"I'd like to be remembered as Betty, their good friend that they invite into their home."
About This Interview
In her one-hour interview for the American Comedy Archive at Emerson College, Betty White talks about her early aspirations before setting on a career in television and appearing on several early live and local Los Angeles broadcasts. She describes her first show Life with Elizabeth, and becoming one of the first television stars to form her own production company with the help of producer Don Fedderson. She recounts her time playing "Sue Ann Nivens" on the classic Mary Tyler Moore Show, including the famous "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode. White discusses the importance of humor in her life, and playing "Rose Nylund" for seven season on The Golden Girls. She speaks of her "bag of tricks" as an actress, as well as the business side of the entertainment industry. She discusses her prolific career on several game shows including Match Game and Password. She outlines her then-current role as "Catherine Piper" on Boston Legal, and working on that show with co-star William Shatner. She concludes with some words of wisdom for aspiring television performers, and comments on her career longevity. Bill Dana and Jenni Matz conducted the interview at Emerson College on March 11, 2005.
One of television's most beloved, talented actresses, Betty White began as a local TV "personality" and then, defying convention, became star and producer of her own nationally broadcast sitcom. But it was later that she obtained her greatest fame. In a pair of very different roles on sitcom hits, in the 1970s and 1980s, her skillful acting as part of an ensemble and her way with a comic line earned her acclaim and a loving following; a following that has made her a legend.
Early on White played leads at Beverly Hills High. After graduation, she took on stage roles at the Bliss-Hayden Little Theater Group. She began to work as a radio actress as well; local TV quickly followed since it was a natural "option for someone just starting." In 1949, Los Angeles TV personality Al Jarvis called White and gave her her first regular TV assignment. Jarvis took to the airwaves six days a week on KLAC to act as a "disc jockey," to play records just like on radio. Between selections, he delivered commercials, performed in sketches and conducted interviews. White was hired as his on air "girl Friday" to do much of the same. Jarvis left in 1952 and soon after White took over full hostessing duties.
While still appearing on daily Los Angeles television, White, with two male partners, co-founded Bandy Productions in 1952 to produce her own self-starring situation comedy. A direct out-growth of some of White's daytime sketches, Life with Elizabethtold the story of married couple Elizabeth and Alvin (played by Del Moore). It was an unusual program in several respects, not the least of which was its twenty-eight year old co-creator, producer, and star. White was one of only two women in the early days of television (Gertrude Berg being the other) to wield creative control both in front of and behind the camera. A second distinctive feature of the program were its non-linear stories--each episode consisted of three vignettes, three different plots. Leisurely paced, Elizabeth's stories had a ring of I Love Lucyabout them. While Elizabeth never launched any outrageous schemes, the comic conflicts often grew out of husband Alvin's disapproval of her logic.
Originally, Elizabeth aired only in the Los Angeles area, but by 1953 Guild Films began to syndicate the series nationally and the program was in production until 1955. Afterward, the show's three act format made it possible for each episode to be divided up and marketed to stations as fillers. As ten minute segments Elizabeth ran successfully and profitably for many years. Betty White earned her first Emmy in 1952 for Life with Elizabeth.
While Elizabeth was still in production, White moved to NBC and to her own daily daytime variety show. Bandy Production's The Betty White Show premiered February 1954. White would appear in the two programs simultaneously for a year. The NBC daytime show ended in early 1955 and White filled the next two years working, primarily, for game show packagers Goodman and Toddson.
In 1957, White co-created the prime time sitcom A Date with the Angels. She played Vicki Angel and Bill Williams starred as her husband Gus. More typical in its format and stories than Life with Elizabeth, the Angels were newlyweds and were seen fumbling through their first year of wedded bliss. The program aired on ABC for six months before the network retooled it into the comedy-variety vehicle The Betty White Show. Lackluster ratings, which inspired the revamping, lingered and that program ended in April 1958.
Over the next several years, White concentrated on guest work. She was a regular visitor to The Jack Paar Showwhere her funny, slightly risqué remarks made her an audience favorite. She also was a frequent visitor to daytime, as a game show panelist.
It was on Password in 1961 that White met her husband, host Allen Ludden. They were married in Las Vegas in 1963. The Luddens were good friends of actress Mary Tyler Moore and her producer husband Grant Tinker, the two powerhouses behind the hitThe Mary Tyler Moore Show. When script #73 for the series came along it called for an "icky sweet Betty White type" and the show's casting director eventually decided to call the genuine article. Though usually thought of as a series regular, White did not make her first appearance on TThe Mary Tyler Moore Show until the program's fourth year and in her most active season she appeared in only twelve of twenty-six show regularly scheduled episodes. Nevertheless, she made herself an integral part of that show's family and dynamic. As Sue Ann Nivens, the host of "The Happy Homemaker," White created a sparkling presence. Satirizing her own image, White threw herself into the role of a catty, man-chaser who hid her true self behind a gooey shell of sugar. White won Emmys in the 1974-75 and 1975-76 seasons for Best Supporting Actress. She was part ofThe Mary Tyler Moore Show's final episode in 1977.
After the end of The MTM Show , White was put into her own series. The sitcom The Betty White Show premiered in 1977 on CBS. Critically acclaimed and co-starring such pros as John Hillerman and Georgia Engel, the program faced tough competition on Monday nights and CBS did not wait for the show to build an audience. It was canceled in early 1978.
In 1983, White joined the small, exclusive group of women to have hosted a daytime game show. Just Men! had White as host and seven male guest stars who tried to help two female contestants win cars. Though the program lasted only six months, White proved funny and unflappable as "femcee" and won the Emmy for best game show host that year. She remains, to date, the only female winner of that top honor. Back on prime time she took guest roles on St. Elsewhere and other shows.
In 1985, White, at age 63, began the biggest hit of her career. The Golden Girls, from Disney, reunited three of TV's greatest comediennes: White, Beatrice Arthur, and Rue McClanahan. (From the New York stage it imported Estelle Getty.) A highly anticipated show, it was the biggest hit of NBC's new fall season. At the end of the first year, all three lead actresses were nominated for Emmys. White won, for her innocent, adorably ignorant Rose Nylund whose nature bespoke of a more optimistic and trusting time. In some ways Rose brought Betty White full circle: Elizabeth of Life with Elizabeth was sweet and a little naive and so was Rose.
Golden Girlsran for seven years. The program was repackaged, without Arthur, for CBS the following season. Golden Palace, with White, McClanahan and Getty running a Florida hotel, aired for one year. Then, for White, it was on to Bob, Bob Newhart's third series, for a few months in early 1994. There she played Sylvia, the no nonsense head of a greeting card company. After Bob, White did several guest spots and some television commercials.
White's eagerly awaited autobiography, Here We Go Again: My Life in Television, was published that summer not long after it was announced that she would return to series TV. Maybe This Time, a Disney-produced sitcom co-starring actress/singer Marie Osmond premiered in the fall of 1995. That same year saw White's induction into Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame. Inducted along with Dick Van Dyke, Bill Moyers and Jim McKay, among others, White was the tenth woman so honored.
It has been a long, highly diverse career. From early TV "DJ" to producer/actress to game show regular to Emmy-winning ensemble player--from "girl Friday" to "Golden Girl." White has said her longevity is based on her "familiarity" to audiences: the generation who knew her as Elizabeth stayed with her up through Rose. Subsequent generations have discovered her, like a shiny new penny, along the way. Each incarnation of Betty White has brought with it a new set of fans.
But whether as herself or as a character (and in her career she has shown a range greater than that of most actors) Betty White always connects with her audience through her honesty and genuineness. And that quality, intimate and comfortable, makes some TV performers truly unique and long-lasting--legendary.
BETTY WHITE. Born in Oak Park, Illinois, U.S.A., 17 January 1922.
Attended public schools in Beverly Hills, California. Married: Allen Ludden, 1963 (died). Began career with appearances on radio shows; has appeared as star, regular and guest in varius television series, from 1950s. Recipient: Emmy Awards, 1952, 1975, 1976, and 1986. Inductee, Television Academy Hall of Fame, 1996.
TELEVISION SERIES 1953-55 Life With Elizabeth 1954-58 The Betty White Show 1957-58 A Date with the Angels 1970-77 The Mary Tyler Moore Show 1971 The Pet Set 1977-78 The Betty White Show 1979 The Best Place to Be 1980 The Gossip Columnist 1985-92 The Golden Girls 1992-93 The Golden Palace 1993 Bob 1995- Maybe This Time
TELEVISION SPECIALS 1982 Eunice 1986 Walt Disney World's 15th Birtday Celebration (co-host) 1991 The Funny Women of Television (co-host) FILM Advise and Consent, 1962. STAGE (selection) Summer stock presentations from late 1960s: Guys and Dolls; Take Me Along; The King and I; Who Was That Lady?; Critic's Choice; Bells Are Ringing.
PUBLICATIONS Betty White in Person. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1987. Here We Go Again: My Life in Television. New York: Scribners, 1995.