The First Lady of Television
When the beloved actress Betty White passed away the last day of 2021—just weeks before her 100th birthday—media and personal tributes poured in from around the world. However, one drawing/cartoon that appeared on social media perhaps best summarized her. This depicted Betty White arriving at the traditional image of heaven where she’s greeted by a horde of exuberant canines. She is told: “Your Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls co-stars came to greet you. However, they can’t get past the dogs.” For perhaps everyone remembers her as not just an actress but as an animal lover.
Betty Marion White (her name was not Elizabeth) was born in Illinois in January, 1922 as an only child and a year later she and her family moved to California. She graduated from high school in 1939 and sought employment as a forest ranger. However, women were not accepted at the time.
After high school Betty appeared in very early TV broadcasts, modeled and appeared at little theater and after World War II she tried and failed to get in the movies. So she began to work in radio, reading commercials and playing bit parts until she finally got her own program. She got her own radio program, but then turned to television. By 1952 she was hosting a television talk/variety program which was broadcast live for more than 5 hours a day 6 days a week, singing and ad libbing. She was also nominated for an early Emmy Award but did not win—a situation that would soon change.
Then Betty joined others to create and broadcast new programs and thus was born Life with Elizabeth, a show that was later nationally syndicated and won Betty a local Emmy award. At the time she was one of the first women in television to have a program with full creative control before or behind the camera.
From 1952 to 1954 Betty produced and hosted her own talk/variety program, first on an L.A. station then nationally on NBC. This brought her a national audience, which led to one challenge. She had Black tap dancer Arthur Duncan as a regular and critics in the south called for a boycott if she did not drop him. Yet Betty didn’t budge, telling the critics, “I’m sorry,” she said. “Live with it.” She also expanded Duncan’s performance time.
However, the program did not survive—most likely because of time slot changes that dropped the number of viewers. Betty began to appear in an ABC sitcom called Date with the Angels from 1957 to 1958.
Since her sitcoms were filmed on the same lot as the national favorite program I Love Lucy she found a close and lifelong friend in star Lucille Ball. She also began to appear in theatrical productions around the country.
In the 1960s and beyond Betty was busy with TV talk shows (like The Tonight Show) but also as a game show panelist. One early one was “Password” which went through many formats from 1961 to 1975. She also appeared on such programs as To Tell the Truth, I’ve Got a Secret, and the Match Game. In fact, her appearance on the third “Password” program brought a meeting with host Allen Ludden and they were married in 1963. It would be her third marriage.
Betty learned later that as “Password” started Ludden’s first wife was dying of cancer and the week Betty appeared she had passed away.
Later that summer Betty and Ludden were booked to play summer stock in Cape Cod and along with Ludden’s three children and two poodle puppies, they all spent the weeks becoming better acquainted. In an interview later Betty revealed that the children were jokingly encouraging their father to propose to Betty, which he did several times. However, Betty was seriously involved with another man at the time, and even this man recognized a strong attraction between Betty and Ludden.
Eventually even after Ludden gave Betty a wedding ring to encourage her acceptance, she continued to decline since she did not want to be New York. Then finally one Easter he gifted her with a toy plush bunny with earrings and she finally agreed to his proposal.
She later told an interviewer: “I’m the only woman in the world who agreed to marry him, not for the earrings but for the stuffed bunny.” Also, she admitted, the Ludden family poodles also helped her change her mind as she explained her regret at her refusals that year before.
Though they had no children together, Betty was step mother to the Ludden children, even after Ludden’s death in 1981. She never remarried, telling an interviewer, “Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?”
Then among White’s perhaps most popular role came when she played the Sue Ann Nivens character in the nationally popular sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, then in its fifth season. At that time program officials sought a new female character who would be hostess of the Happy Homemaker program on the sitcom’s fictitious television.
Mary Tyler Moore once told an interviewer that the production team wanted this new character to be as “sweet as Betty White and as vicious as a barracuda.” Then when Moore suggested they ask Betty White to be considered for the role, she was told that might be awkward if it didn’t work out. This was because Betty and Ludden were close friends with Moore and her spouse. Moore told them: “If she’s no good, don’t hire her. Everyone would rather be asked and turned down than not asked at all.”
So what was supposed to be a onetime appearance went on to be a continuing character, a role that brought Betty two Emmy Awards in 1975 and 1976.
Then as Moore’s program ended in 1977 White had her own series The Betty White Show but since it was slotted opposite Monday Night Football. Ratings were poor and the show did not survive.
In 1983 Betty became the host of her own game show Just Men! and became the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy Award for the program. However, critics were not kind and the program lasted only a few months.
Then in 1983 to 1984 White had a frequent role in Mama’s Family, and her co-star was Rue McClanahan—a pairing that was to continue in White’s next smash hit.
In 1985 she assumed the role of Rose Nylund as one of the four Golden Girls—four mature single women living in Miami, Florida. Originally Rue McClanahan was to play the naive, ditzy Rose and Betty was slated to appear as the man-hungry Blanche but in the end they switched roles. It was felt that in the original casting they’d be playing similar characters from the past—Betty as Sue Ann Nivens and McClanahan as a character from Maude.
Again, Betty won one Emmy Award the first year, and was nominated every year of the show’s run.
Over the next few years Betty appeared in several other programs, winning more Emmy Awards. A candy bar commercial brought new interest and she then cast in the Hot in Cleveland. That brought another Emmy nomination.
To fulfill her childhood dream, the US Forest Service made her an honorary forest ranger in 2010, a time when more than one third of the Forest Service personnel were women.
The poodle puppies she acquired with marriage to Allen Ludden were just two of many pets Betty had over many years, as a part of her life love of animals and wildlife. She extended her devotion to animal welfare in her professional private life. She worked for several years with the Los Angeles Zoo in various capacities, and other organizations, and in the early 1970s she was hostess of a syndicated TV series The Pet Set. The show highlighted various celebrity guest stars that brought their own pets to the show.
Because of her talents and gifts as a performer as well as her role as an animal activist Betty remained a popular and a welcome guest star as she approached her 100th birthday. However, it was a milestone she just missed—passing away on December 31, 2021 at age 99—just a few weeks before her 100th birthday.
One final mark of respect occurred, when many on social media encouraged her fans to donate, to their local animal shelters in Betty’s memory. The funds raised were a true tribute to a well loved figure.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.