On January 17th, actress Betty White celebrated her 97th birthday with friends … and poker.
“Sources close to her tell TMZ she’s using the special occasion as a reason to hook up with some friends Thursday night and play poker,” reported TMZ. “We’re told Betty’s poker pals go way back — she’s been anteing up with them for decades.”
This might come as no great surprise to fans of White, the last surviving member of the Golden Girls cast.
Last year, in an interview in Parade magazine, White joked that she credited her long life to hot dogs and vodka.
Parade asked, “Does she have any tricks or tips for living happily and healthily for more than nine decades? Indeed: ‘Enjoy life,’ she says. ‘Accentuate the positive, not the negative. It sounds so trite, but a lot of people will pick out something to complain about, rather than say, Hey, that was great! It’s not hard to find great stuff if you look.’ ”
White was born in 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois, moving to California with her parents as a child.
She began her television career in the late 1930s. In her twenties she had tried to break into acting but was unsuccessful at first. She was turned down over and over for being “unphotogenic,” but she was never deterred. “You just keep plugging away,” she said to Parade. “You don’t give up.”
She starred on Life with Elizabeth in the 1950s and then stayed popular with TV audiences through appearances on talk, game, and variety shows.
White reached even greater fame when she co-starred on the Mary Tyler Moore Show playing Sue Ann Nivens, the TV chef and helpful homemaker with a sharp wit. In a Minneapolis television newsroom, when she wasn’t pursuing male colleagues, Sue Ann “could be counted on to make funny, yet poignant, quips at Mary Tyler Moore’s expense.”
White won two Emmy Awards for her work on the series.
Her next big hit was the 1980s’ Golden Girls, playing the sweet and naive Rose Nylund alongside co-stars Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur, and Estelle Getty.
“We all had such fun together,” Betty recalled in October 2015 at the age of 93 to US Weekly, decades after the groundbreaking series in which four women proved that life doesn’t stop at 60. “It was such a special experience.”
The secret to the show’s success was the cast members’ chemistry.
“It started the first day of the first read-through for the pilot,” White recalled. “We showed up for the read-through [and] it was like batting a tennis ball over the net. It was so exciting to be with four people with that chemistry. I’ll never forget that first read. It was like we had been working together forever. I still get goose bumps thinking about it.”
Betty White and Rue McClanahan (who played Blanche, the man-hungry Southern belle) were already pals, having worked together on Mama’s Family, and were delighted to reconnect on the Golden Girls set. “They would play little word games on the set when the cameras weren’t rolling,” says an observer. “There was such love and friendship between them.”
It was otherwise with Bea Arthur.
Although they very much respected each other as actresses, high-spirited White and introverted Arthur (who played sharp-tongued Dorothy) sometimes clashed. “You didn’t mess with Bea!” Betty once said of her co-star, who died of cancer in 2009 at age 86. “Bea was very strong. But you loved her.”
White has served for more than four decades as a trustee and on the board of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, and in 2012 published a book, Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo, with photos and anecdotes of her favorite animals there.
How does she want to be remembered? “Warmly,” she told Parade. “I hope they remember something funny. I hope they remember a laugh.”