Honoring Betty White’s legacy through her work in visual media

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 07: Actress Betty White speaks onstage at The 41st Annual People's Choice Awards at Nokia Theatre LA Live on January 7, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 07: Actress Betty White speaks onstage at The 41st Annual People's Choice Awards at Nokia Theatre LA Live on January 7, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) /

The world has lost a beloved animal rights advocate, actress, and all-around ‘golden girl’, Betty White.  Just days short of her centennial birthday (100 on January 17th) Betty passed away at her Los Angeles home at the age of 99 on Friday, December 31st.

Betty holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest career of any performer as she has been in entertainment for well over ninety years.

A remarkable and well-deserved feat.

Her longtime agent and friend, Jeff Witjas, gave the following to People earlier on Friday:

"Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever,” he said in an earlier statement. “I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don’t think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again."

Betty graced the cover of this week’s People, reflecting on her secrets on life and (nearly) reaching 100.

"I’m so lucky to be in such good health and feel so good at this age.  It’s amazing."

Early life and early successes

Born in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park in 1922, Betty Marion White was the only child of Horace White and Tess.  From an early age, she had a penchant for acting and performing, and before televisions were brought into homes, Betty and a friend performed the soundtrack from The Merry Widow in front of a television camera.  The live pictures were then transmitted onscreen to the building’s first floor.

In the late 1940s, following her volunteer duties with the American Women’s Voluntary Services in World War Two, Betty became the host of the Hollywood on Television, a five-and-a-half-hours and six-days a week variety show.  Being hostess in the early days of production, where men usually reigned, earned her a Primetime Emmy nomination.

Following the success of Hollywood on Television, Betty launched her own production company, Banty, produced the weekly series, Life With Elizabeth. The comedy ran for two seasons (1953-1955) through syndication and earned Betty an Emmy nomination.

She also hosted The Betty White Show, which had African American actor and dancer Arthur Duncan in a starring role, a first for television as racism in the 1950s was very much in clarity.  When confronted about Duncan from Tennessee stations that threatened to boycott the NBC show if he wasn’t removed.

Instead, Betty replied, “I’m sorry.  Live with it.”  Duncan was also given more screentime.

In 1963, she was the host of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. The honor lasted for ten years.

Betty found even more onscreen success in the 1970s and 80s.  Alongside Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Show, she played the role of the sexy and man-crazy Sue Ann Nivens.  With that personage, Betty described the character as ‘icky sweet‘ but only she could play Sue Ann so well.  The portrayal earned her two Emmys, along with another nomination.

Another character that Betty enamored was the stuck-up Ellen Harper Jackson, the daughter of Vicki Lawrence’s character, Velma “Mama” Harper in the 1980s sitcom, Mama’s Family.  Although the show ran for six seasons, White left  Mama’s Family in an episode of season two, as she was starring in the largest role of her life.

Betty White As Rose Nyland

In 1985, Betty scored her most well-known and coveted role as Rose Nyland.  The NBC comedy, The Golden Girls, that also featured Bea Arthur, newcomer Estelle Getty, and her Mama Family’s co-star, Rue McClanahan.

The sitcom centered on four 50+ aged women living together as roommates in sunny Miami Florida and although each woman had a different background, the group became best friends and bonded over relationships, family, money, growing up, life experiences, and everything else.

And let’s not forget the cheesecake.

Rose was naive. She was often a scatter-brain but had a full heart of gold and was well-intentioned.  While her personality seem to annoy the other three it chimed well with Blanche’s lust, Dorothy’s dry-witted intelligence, and Sophia’s old-world, but blunt charm.  The four held irreplaceable magic that could only be sparked when faced with a dilemma, which was constant in The Golden Girls’ seven-year run.

Betty White
NEW YORK – NOVEMBER 22: (L-R) Actress Betty White, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan sign copies of “The Golden Girls Season 3” DVD at Barnes & Noble on November 22, 2005, in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images) /

In its prime, controversial storylines at the time such as LGBTQ, Alzheimer’s disease, disability, and AIDS were all touched upon because of this brave pioneering in writing, paved ways for future television shows and earned The Golden Girls critical acclaim in several respects.

When the series ended in 1992 due to Bea Arthur’s leaving, Betty continued being Rose in the short-lived spinoff, The Golden Palace.  Just like its predecessor, the narrative tackled several difficult topics. However, the series failed to hold in the ratings and was canceled after one season.

On a more light note, The Golden Palace launched the career of Don Cheadle, just as Arthur Duncan’s career was launched back in nearly forty years prior.

Later career

Betty continued acting. She was featured in guest-starring roles. This included shows such as Bones, Ugly Betty, and The Practice.  She lent her iconic voice to The Simpsons and Family Guy. She was also featured as a stuffed tiger named ‘Bitey White’ in the fourth installment of Toy Story.

In 2010, Betty was found onscreen yet again with the TVLand comedy, Hot In Cleveland as Elka Ostrovsky. Betty also hosted and produced the reality show, Betty White’s Off Their Rockers where the elders pulled pranks on the young.  The series aired for two seasons 2012 to 2014.

Finding love

In 1963, Betty married ‘the love of her life’ Allan Ludden, who was the host of the popular game show, Password.  The two met while Betty was a contestant and even starred together in an episode of The Odd Couple.  She never remarried after her husband’s death in 1981 from cancer.  In an interview for Larry King in 2014, Betty quoted “When you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?”

The couple never had children, but she was the stepmother to Ludden’s three children from a previous marriage. She also expanded her exponential love to the welfare of animals.  For over forty years, Betty devoted her time working at the Greater Los Angeles Zoo, as well as the Morris Animal Foundation.

She was also a voice for the LGBTQ Community. She shared that people should marry if they love each other. Same-sex couples were also featured on The Golden Girls.

The big birthday show will still go on

Sadly, Betty White will not be able to attend her 100th birthday event on January 17th, but her documentary film, Betty White: 100 Years Young will still be presented in select theaters to highlight the actress’s accolades and achievements in her career.

Stars including her Hot In Cleveland co-stars, Ryan Reynolds, Morgan Freeman, and the late Alex Trebek will pay tribute and offer commentary on White’s legacy.

Thank you for being our friend Betty and for the laughter you’ve brought.