The grand dame of American TV comedy, Betty Marion White Ludden (January 17, 1922 December 31, 2021) began her eight-decade-long entertainment industry career in 1939. She got in on the ground floor of the newfangled medium of television, with her first IMDb credit for TV dating to 1949. By 1953, she had her first starring role, as the title character in the sitcom Life With Elizabeth; even before then, she'd earned the first of her 21 Primetime Emmy Award nominations in 1951.
White was notable for the number of times she rebuilt her career based on playing against her previous image:
- In her initial phase, lasting from the 1950s until the early 1970s, she became known to the public through her various sitcoms and her appearances on Password (hosted by her third husband, Allen Ludden), Match Game and other game shows. This Betty was a sweet and charming woman, the classic sitcom mother. (One exception to this was her small role as a United States Senator in Advise & Consent.)
- Then she landed the role of Sue Ann Nivens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a parody of this sort of character to the point that the creators originally wanted to cast a "Betty White type" in the part. Sue Ann pretended to be that sort of nice person on her TV program, but offscreen she was greedy, bitchy, and man-hungry. This set the tenor of her appearances for the next decade or so...
- ...until she was cast on The Golden Girls, which became probably her most iconic role. She was originally suggested for the role of Blanche, a character more in line with Sue Ann and the character she played on Mama's Family, but she ended up as Rose Nylund, The Ditz of the group. White reprised her role for the one-season spinoff The Golden Palace after The Golden Girls ended in 1992.
- White's career since the end of The Golden Palace in 1993 was playing against her image as Rose. Thus, for the rest of her life, one could expect her to be a Racist Grandma or some other subversion of Rose's affable ditziness.
White underwent something of a late-career renaissance in 2009 when she had a supporting role in the successful romantic comedy The Proposal starring Sandra Bullock. The following year she appeared (along with fellow TV veteran Abe Vigoda) in a popular Super Bowl ad for Snickers candy (see video below), which in turn inspired a semi-ironic Facebook campaign to get her to host the long-running sketch show Saturday Night Live during its 35th season. The campaign was a big hit, and Lorne Michaels indeed brought her on the show, making White the oldest host in its history at age 88 and a half (and beat out the only non-celebrity host Miskel Spillman, who was 80 at the time, helmed the 1977 Christmas show after winning the "Anyone Can Host" contest in Season 3). She also had numerous high-profile guest appearances, like a recurring professor on Community, and received the Screen Actors Guild's Life Achievement Award in 2010. She contributed to TV Land's Network Decay by starring in Hot in Cleveland, although that's hardly a bad thing. In 2012, she began hosting a new prank show on NBC, Betty White's Off Their Rockers, featuring old people pranking youngsters. In August of 2015 she announced that she would guest-star in an episode of Bones.
She had her own clothing line, and T-shirts with her face on them are huge in Tokyo. She was also known for being a huge animal welfare activist and regularly worked with various charities, such as the American Humane Association.
She passed away on December 31, 2021, less than three weeks from her 100th birthday from complications of a stroke she suffered six days earlier; a celebratory documentary titled Betty White: A Celebrationnote that was planned before her death was shown at theaters for one day on January 17, 2022.
James Corden once joked that she was "older than sliced-bread and Mickey Mouse". For those of you interested, both of those facts are literally true.note
Tropes associated with Betty Whites roles:
- Adam Westing: On her guest appearance on Ugly Betty, and her first appearance on The Simpsons.Betty White: If you watch even one second of PBS and don't contribute, you're a thief! A common thief!PBS Host: Okay, take it easy, Betty.Betty White: Sorry, but these thieves make me so damn mad. You know who you are, thieves!
- Biting-the-Hand Humor: When she hosted on SNL (which, really, is a trademark gag on SNL nowadays), she mentioned that her first TV show was broadcast live because they didn't know how to record TV yet. She's not sure what their excuse at SNL is.note The petition to have her host was on Facebook. So of course Betty decided to call Facebook "a huge waste of time."
- The Ditz: As Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls and its spinoff The Golden Palace.
- Foreshadowing: White had her own sitcom on CBS in 1977, titled The Betty White Show, which failed to attract an audience and lasted only 14 episodes. It aired at 9:00 on Monday nights, during the same hour as the final season of Maude - which starred future Golden Girls co-stars Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan.
- Game Show Host: Of Just Men!, for which she won her only daytime Emmy despite NBC canning it after 13 weeks. Due to the way the Emmy nomination period worked at the time, she was actually nominated for it a second time. Also, she was married to Password host Allen Ludden until his death. She also made appearances on Jimmy Fallon's mini-revival of Password, her 90th Birthday Celebration special featured an edition hosted by Joel McHale, and her Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2015 Daytime Emmys was preceded by an edition of Password Plus hosted by Tom Bergeron.
- Racist Grandma: She sometimes played them. In Everwood, among other places, though that specific example was only latently racist.
- Running Gag: On The Late Late Show, she always needed some cash, as she lost it on (insert name of any incident here).
- Self-Deprecation: She frequently made jokes at her own expense. When she was on Jimmy Kimmel, he asked her about first moving to Hollywood, and she mentioned that she wasn't sure if California was a state yet at the time and later joked when hosting SNL that she didn't use Facebook as her only way to contact old friends was with a ouija board.
- "Sesame Street" Cred: She starred as Mrs. Claus in a Christmas Special of the PBS Kids series The Noddy Shop.
- Signature Style: Not so much her, just the people around her. Since Hollywood doesn't exactly value age, most writers weren't sure what to do with her, so a few of her appearances had her play a sweet old lady saying crass and bizarre things (such as her appearances on The Late Late Show and Saturday Night Live).
- The Show Must Go On: She was to have a 100th birthday event released in theaters on January 17, 2022. However, she died on December 31, 2021. Despite this, Fathom Events, who hosted the event, held it as scheduled and removed the "100th birthday" mentions.