There’s a good reason they call Betty White The First Lady of Television. The 99-year-old legend’s 80 (yes, we said 80) year career is the longest in the history of TV and, as a matter of fact, White was one of the original pioneers of the television sitcom.
She kinda pioneered a lot of things, actually. Not only was she the first woman to produce her own sitcom, but she was also (possibly) the first woman to ever appear on television, in a performance on an experimental broadcast in 1939, per Thirteen.
We’re all so used to seeing Betty White as our collective lovable gran, it’s easy to forget that (kind of like our actual grandmas) she was once 25 years old — and an absolute babe at that. So in her honor, we decided to take a look back at how the one-time model grew into pop culture’s most perfect creature, the wise-cracking broad we know and love today.
Betty White got her start in the '50s
When you think of the most iconic women of 1950s sitcoms, the first names that come to mind are probably Lucille Ball or Donna Reed, right? We get it, it’s fine. But it is high time to stop sleeping on the contributions Betty White made to the genre as well.
When White first started appearing on TV on the hours-long, six-day-a-week, live broadcast talk show, “Hollywood on Television” in 1949 with Al Jarvis, there were no ropes to learn — she had to improvise on the spot. “We had a lot of time to fill!” she told Variety. The show included songs, skits, and live commercials and, according to the Los Angeles Times, White once did 58 live commercials on one show, a record-setting amount.
Officially on a roll, in 1952 White co-founded Bandy Productions as well as co-created, produced, and starred in her first sitcom, “Life With Elizabeth,” based on one of her “Hollywood on TV” sketches with co-host Jarvis, about a squabbling married couple. With that series, White has been recognized as the first woman to produce a sitcom.
Thus, White’s career as a beloved television personality began, and soon she was making and acting in more sitcoms, and frequently appearing as a guest on game shows — including one hosted by her future husband Allen Ludden.
Of course, her most memorable roles were still to come.
In the '70s, Betty White became a true icon
Before she was the sweetly naive Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls,” Betty White played the conniving Sue Ann Nivens on that other legendary sitcom, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The show was set in a TV newsroom, and White’s character (about as far from Rose as it’s possible to be) hosted the fictional “Happy Homemaker” show.
“It sounded like a cute idea, and funny, because [Sue Ann] was just lovely on camera, she was so sweet, until the red light went off, and then she was a monster,” White said in a 1997 “Archive of American Television” interview. “She was also the neighborhood nymphomaniac.”
Aside from “Golden Girls,” this is probably White’s most memorable TV role, and it earned her three Emmy nominations and two wins. “In the fourth season, I got a call one week, would I do that week’s ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’, from casting. They wanted a happy homemaker who was a sickening, yucky, icky Betty White type,” she said, adding that they were hesitant to cast her at first because of her friendship with the real-life Mary Tyler Moore, but “they read about 12 other gals and they couldn’t find anybody sickening enough.”
By the time the show ended in 1977, White was 55-years-old and a household name, starring in the third show titled “The Betty White Show.”
White became one of the Golden Girls in the 80s
We’re guessing that the image of Betty White that feels most familiar to you is the Betty White of the 1980s, because this is when “The Golden Girls” first premiered, running from 1985 to 1992.
White turned the dial on that signature sweetness up to 11 for her most memorable role, playing Rose Nylund alongside Rue McClanahan’s oversexed Blanche Devereux and Bea Arthur’s no-nonsense Dorothy Zbornak. If there is a person alive today who doesn’t feel some kind of emotional connection to the delightfully innocent Rose, we have yet to meet them. White got seven Emmy noms and one win for playing Rose, as a matter of fact.
Image-wise, White hasn’t changed all that much since playing Rose when she was in her 60s — even though it’s been nearly 30 years since the show went off the air. To this day, there’s no one who does Sweet Little Old Lady With a Surprising Side like her.
By the 2000s, Betty White was a bona fide folk hero
Outside of sitcoms, Betty White delivered some of her greatest hits and most memorable moments in the 2000s, never afraid to lean all the way in and play on her age by occasionally saying and doing things you would never expect a small old woman to say or do.
Who can forget her “Get Low” rendition in the 2009 romcom “The Proposal,” for instance, which Sandra Bullock’s character chants as a form of pagan worship? Or her spot in a Super Bowl Snickers ad in 2010 playing tackle football, where she delivers the line, “That’s not what your girlfriend says!” to the accusation, “You’re playing like Betty White out there!”
Always a pioneer, she became the oldest Saturday Night Live host ever, joking in her monologue, “Many of you know I’m 88 and a half years old — so it’s great to be here for a number of reasons.” Regarding the fan-led Facebook campaign to get her on the show, White quipped: “People say, ‘But Betty, Facebook is a great way to connect with old friends.’ Well at my age if I wanna connect with old friends I need a Ouija board.”
At 99 years old, Betty White is still upbeat
Obviously, we know that Betty White, who turned 99 on January 17, 2021, cannot possibly live forever, and that’s why our hearts skip a beat every time her name trends on Twitter.
“I am blessed with good health,” she told People when asked the secret behind her long, active life, “so turning 99 is no different than turning 98.” She also noted that her signature cheeriness might have something to do with what keeps her ticking.
“A sense of humor,” she said when asked what keeps her going every day. “Don’t take yourself too seriously. You can lie to others — not that I would — but you cannot lie to yourself.”
During quarantine, the legend has kept mostly to herself (she wasn’t on Zoom because she never learned how it works, per ET) and her animal friends, getting daily exercise walking up and down her stairs and treating herself to a vodka cocktail on occasion. It’s great to see our golden girl still going strong after all these years.
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