Betty White: a true TV genius – and a black belt in comedy | Television


Betty White, who had one of the longest careers in television history playing giddy blondes, was actually one of the toughest and wisest brunettes in showbiz. Yet such was her skill in shaping her public image – through talk shows, game shows, sitcoms, and multiple autobiographies – that from the start she was seen as something more than just a TV personality. television: a real type.

In her later years, she was considered by many to be the ultimate example of how to be a senior. Amy Poehler, in her essay book Yes, Please, recalls the time White appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2010: “I asked her what she was going to do after the show. “I’m going to make myself some vodka on ice and eat a cold hot dog,” she said. It confirmed to me that getting older was great, ”writes Poehler.

“It confirmed to me that getting older was awesome” … Amy Poehler when she appeared on Saturday Night Live with White. Photograph: NBC / Getty Images

By then, White had already spent almost 70 years making herself a recognizable genre. In 1973, when The Mary Tyler Moore Show was in full swing, an episode was written featuring a new character, Sue Ann, who the screenplay described as “an incredibly sweet type of Betty White,” White recalls in the story. ‘one of his memoirs, Here We Vas y encore. But, wrote White, “They didn’t find anyone sickening enough.”

And so the casting director gave the role of Sue Ann Nivens, the seemingly silly blonde with a nasty, nymphomaniac streak not very hidden, to White herself. White played it to such perfection that she became a regular on the show and quickly won her second and third Emmy Awards for the role.

White has worked so long that looking back on her career is like taking a Zelig-style tour through American television history, in which she has appeared in each of the media’s most prominent genres over the decades. (Her third, latest and late beloved husband, game show host Allen Ludden, used to introduce her at parties with “Meet my wife – one of the pioneers of silent television.” “And it was practically true, ”she agreed.)

White c 1956.
She has worked so long that her career is like a Zelig-style tour through the history of American television … White c.1956. Photograph: Hulton Archives / Getty Images

White, who was born in Illinois but raised in Los Angeles, got her first television job in 1949 as Al Jarvis’ sidekick on her live-action variety show, Hollywood on Television, on which she and Jarvis were discussing amicably between playing new records. . However, viewers wrote to complain that they were more interested in White and Jarvis’ conversation than the records, so the music was quickly dropped.

Her attractive personality meant that she was there early on on game shows and talk shows and then, throughout the 50s and 60s, worked with everyone from Jack Paar to Johnny Carson. Fans were able to see her deeply in love in her many appearances on her husband’s game show, Password, which Ludden hosted from 1961 to 1967.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive / CBS / Getty Images

When the two appeared on the show shortly after their honeymoon, they could barely stop laughing and saying each other’s name in loving rapture. Paar, a friend of the couple and another guest on the show, eyed them in wonder: “What kind of honeymoon have you both had?” he asked, affecting bewilderment.

They never had children, although White was the mother-in-law of Ludden’s children from a previous relationship, and she was a staunch animal lover and wrote of her long work with zoos and conservation in another memoir, Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo. She turned down a role in the 1997 hit film As Good as it Gets because in one scene a character dropped a puppy in a laundry chute. “I said as long as this scene was in the movie, I wouldn’t do it,” she said. And she didn’t.

White was one of the first and still relatively few women to have creative control in front of and behind the camera, with her 1950s sitcom, Life With Elizabeth. While not an obvious trailblazer like Joan Rivers, White was a low-key revolutionary in her own way – a gloved knife rather than a Rivers-like ax smashing walls, whose on-screen jibes shatter. accompanied by a gentle smile instead of a sneer.

Her two signature roles played on this contrast – the softness covering the stitching – with a shiny effect. She rose to prominence in sitcoms in the ’70s and’ 80s – arguably the genre’s two greatest decades. As Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she satirized her own sparkling-eyed appearance, pulling the most punch on Moore as she floated around holding a souffle.

A new generation has known her as Rose Nylund, the seemingly silly Nordic blonde from St Olaf, Minnesota, on the ’80s sitcom The Golden Girls, about a group of older women living in Florida, with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty.

They were all, as one TV reviewer put it, “comedy black belts,” but few shows have better demonstrated White’s comedy genius: his timing, his rhythms, and even just his facial expressions. have transformed Rose from a potentially joke pony into a three-way pony. dimensional character, particularly appreciated by children. “It tickled me every time a tiny little person, pulling on my mother’s sleeve, would point a finger and say, ‘There you go, Wose! “Too young to pronounce it, they still knew the character,” White recalls.

Surprisingly daring ... The Golden Girls.
Surprisingly daring … The Golden Girls. Photograph: Allstar Picture Library Ltd./Alamy

All the arguments that the public doesn’t want to watch old people on TV are rebutted by a look at the Golden Girls records. The show was in the Top 10 most viewed shows in the United States every week for its first five years. During those years, all four stars were nominated for Emmys each year.

Although seemingly a generic sitcom with a laugh track, the show was surprisingly bold on everything from geriatric sex to death, unlike any show since, and was loved by the general public of all ages. ages. White summed up the show’s appeal by saying, simply and correctly, “I think we were really funny.”

It could be argued that anyone who hangs out in the entertainment business long enough becomes a legend and a beloved treasure. But that’s just not true, as a glance at the many forgotten legends of TV’s past proves (when Mary Tyler Moore died in 2016, many were surprised she was still around). White’s longevity is undoubtedly remarkable – when her last sitcom, Hot in Cleveland, ended, she was 93.

But she was more than just good genes. They were a real troupe in the old showbiz sense, happy to take anything for a joke, whether it was tap dancing (shiny) in shorts on The Golden Girls in their sixties, or making jokes about their ” savory muffin “on Saturday Night Live in its 90th birthday.

She was, she often admitted, a workaholic, whose love for the job was part of the reason her second marriage ended in 1949 after two years, and so she overcame grief when Ludden passed away in 1981. But she was also an early adopter. the concept of celebrity: she understood before many others the value of making her personality her brand, and how close it was to reality has become questionable. With a talent like his, reality was there.