Betty White’s first role came in 1930, playing an orphan in a schmaltzy radio drama called “The Empire Builders.” Her final appearance will come a few weeks from now, as part of filmed birthday tribute for theatres. In the 91 years between, she’s been a local television star, a game show guest and host, movie actor, writer, animal advocate, and occasional rapper.
Unfortunately, a lot of her earliest work is lost, Betty having had a career in entertainment even before TV was broadcast nationally, or consistently preserved. That’s hundreds of hours of material that could only have been enjoyed in a very particular moment, but there’s still a great deal that remains: Much of it in TV comedy, but also in film dramas, a soap opera (she began a run on The Bold & the Beautiful well into her 80s), and a particularly memorable horror movie. Her roles as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or (of course) as Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls would be more than enough to make any other career…but Betty’s indefatigable nature and sincere love of her work left us with decades worth of entertainment. Going through her life and work is to take a crash course in television, and in 20th and early 21st century entertainment, more generally.
Her relentless (and apparently entirely genuine) positivity was seen as cloying earlier in her career, but — especially when leavened with her quick-witted sass — came to feel like an antidote for the relentless tide of challenging news the last few years have brought us. With a bit of sadness that it’s over, but mostly gratitude that it happened, here are some of her best, finest, and funniest moments.
The Betty White Show (November 29, 1954)
Betty White began her showbiz career in earnest with a co-starring spot on Hollywood on Television, a local Los Angeles program (shows were almost always local back then) that saw her chatting and improvising live for five hours a day, six days a week (the hosts even read the many ads, so there were no breaks whatsoever). It was a crash course in stagecraft and entertainment that would serve her for all the subsequent decades. This first “Betty White” show, produced by Betty herself, spun out of that test of endurance and soon went national. Famously, the show frequently featured now-legendary tap dancer Arthur Duncan, who Betty insisted on keeping in the face of pressure from southern affiliates who refused to air a show with a Black star. It might have cost Betty the show, but it’s an early example of her quiet integrity.
To Tell the Truth (January 2, 1961)
Betty White joins Johnny Carson, Kitty Carlisle, Don Ameche, and host Bud Collyer (the original Superman from radio and cartoons) for this episode of the classic gameshow, To Tell the Truth. Betty was, of course, a gameshow icon — appearing on many dozens of episodes of different shows and even winning an Emmy for hosting her own series, the short-lived and slightly ill-conceived Just Men, in the ‘80s. There’s no real stand-out moment in this episode, but it’s a great example of the loose energy of the early gameshow format, and of the ease and casual charm that Betty brought to all of her appearances.
Advise & Consent (1962)
Betty White’s movie career paled in comparison to the reputation she built as a TV star. And, though movies were typically seen as the more prestigious medium, she never showed any evidence of having any particular ambitions in that area. It’s also the case that her single significant film role in her early career doesn’t add up to much screen time at all. Still, it’s a groundbreaking doozy of a dramatic role as she plays U.S. Senator Bessie Adams, who gets in some solid zingers at dismissive male colleagues during the confirmation hearings for a new secretary of state, complicated by attempts to blackmail a conscientious senator for an earlier gay affair. Though it shows up on TCM from time to time, and the full movie can sometimes be found on YouTube, it isn’t formally streaming anywhere at the moment — which is a shame.
“Password” — The Odd Couple, s3 (1972)
Here are Betty White’s three great passions: sitcoms, game shows, and Allen Ludden (not necessarily in that order). Husband Ludden was the real-life host of Password at the time, and the couple play themselves as Oscar and Felix find themselves sorely outmatched on the show when they play against Betty.
“The Lars Affair” — The Mary Tyler Moore Show, s4 (1973)
As introduced in the fourth season premiere, Sue Ann Nivens was the cloyingly traditional host of WJM’s “Happy Homemaker” show; behind-the-scenes, though, she was wildly ambitious, sexually voracious, and just a bit bananas — all while having an affair with Lars, the husband of Cloris Leachman’s Phyllis. It was a perfectly serviceable character for a one-episode joke, until Betty White got the casting call and made Sue Ann so memorable that she eventually was asked to sign on as a regular, replacing the departing Valerie Harper. It came at a perfect time in Betty’s career, as well, putting a twist on her public persona that would serve her for the rest of her career. The casting note called for an “icky sweet Betty White type,” which was the way she had been (more or less) perceived for decades, even if it wasn’t entirely fair. This role reminded America that she was a lot more than cute dimples.
“The Dinner Party” — The Mary Tyler Moore Show, s4 (1973)
In just her second appearance, it’s immediately clear how Sue Ann could serve as a foil for the show’s cast and generally mix things up. In this case, Mary is planning an increasingly fraught dinner party for a congressperson. Sue Ann insists on helping — and why not? She is the “happy homemaker,” after all. In practice, Sue Ann’s perfectionism and fussiness, combined with a limitless supply of passive-aggressive asides, ensure that her “help” only winds up complicating things further.
“Sue Ann Gets the Ax” — The Mary Tyler Moore Show, s7 (1977)
The WJM team isn’t particularly broken up when grasping, hypocritical Sue Ann is brought low following the cancellation of her show. And, as an audience, there’s a little bit of satisfaction in seeing the closest thing the show has to a villain taking on a series of increasingly humiliating jobs at the station. The show’s creatives, though, are far too smart to leave it at that, and the result is a particularly good example of the fundamental likability that Betty White brings to a character who’s often begging to be hated. That’s an extremely narrow tightrope to walk, and she pulls it off in every single episode.
“How Do I Love Thee?” — The Love Boat, s7 (1984)
The show was almost pure silliness, but The Love Boat could be an awful lot of fun — and no series, before or since, has ever managed to compete in terms of celebrity guest stars. Virtually anyone who was anyone in entertainment leading up to the ‘70s and ‘80s popped in for an appearance. Betty appeared on The Love Boat five times, with her first appearance in the fourth season’s “The Horse Lover” being particularly poignant, as her real-life spouse Allen Ludden plays her character’s horse-obsessed husband (The Village People are also on the cruise, just because). That was a one-off, but her four subsequent episodes saw her play the scheming frequent cruiser Betsy Boucher, best friend of Carol Channing’s Sylvia Duvall. Any of their appearances together are frothy fun, typically culminating in a musical number (here it’s “Together, Wherever We Go”) but this one, from season seven, has the added novelty of pre-Golden Girls guest star Rue McClanahan in a separate plot line.
Match Game, Tattletales, Password, etc.
Individual episodes of game shows don’t necessarily age well, but those appearances are also an essential part of the Betty White oeuvre. Luckily, classic game show broadcaster Buzzr has a couple of compilations to flip through. In the long one here, there’s some particularly fun stuff after the hour mark, so feel free to skip around.
“The Way We Met” — The Golden Girls, s1 (1986)
As they anticipated so many trends, the Girls were doing prequels way back in 1986. The first episode of the series saw Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose already comfortably living together in Miami when Sophia arrives to shake everything up, so it was up to the first season finale to reveal their secret origin of that initial trio. Like so many of the best episodes of the series, it’s truly an ensemble piece — but one of the very best moments goes to Betty as Rose, delivering a St. Olaf story par excellence. Though it’s probably just good acting, it certainly appears as though Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan are struggling to stay in character, and the studio audience is living for it.
“Old Friends” — The Golden Girls, s2 (1987)
The A-plot here involves Sophia’s sweet friendship with an elderly widower who, she comes to realise, has Alzheimer’s disease. The episode won two Emmys, one of them for Estelle Getty’s performance, so it’s worth it for that part alone. Nevertheless, the episode’s lighter secondary plot includes an all-time great Rose moment. Blanche has inadvertently given away Rose’s beloved teddy bear, Fernando, to a seemingly sweet Sunshine Cadet named Daisy (played by Jenny Lewis). When they try to get the bear back, Daisy decides to hold it for ransom. Though the episode establishes the importance of the bear to Rose, her response is so out-of-the-blue as to be nearly shocking. It’s also incredibly satisfying.
“A Piece of Cake” — The Golden Girls, s2 (1987)
Moments involving Rose’s late husband Charlie are always particularly poignant — Allen Ludden had died just a few years before the start of The Golden Girls, and the parallels between Betty’s real-life relationship and Rose’s TV marriage lend those scenes a genuine warmth. Here, in an extended monologue, Rose explains her forthcoming move to Charlie.
“72 Hours” — The Golden Girls, s5 (1990)
The Golden Girls was trailblazing in its depiction of vital middle-aged women with ambitions and active sex lives, but the show’s creatives never left it there. Though sitcoms had found space to be daring and topical in the ‘70s, the Reagan era had seen a return to more traditional, “wholesome” family shows that avoided broaching sensitive topics outside of an occasional reminder to “just say no” to drugs. The Girls dealt with racism, trauma, addiction, sexual assault, and gay marriage, and did so in ways that (mostly) hold up to modern scrutiny. In 1990, the show was in its fifth season, and HIV/AIDS deaths had never been higher, but the prevailing response was still to see it as a punishment for gays and junkies, and for those who might chance to get too close to them (popular talk show host Rush Limbaugh was then running a recurring “AIDS Update” segment celebrating deaths). Here, Rose learns that she might have been exposed to HIV via a blood transfusion a few years earlier. During the hours while she anxiously awaits the test results, she reveals how many misconceptions she’s internalized, fear pushing past logic. A little tough love from Blanche, and a reminder that her friends have no intention of abandoning her no matter the result, help Rose to understand that “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease.” It might be hard to see the power of that statement twenty years later, but it was something that people needed to hear. Betty White’s terror is brilliantly portrayed, and anyone who’s ever waited for medical test results will be able to relate.
Lake Placid (1999)
Here was Betty upping the ante yet again (in her late 70s), playing a genuinely memorable horror-movie villain — and putting a darkly comic twist on her friend-to-the-animals persona. For a giant crocodile movie, Lake Placid already had an above-average pedigree, having been written by TV producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Big Sky, etc.), but it’s Betty’s foul-mouthed, croc-loving widow Delores Bickerman who elevates Lake Placid from B-monster movie to camp cult classic.
“Schadenfreude” — Boston Legal, s2 (2005)
Boston Legal already had an impressive cast of veterans (James Spader, Candice Bergin, William Shatner, John Larroquette, etc.), and so Betty White’s 16 appearances as the hyper-religious Catherine Piper were icing on the darkly comic cake (she originated the role toward the end of The Practice). It winds up being fortunate that the sometimes legal assistant has so many lawyer friends, as her off-kilter religious convictions lead to a series of increasingly questionable decisions. (Later, she’d wind up holding up a series of convenience stores.) This episode marks a major turning point for Catherine — after Leslie Jordan’s frying-pan murderer Bernard Ferrion is released from police custody multiple times thanks to the lawyers of Crane, Poole & Schmidt, she decides that there’s only one possible way to make sure that he never kills again. It’s as big a character as Betty ever played and she told EW that it was one of her all-time favourites.
The Comedy Central Roast of William Shatner (2006)
Just before Betty’s late-career explosion, she had this viral moment as a guest at Comedy Central’s William Shatner Roast. It was the platonic ideal of a roast delivery: nasty, shameless, inappropriate, and hilarious. Who knew this sweet old lady could be so filthy?
The Proposal (2009)
The Proposal is a perfectly enjoyable, if formulaic, romantic comedy, elevated by the considerable charms of its leads Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock. And also, of course, supporting player Betty. She steals every single scene she’s in here as the weird and quirky grandma working to hold her family together. The film was a massive success, and, likewise, it was the catalyst for the improbable last phase of Betty’s career, a decade+ when she was at least as beloved and more in demand than she’d ever been before. This preceded the Super Bowl Snickers commercial, the SNL appearance, and the start of a new long-running sitcom gig.
Saturday Night Live (May 8, 2010)
Following a Facebook petition, Betty was offered a hosting gig on SNL — it was a job she’d turned down in the past, but not this time. At 88 years old, she became the oldest person ever to host the show, and still managed to leave the show with some of the highest ratings it’s seen over the past decade+ (and one of the better episodes). Hosting the live show and appearing in every sketch is a daunting task for any entertainer, but Betty didn’t miss a single beat. Though she’d never stopped working, the episode capped a particularly impressive year in her career, and cemented her status as a beloved icon who could, and would, continue to deliver.
“Birthdates” — Hot in Cleveland, s1 (2010)
At 88 years old, Betty kicked-off a six season run on her third long-running hit sitcom, this time as Elka, Cleveland native and the irrepressible friend to Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendie Malick, all transplants from Los Angeles. There are definite shades of The Golden Girls in the dynamic, with Betty White now as the sassy, raunchy, and sexually active Sophia type. Betty apparently had so much fun doing a guest appearance in the pilot that she was talked into joining the show full-time. In this early episode, she’s meets blind date Carl Reiner, kicking off an annual tradition of questionable blind dates for the series’ lead characters.
“Anthropology 101″ — Community (2010)
Betty plays visiting anthropology professor June Bauer in this one-off guest appearance, not above using blow guns and harnesses to make her points. It’s a fun episode for that reason but the most memorable bit is certainly her rap with Troy and Abed that plays over the closing credits.
“Bad Bromance” — Hot in Cleveland, s2 (2011)
This second-season episode isn’t exclusively a Betty White showcase, but does include some of her funniest moments in the series, as the increasingly drunk Elka struggles to move past a bad breakup. It all builds to a particularly funny line involving a dating profile screen name, which itself earned a spot in the sitcom blooper hall-of-fame, as outtakes reveal a consummate professional who absolutely could not get through the line. Hot in Cleveland wasn’t necessarily the best of White’s three long-running sitcoms, but it’s clear that everyone was having a ton of fun doing it.
“Love is All Around” — Hot in Cleveland, s4 (2013)
I’m not sure that, on it’s own merits, it’s an all-time great episode of Hot in Cleveland, but there’s something undeniably delightful in this Mary Tyler Moore reunion (the premise being that the cast members present were members of a championship bowling league). It makes for a rather lovely valedictory for the actors involved, and serves as a celebration of Betty’s impressive sitcom career.
“What is Love?” — Forky Asks a Question (2019)
There’s plenty of voiceover work in Betty’s filmography — she performed in the American dub of Ghibli’s Ponyo, as well as in The Lorax, and Trouble, and in any number of animated TV episodes (King of the Hill, SpongeBob, The Simpsons…that list goes on and on). Since COVID robbed us of her performance in a Christmas movie planned for last year, one of her very last roles was in Toy Story 4, playing chew toy Bites White, and in the “What is Love?” episode of the short spin-off series, Forky Asks a Question. It’s not very long, but it’s one more bit of fun.
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