Betty White, Star of 'Golden Girls' and 'Mary Tyler Moore Show,' Dead at 99
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Betty White -- the five-time Emmy Award-winning actress, the woman Oprah Winfrey called a “national treasure,” and the Guinness World Record holder for “Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female)” -- has died Friday morning at her home, ET has confirmed. She was 99 years old. No other details are available at this moment.
Her death comes ahead of her 100th birthday on Jan. 17, which will be celebrated on TV with the once-in-a-lifetime movie event, Betty White: 100 Years Young -- A Birthday Celebration. In December, the star spoke with ET, revealing how she was feeling ahead of the momentous milestone.
"[I'm] amazed," White said. "No, seriously, I’m the luckiest broad on two feet to be as healthy as I am and to feel as good as I do!"
Before then, she wanted to be a forest ranger. The Betty White -- the great American comedian -- that was her childhood ambition: forest ranger.
Instead, and to the benefit of American arts and letters, she took on Hollywood, a life in klieg lights. With humor and intellect, she changed the town, making it better, kinder and much, much funnier.
Her resume spans decades, its first entry before World War II. She worked the game show circuit, including Password and The Hollywood Squares. While the actress has starred in everything from TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland to The Bold and the Beautiful and most recently hosted Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, she’s best known for two dissimilar TV sitcom roles: most famously, she played the amiable, doe-eyed Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls; a decade before that she was the duplicitous Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Both shows broke cultural ground with portrayals of independent women, ones untethered to men (matrimonially, at least), and in defiance of both real world and television conventions. It’s not to say these shows were unadulterated feminist victories, but they were original, liberative, and platforms for social change.
Audiences responded rapturously, the ratings were solid, and the Emmys were plentiful.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, set in the 1970s, starred its namesake, naturally, who depicted the cheerful Mary Richards, a single, career-oriented woman who worked for WJM, a fictitious Minneapolis TV station. White, an off-camera friend of Moore’s, joined the cast in season four as Sue Ann, the honeyed host of WJM’s The Happy Homemaker, and a sarcastic antagonist to Mary.
For this role, she earned two Emmys, and a third nomination. “It really did turn my career completely around,” White said of her first Emmy win for the sitcom. As she put it: her peers no longer saw her as a TV personality, but as an actress.
In 1985, White joined The Golden Girls, a show about four women, single and older, roommates bound by friendship. She played Rose -- sweet, simple and sincere -- an inverted Sue Ann.
Unlike most of their sitcom predecessors, these women spoke unabashedly of sex, menopause and aging. But that’s not all. Their kitchen table conversations were about AIDS, homelessness, same-sex marriage, racism and myriad injustices. This is what they talked about, usually while eating cheesecake, and making gut-busting jokes. The takeaway was always the same: bigots aren’t welcome here.
(Historical footnote: White as Rose almost never happened. She was set to play the flirty, saucy Blanche Devereaux, a part ultimately played by Rue McClanahan, who in turn was set to play Rose. But this arrangement was typecasting them both to their previous sitcoms. So, Jay Sandrich, the pilot’s director, asked White and McClanahan to switch parts. It worked; the change was made permanent.)
The Golden Girls ended in 1992, after seven seasons, when co-star Bea Arthur quit the show. White was 70, and uninterested in retirement. It was never necessary; the roles kept coming, including guest spots on That ’70s Show and voice work on The Simpsons.
She was famously appointed to host Saturday Night Live in 2010 -- the oldest person to do so in SNL history -- after hundreds of thousands of her fans demanded it in a social media campaign.
The night was a Betty White triumph, a showcase for her comedic chops. From one sketch to the next she played off of her own stereotypes as someone either kindly or cutting. It earned her yet another Emmy, and set the stage for subsequent roles as the grandma-type who’ll say anything.
One month after her turn as SNL host came Hot in Cleveland, a sitcom about three women who trade their Hollywood lives for do-overs in Ohio. White played Elka, their cantankerous landlord.
In 2012, she extended her career as host of Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, a hidden-camera prankster show on which older folks badgered younger ones for fun. She also hosted the similarly titled GAC series, Betty White's Smartest Animals in America. The former earned her three consecutive Emmy nominations.
After seven decades on TV, the Daytime Emmys honored White with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. “When I started in 1949, I had no idea that I would still be around at this point, for one thing,” she said upon receiving the award, “but that I'd still be privileged enough to still be in this business, and it is such a privilege.”
White was a dedicated entertainer, and she liked doing it, obviously. But her true passion and primary concern was always for animals, for their welfare and protection. “What is your idea of perfect happiness,” Vanity Fair asked her. “Being with animals,” she said.
The U.S. Forest Service made her an honorary forest ranger in 2010, fulfilling the earliest of her dreams. (The agency’s chief apologized to her for its past transgression: not hiring women.)
"Wilderness is getting harder and harder to find these days on our beautiful planet and we’re abusing our planet to the point of almost no return," White said at the event. "In my heart I’ve been a forest ranger all my life, but now I’m official."
Smokey Bear attended the presentation.
It’s tempting to conflate Betty White the person with her fictional personas, particularly the syrupy and naive ones, but to do so is to diminish her, unfairly.
“People know she’s got a wicked sense of humor and that she’s super sweet,” said Marc Cherry, the creator of Desperate Housewives and a former writer on The Golden Girls. “But Lord, is she smart.”
And though most people liked her, not everyone did. Bea Arthur, who played the dry and hilariously acerbic Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls, apparently detested White, unreservedly. She might have liked her at one time, and they were always professional with one another, but Arthur’s true feelings for White were unmistakably sour during the show’s latter seasons.
“I loved her. She was not that fond of me,” said White in an on-stage interview with The New York Times in 2011. “She found me a pain in the neck sometimes because of my…positive attitude. I’m happy all the time, and that made Bea mad.”
She added: “If Bea was happy, she’d be furious.”
Not surprisingly, White had many friends. But one person among all others was her favorite: Allen Ludden, the host of Password, on which she was a recurring contestant. They married in 1963, after she declined two of his earlier proposals. He was her third husband.
They were a celebrity couple with an eclectic set of celebrity friends, including Liberace, Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck and Fred Astaire. As the Luddens, they competed on game shows, and even did a guest spot on the sitcom classic, The Odd Couple.
Ludden died from stomach cancer in 1981. White never remarried, telling Larry King, “Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?” Her greatest regret in life, she said, was rebuffing Ludden’s first proposals.
Betty White will be remembered. She will stay on the air and in print. There’s a Hollywood Walk of Fame star for her, next to Ludden’s, at 6747 Hollywood Boulevard. And there’s a plaque in her honor next to the gorillas at the Los Angeles Zoo (they were her favorite).
Death would come, White knew, and she was not bothered. “I don’t get depressed as the numbers climb. Perhaps because I don’t fear death,” she wrote in her book, If You Ask Me: And of Course You Won’t. “To some it is such a bête noir that it ruins some of the good time they have left.”
To the end she worked, she played and she loved animals.
“I’m surrounded by friends I adore,” she said just before her 90th birthday. “Isn’t that kind of the best way to sign off?”
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