January 17, 1922– Betty White:
“My muffin hasn’t had a cherry since 1939.”
I am so old that I remember Betty White from her guest appearances on the hit game show Password (1961-1976) from when I was seven-years-old. White has been with me for most of my life. But, her television career is even older than I am. Starting in 1949, she was host of Make-Believe Ballroom a local Los Angeles show spanning five and a half hours of live ad-lib television six days per week for four years.
In 1951, she was nominated for her first Emmy Award. In 1952, White co-founded Bandy Productions, creating the sitcom Life With Elizabeth (1953-55) with White in the title role, followed by another sitcom Date With The Angels (1957-58).
She made her film debut as a Senator in the 1962 drama Advise & Consent. Although her performance received terrific reviews, it would be her single movie appearance until Hard Rain in 1998.
Starting in the 1950s, White began a two-decade run as host and commentator on the annual Tournament Of Roses Parade broadcast on NBC and appeared as a guest on talk shows and daytime game shows. As she became even more popular than ever on CBS’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White, and all the promotion that came with her, from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who said:
“On New Year’s Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade.”
In a career that has spanned more than 75 years, she has received eight Emmy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild awards, and a Grammy Award. White is the only woman to have received an Emmy in all performing comedy categories, and also holds the record for longest span between Emmy nominations, her first was in 1951 and her most recent was in 2011, that is 60 years! She is the oldest nominee of a performing Emmy. White was inducted into the Television Hall Of Fame in 1995.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, as Betty Marion White, the only child of a homemaker and a lighting company executive, in her memoir If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t), White explains that her parents named her “Betty” specifically because they didn’t like the nicknames derived from “Elizabeth.” Not Beth, Liz, or Ellie; she’s Betty.
White can’t remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939:
“I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced to the Merry Widow Waltz.”
Before her television career, White worked in theater, on radio, and as a model. During WWII, she joined the American Women’s Voluntary Services, delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, while at night she danced with sailors and soldiers at the Hollywood Canteen.
She married and divorced her first husband in 1945, After four months on his Ohio chicken farm, she headed back to Los Angeles and her career. She married her next husband in 1947, and he became her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit showbiz. She didn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for handsome host of the game show Password, Allen Ludden. They were a couple until his death in 1981. Their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame are side-by-side.
White loves the animals and is a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends Of Animals. She started her own tee-shirt line whose profits go to the Morris Animal Foundation.
White’s status as a Gay Icon began in mid-80s with the LGBTQ community’s total embrace of popular The Golden Girls (1985-1992). White:
”Gays love old ladies!”
Inexplicably, LGBTQ fans from West Hollywood to Provincetown stayed home on Saturday nights between 9 and 9:30 to watch White as Rose Nyland, with Beatrice Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak, Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux, and Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo, four older women who share a home in Miami. There were even The Golden Girls nights at gay bars. The show was a real gift to the gays. The characters were iconic, the jokes were sharp, and the performances were furiously funny and focused, with the most progressive look at LGBTQ issues in network television. For a show focusing on life after 50, The Golden Girls went where few sitcoms dared.
The Golden Girls aired many LGBTQ-themed episodes. The show introduced a trans man as a Miami politician in season three, showed Sophia come to terms with her son’s cross-dressing in a heartbreaking funeral episode in season six, and went zany with people mistaking Blanche and Dorothy as a lesbian couple in season seven. The show even tackled issues that faced the LGBTQ community, like HIV/AIDS and hospital visitation rights. Truly landmark stuff for the 1980s.
There were fully drawn gay characters on The Golden Girls too, such as the memorable Lois Nettelton as Jean, Dorothy’s lesbian college friend, portrayed as warm and intelligent, and Monte Markham’s Clayton Hollingsworth, Blanche’s younger brother, who is introduced as ”just as great looking, charming and irresistible to men” as his sister. Millions of 1980s era gay kids even got to hear a sassy Sicilian mother say the words they hoped to hear from their own mothers:
”I’ll tell you the truth, Dorothy. If one of my kids was gay, I wouldn’t love him one bit less. I would wish him all the happiness in the world.”
White had a strained relationship with her co-star Bea Arthur on and off the set of The Golden Girls, commenting:
“Bea was not fond of me. She found me a pain in the neck sometimes. It was my positive attitude and that made Bea mad. Sometimes if I was happy, she’d be furious.”
After Arthur’s final credits rolled in 2009, White said: “I knew it would hurt, I just didn’t know it would hurt this much.”
Producers of the series thought of White for the role of promiscuous Blanche because she was such a hit as horny Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) Meanwhile, they wanted McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose because of her work as the sweet, dopey Vivian on Maude (1972-79). Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked them to switch roles in the audition.
We think of those Golden Girls as Gay Icons, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s sardonic man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens, “The Happy Homemaker”, now there was a true Gay Icon.
Mary Tyler Moore, and her then-husband Grant Tinker were close friends with White and Ludden. When Valerie Harper left The Mary Tyler Moore Show producers felt the show needed another female character and created Sue Ann Nivens. The running gag was that Sue Ann’s hard-edged private personality was the complete opposite of how she presented herself on her show. Moore suggested at a casting meeting:
“We need somebody who can play sickeningly sweet, like Betty White…”
In 2010, a group on The Facebook called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered more than a million fans and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels made it happen. At 88-years-old, her episode had one of the highest rating for SNL, for which many of the show’s female alums returned. White won her fifth Emmy for this performance.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always portrayed characters that were humorous, but also weren’t afraid to speak their minds, especially when it came to racy or controversial topics. I think this struck a chord with the LGBTQ community. We both also share a very strong love for animals. When you combine the two, it’s a very strong match.”
In a 2011 interview, White said that she always knew her close friend Liberace was gay and that she enjoyed being his beard at parties and premieres. A supporter of LGBTQ rights, White said:
“If a couple has been together all that time and there are gay relationships that are more solid than some straight ones, I think it’s fine if they want to get married. I don’t know how people can get so anti-something. Mind your own business, take care of your affairs, and don’t worry about other people so much”.