Betty White, beloved star of The Golden Girls whose TV career spanned eight decades – obituary

Betty White in 1954 - Globe Photos / Avalon
Betty White in 1954 - Globe Photos / Avalon

Betty White, the actress and comedienne, who has died aged 99, had, according to Guinness World Records, the longest uninterrupted career of any actor in television history.

Every era offered her an opportunity to redefine herself and win new fans: from live broadcasting in the 1950s, to sitcom star in the 1970s and 1980s, to a beloved elder stateswoman in the early 21st century.

Betty White was best known for her role as Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls, a part she played from 1985 to 1993. Speaking of her craft as a television performer, she once explained: “The camera became your best friend. You’re looking into that little camera lens and they’re looking into your soul, because they’re right into your eyes. You can’t be phony. You can’t fake it… I love television.”

Betty White (to right of picture) with her Golden Girls co-stars Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty and Bea Arthur - Touchstone Tv/Whitt-Thomas-Harris Prod/Kobal/Shutterstock
Betty White (to right of picture) with her Golden Girls co-stars Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty and Bea Arthur - Touchstone Tv/Whitt-Thomas-Harris Prod/Kobal/Shutterstock

If Hollywood actors can be regarded as a kind of aristocracy, White was their Queen – although she was a humble one. On her curriculum vitae she listed “animal rights activist” ahead of actress. Indeed she did huge amounts to raise money for animal welfare charities, once describing herself as the “luckiest old broad alive,” because “half my life is working in a profession I love and the other half is working with animals.”

The only child of a lighting company executive and a housewife, Betty Marion White was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on January 17 1922. During the Great Depression the family moved to Los Angeles where playing the lead in a school play convinced Betty that she wanted to be an actress.

Hollywood was less sure. She was told that she was “unphotogenic”, so she tried radio. Eventually, an executive took pity on her and explained that the only way she would get work was to be part of the union, but that she could not be in the union unless she had worked as an actor.

So he paid her $37.50 to say just one word in a commercial – and her career slowly began. Bit parts on radio followed until she landed a job co-hosting Hollywood on Television in 1949. It was a live variety show that required her to ad-lib for six days a week – a training that today’s actors would probably quit from exhaustion. In 1951 it won her her first Emmy nomination and in 1952 she became the sole host, the first woman in history to hold such a position.

The show spawned a sitcom, Life with Elizabeth (1952-55), based on sketches that she had performed on Hollywood on Television. Betty White was both producer and star of the series and it won her her first of five Primetime Emmy Awards.

But American television was still in its infancy, and it showed. A great deal of output was an excuse to advertise household products – over which Betty White was expected to coo and fawn as if they were the answer to every housewife’s dreams.

The Betty White Show, which she also made in the early 1950s, featured her reading viewers’ letters and singing a few songs, but was essentially filler between other, better programmes.

Inevitably her television personality became defined as inoffensive and bland.

Critics could be unkind. John Crosby in the New York Herald Tribune found her “all… terribly wholesome... I suspect that if I took a bite out of Miss White I’d absorb enough Vitamin B to last all winter. ... And now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m off to stare at Jane Russell and see if some of this wholesomeness will wash off.”

But as television became more sophisticated, it offered Betty White an opportunity to redefine her screen image. In 1973 makers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show – a comedy about the life of a TV station – decided that they wanted to add a “Betty White type” to the sitcom – someone who was all sweetness and light in public but “vicious as a barracuda in private”.

They thought about casting Betty White herself, but were reluctant to because she was close friends with the show’s eponymous star and they feared that the chemistry would be all wrong. Eventually, they caved in and invited her to make an appearance as homewrecker Sue Ann – a man-eating TV host.

In the episode, Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) confronted Sue Ann for sleeping with her husband while Sue Ann was filming a scene of her cooking TV show within a TV show. The dialogue was sparkling, but the oven door fell open and presented a distracting black hole to the camera.

The director called “cut” but Betty White, with perfect timing and while holding a giant soufflé, kicked the door closed with her knee. This beautifully acted piece of passive aggression stayed in the episode.

As the television historian Jennifer Keishin Armstrong observed, “She gave a transcendent performance that prompted viewers to ask: Where has this version of Betty White been and how can we get more of her?” She remained on the show for four years, winning two more Emmy Awards.

But the part for which Betty White will be best remembered is Rose in The Golden Girls. In fact, she had originally been tapped to play the nymphomaniac Blanche Devereaux, but during rehearsals she and her co-star Rue McClanahan were encouraged to swap parts.

At first Betty White was uncertain about how to portray the ditzy Rose, but a producer took her aside and explained that the character was not stupid but rather “terminally naive, a person who always believed the first explanation of something.”

The show that she created with her three co-stars, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan and Bea Arthur, was one part family-friendly sitcom and one part 1980s social satire that dealt with such issues as senility, HIV and gay rights.

All the actors were at the height of their powers, giving a tennis match quality to the scripts. “When you threw out a line, you had to brace yourself, because you knew it would be coming right back at you over the net and you’d better be ready,” Betty White recalled.

Golden Girls was the pinnacle of Betty White’s career, but not its end. Even though she was the oldest member of the cast she outlived her co-stars and continued to act.

By the early 2010s she had attained the status of an idol, invited to appear on countless shows to participate in sketches and add some old world class to proceedings.

Betty White meets President Barack Obama in 2012 - Pete Souza/The White House / Avalon
Betty White meets President Barack Obama in 2012 - Pete Souza/The White House / Avalon

At 88, she was the oldest person in history to host Saturday Night Live. In 2012 she broke a long silence on partisan politics to endorse President Barack Obama – but brought to this latest adventure in her public life a quintessential modesty. “I stay away from politics,” she told journalists. “That’s everybody’s personal business. I’m not that deep or that bright.”

When she visited the President in the White House, he told her that he did not believe she was now 90 and demanded to see her birth certificate. “It was a thrill to be with Mr Obama, but the big thrill was being with Bo, their dog,” she said afterwards. She continued to perform into her 90s. In 2015 she was honoured with a lifetime achievement Emmy Award – her eighth Emmy, and in 2019 she voiced a tiger teething toy, appropriately named Bitey White, in Toy Story 4.

Betty White was married three times; the true love of her life and last husband – Allen Ludden – died in 1981. She had no children of her own, but raised three stepchildren with Ludden. When asked if she would ever consider remarrying, she replied, “Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?”

Betty White, born January 17 1922, died December 31 2021