Her duties included driving a PX truck transporting military supplies through California, and participated in events for troops before they were deployed overseas. During her time there, she met her first husband Dick Barker, a United States Army Air Forces aircraft pilot. After the war, the couple married and moved to Ohio. Unfortunately, the marriage ended in divorce within the year.
*Starting Her Career*
After the war and subsequent divorce, White went around movie studios looking for work. Unfortunately, she was always turned down because she was – they claimed – “not photogenic” enough. Taking that “criticism” in stride, she started to look for jobs in radio stations where her looks (photogenic or otherwise) didn’t matter. Her first radio gigs included reading commercials, playing bit parts, and sometimes even doing sound effect noises. She allegedly made about five dollars a gig during those times. She would do just about anything – you name it (within reason) – like singing on a show for no pay, or making appearances on the local game shows just to get her name out there.
In those times, she appeared on Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This Is Your FBI. She was then offered her own radio, and was given the headline title of that show as The Betty White Show, the first incarnation of what would become many later on.
In 1949, she began appearing as co-host with Al Jarvis on his daily live television variety show Hollywood on Television, originally called Make Believe Ballroom, on KFWB and on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles. When Al Jarvis left the show in 1952, Betty began hosting it herself. The program spanned five and a half hours of live variety ad lib television six days per week, continuously for over four-years. She sang a couple of songs herself during each broadcast during the show’s run, which netted her her first Emmy for Best Actress in 1951.
In 1952, she was in Hollywood on Television, and Life with Elizabeth – where Life with Elizabeth became a nationally syndicated program which in turn netted her second Emmy Award two years running.
Interspersed between the 1950’s, White did advertising gigs, and tv guest spots. But in 1954, she started hosting her own daily tv talk/variety show also named “The Betty White Show” – the second incarnation which was done for TV. She had complete creative control with that vehicle, and even hired a female director. While the show was a ratings success, it was also heavily criticized for including Arthur Duncan – an African-American performer – as a regular cast member. Something like that was unheared of at the time. When the show went nationwide, several Southern stations had threatened boycotting the show for just one man. Ever the “trendsetter”, Betty’s response to that was: “I’m sorry. Live with it.” – and gave Arthur Duncan more airtime even in her own show.
Whether it was intentional or not – which it probably was – the networks responsible for The Betty White Show after her response to that started bouncing the show’s time slot all over the place – leading to the show’s poor viewership count and eventual demise into cancelation.
That didn’t stop Betty White though, better be canceled for doing what’s right over what was easy. That small act of “defiance” garnered her more respect across all people regardless of color. The show would be revived over the years from CBS to ABC networks in varying formats.
After that, she made her professional stage debut in a week-long production of the play, Third Best Sport, at the Ephrata Legion Star Playhouse in Ephrata, Pennsylvania in 1959.
During the 1960’s, Betty did a lot of guest stints at game shows, talk shows, etc. – where she met Allen Ludden, the host of the Password show. They eventually married and stayed married until Ludden’s death in 1981.
White was also the hostess and commentator on the annual Rose Parade broadcast on NBC (co-hosting with Roy Neal and later Lorne Greene) during the 1950’s and all through the 1960’s – a respectable nineteen-year run which ended in 1975!
During the 1970’s, she starred and guest-starred on several sitcom shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Happy Homemaker, The Carol Burnette Show, and a few made-for-tv movie/and mini-series specials.
It was in the 1980’s where she gained more worldwide prominence in her best role yet as Rose Nylund in the sitcom “The Golden Girls“.
A bit of a trivia here; White was originally supposed to play as Blanche, while Rue McClanahan was supposed to play as Rose – however, the two decided to change that up because it was too similar to their prior roles in other shows. The well-recieved show ran from 1985 to 1992.
White reprised her role as Rose Nylund after her run on Golden Girls in The Golden Palace spin-off which lasted for only one season, then moved on to other things.
From the 1990’s and onwards, Betty again ran the gamut of starring and guest-starring roles after The Golden Girls in both the small screen and big screens. One notable film – at least to me – was when she starred alongside Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal.
In early December 2021, before her death, it was announced via her Instagram that her 100th birthday would be celebrated on January 17, 2022, at theatres across the United States with the showing of a new documentary-style movie celebrating White’s life and career titled; Betty White: 100 Years Young – A Birthday Celebration.
A cast of friends were slated to appear would have included Ryan Reynolds, Tina Fey, Robert Redford, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Jay Leno, Carol Burnett, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, Valerie Bertinelli, James Corden, Wendy Malick, and Jennifer Love Hewitt would have been featured on the celebration.
According to her Insta post, People magazine would also feature her as the cover story in their January 2022 newsstand publication to celebrate the anticipated milestone.
Alas, she wouldn’t make it.
Once word of her death made the rounds after it was initially reported by TMZ, an outpouring of love, prayers, and condolences dotted the social media landscape from people who were close to her, and from those who know her throughout her amazing career.
Though she had married a few times, she didn’t have any children – unless you count every single one of us who grew up watching her throughout her entire career in Hollywood.
We’ll miss you, Betty White. You’re one of the most AMAZING human beings we’re glad to have known, you’ve brought us so much joy, laughter, and tears. We thank you very much.
God speed, wherever you are now.