She still loves game shows. She still answers questions with Rose Nylund’s exclamation points. She’s won seven Emmys and hosted three different series titled “The Betty White Show” during her eight decades in television.
At 98, Betty White has many gifts, including her unique perspective on the evolution of television. The Los Angeles native starred in her first experimental TV broadcast in Hollywood a few months before NBC pulled off its broadcasting feat at the 1939 New York World’s Fair in Queens. Her long list of accomplishments include co-starring in three enduring sitcoms: CBS’ “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” NBC’s “The Golden Girls” and TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland.”
In a recent email correspondence with Variety, White shared observations on her career, starting with her days as the record-spinning sidekick on the five-hour daily talk show “Hollywood on Television,” hosted by popular disc jockey Al Jarvis, for KLAC-TV (now KCOP-TV). Soon White was juggling work on two shows when she was tapped to star in the 1953-55 domestic comedy “Life With Elizabeth.”
From then to now, Betty White has never looked back, and she has never stopped working.
What did you learn about the young medium of television during your “girl Friday” days with Al Jarvis on KLAC-TV Los Angeles that helped you most in your career?
Improvisation. We had a lot of time to fill!
You starred in “Life With Elizabeth” at a time when domestic sitcoms were brand-new. Was it hard for you to learn comedic timing and how to work in front of a TV camera?
We just did it. When I was with Al Jarvis, we had to fill hours of time six days a week. The timing came from there.
Who helped you to become an actor? Where did you learn the basics?
My parents and especially my mom were supportive right from the start.
What do you think it took for television to come into its own vis-a-vis movies and radio? When did you get the sense that the medium was here to stay?
I think once people got used to entertainment coming right into their living rooms. … Well, there we were, and we weren’t going anywhere!
For virtually all of your career you have been well-known as yourself — America’s beloved Betty White — from talk shows, game shows, events such as the Tournament of Roses Parade, and as an actor playing indelible characters like Sue Ann Nevins and Rose Nylund. Did you make a point of developing both facets of an on-camera personality, or was it just that you were in demand so much?
I just love to work and the word “no” did not exist.
What were the most important roles that advanced your career after “Life With Elizabeth”?
I’m not sure. I just never stopped working!
Did you work in New York very often in the 1950s and ’60s? Was there a big difference between working in TV in the East versus the West?
I’m a California girl through and through. New York has never been big on my list. Of course, I went there when I needed to, but I was always happy to come home.
How did Sue Ann Nevins and ”The Mary Tyler Moore Show” change your life?
It gave me wonderful friends: Mary Tyler Moore and her husband, Grant Tinker.
When you started “The Golden Girls,” did you think it would run for seven years and bring you an Emmy?
I never thought about those things. I was happy to work!
Are there any shows you would cite as favorites — from any period in TV?
I’m an avid “Jeopardy!” fan. I try to watch as often as I can!
10 Things You Didn’t Know About Betty White:
- White made her TV debut in February 1939 when she co-starred in an experimental broadcast of operetta “The Merry Widow” that originated in downtown Los Angeles.
- Her co-host on “Hollywood on Television” for six months was Eddie Albert, future star of “Green Acres.”
- In the early 1950s, she co-ran the Bandy Prods. banner with future “My Three Sons” producer Don Fedderson.
- In that era, she lived in Brentwood and juggled getting to and from multiple shows in Hollywood, Burbank and Beverly Hills before there were such things as the 405 or 134 freeways.
- “Mind-boggling” is how she remembers NBC’s landmark 1954 unveiling of its color television system, which quickly became the industry standard.
- She first covered the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day 1955 — from a studio in Burbank dressed up to look like she and co-host Bill Goodwin were on the scene in Pasadena.
- “The Betty White Show” trinity: daytime talk-variety show (NBC, aired early February-Dec. 31, 1954); sketch comedy-variety series (NBC, aired Feb. 5-April 30, 1958); sitcom spoof of TV news (CBS, aired Sept. 12, 1977-Jan. 9, 1978)
- She signed on to “The Golden Girls” because the pilot was directed by Jay Sandrich, the key helmer of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
- She and Lucille Ball were good friends, and so were their mothers, Tess White and DeDe Ball. After DeDe died in 1977, Lucy sent violets every year to Tess on DeDe’s birthday.
- White was born to be on live TV. “I think I would get the bends without a commercial to do every now and then,” she wrote in her 1995 memoir “Here We Go Again: My Life in Television.”