Betty White has lived most of her 88 years in front of the camera, starting in the days when the number of homes in Los Angeles equipped with television sets numbered well under 1,000.
White, the Screen Actors Guild’s 2010 lifetime achievement honoree, has done just about everything there is to do in television, and for the past six decades she’s never wanted for smallscreen work. But in recent years she’s defied Hollywood’s laws of gravity with a burst of feature activity, including last year’s much-praised turn opposite Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in Disney’s “The Proposal.”
White is the first to point out that there just aren’t supposed to be many good parts in studio pictures for 80-something actresses. She’ll be back onscreen this fall in another romantic comedy for Disney, “You Again,” with Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kristen Bell.
I’m a television child,” White says. “When the movies come along, it’s always a tremendous thrill — and a shock.”
White fell for the “Proposal” script on first reading, but she still turned down director Anne Fletcher when she realized the schedule called for 10 weeks of shooting along the Massachusetts coast. That was simply too long a hitch for White to be away from the golden retriever she adopted last year. Producers came back with an offer to frontload White’s scenes into a six-week timetable.
A friend who promised to faithfully dog-sit convinced White, a renowned advocate for animal health and welfare issues, that she should take the part. She became fast friends with Bullock, who will present White’s kudo at Saturday’s SAG Awards ceremony, and Reynolds.
It was like going to a party every day,” White says. “Anne Fletcher was as nutty as the rest of us.”
The proving ground for White’s long career came early on when she was tapped to be the girl sidekick to popular L.A. deejay Al Jarvis for five hours of live TV five days a week (which quickly expanded to 5 hours and six days a week).
Hollywood on Television,” which bowed in November 1949 on KLAC-TV (now Fox-owned KCOP-TV), was an amalgamation of a morning chatshow, a daytime talk-variety hour and local lifestyle fare. There were no scripts, no teleprompters, no segment producers — just Jarvis’ instruction to White that she should “follow where I lead,” as White recalled in her 1995 autobiography “Here We Go Again.”
In short order, White and Jarvis were so popular they added an hourlong primetime variety hour on Saturday nights to their grueling sked. But White couldn’t get enough of the camera, and it was here that she began to hone her trademark persona of the all-American girl who is equal parts sweet and sassy — even a little saucy when the situation warrants.
The primetime variety show with Jarvis yielded a domestic comedy, “Life With Elizabeth,” for White based on a recurring husband-and-wife sketch that always ended with her warbling a pop tune. KLAC station manager Don Fedderson, who would go on to produce “My Three Sons” among notable series, suggested the sketch could be extended to a half-hour series — once he overcame White’s instincts that it would never work.
In my wisdom I told him ‘You’ll kill the joke. It sags in the middle if you try to pull it out for a half-hour,” White recalls.
“Elizabeth” and “Hollywood” jointly in 1953 brought White the first of her six Emmys. “Elizabeth” was so bare bones that it only employed one writer, George Tibbles, but they made up names of other writers just so the credits wouldn’t look so peaked.
After two seasons with “Elizabeth,” White moved on to host her own daytime yakker for the NBC network. “The Betty White Show” didn’t last too long, but it was long enough to establish her as a national TV personality. From there, she moved freely between sitcoms, guest shots, live-event hosting (Rose Parade, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, et al.), talkshow and gameshow appearances and even summer stock and repertory theater work (“The King and I,” “Brigadoon,” etc.) when her schedule allowed.
Of the many things she’s done, her favorite mode of performing remains the multicamera situation comedy — where her legacy is ensured by her work on the mammoth 1970s and ’80s hits “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Golden Girls.”
You have the live audience with you and they give you all your timing,” she says. “You go through it just like a play. It’s wonderful.”
Still, there was one career goal White never achieved until last year: death. She jumped at the chance to die onscreen last November when the writers of “The Bold and the Beautiful” proposed it for a character she’s played on the CBS daytime sudser on and off since 2006.
I thought that would be fun,” White says. “Mercy me, I’d never gotten quite that dramatic before.”
Aside from film and TV projects, White is devoted to her work with the Morris Animal Foundation, which funds health research, and as a trustee of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn. In her spare time, she lensed two commercials that will begin airing this year, one for the SafeWatch emergency alert system and one for Snickers candy bars.
The fact that I’m still working so much is wonderful. I’m amazed,” she says. “Acting and the animal work keeps me horrendously busy — which is an observation, not a complaint.”
What: SAG Awards
Where: L.A. Shrine Expo Center
Who: Betty White receives lifetime achievement kudo