97-year-old Betty White began her career as an entertainer in 1939 and has not stopped since, winning her not only seven Emmy Awards and a huge number of fans but a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as Longest TV Career for a Female Entertainer. In fact she now can claim the Longest TV Career of any entertainer as she has been appearing on screen for an astounding 80 years! The longest TV career of a male is held by Sir Bruce Forysth of the UK at 76 years between 1939-2015.
“I was astounded when [Guinness] called to tell me,” White told Huffington Post in 2014 when she first entered the record book. “Who? Me!? It’s such an honor. The book has always been fascinating to me. I can’t believe I’m now associated with it.” Asked for any secrets about her that people might not know about in a recent interview, White said at first that she was a crossword puzzle addict, a “nature nut,” and confessed to a longtime crush on Robert Redford.
White has appeared on some of television’s most popular shows, including The Golden Girls, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. Most recently was her 2012 special, Betty White’s 90th Birthday Party. When Guinness asked what her favorite projects had been she answered Pet Set and Golden Girls – “Especially the former, as I wrote and produced it and could have on any animals I wanted.” Like she said, she is an animal nut.
Along the way there have been plenty of career ups and downs. White’s mix of mental resilience and humor is seen as the secret. As the put it in an interview last year with Parade magazine, after saying she’d celebrate her birthday with hotdogs and vodka: “Enjoy life. 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.”
The daughter of a lighting company executive and homemaker who grew up in California, her first try at performing was a dancer on a local show. “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 the Merry Widow Waltz. Al Jarvis asked me to sit in as his Girl Friday. Four years later, I inherited the show.”
White took a break from performing during the second world war, helping with such tasks as transporting military supplies. When she returned to show business in the late 1940s, she couldn’t get cast because she was repeatedly told she was “un-photogenic.” So she turned to radio and producing television.
She finally got a TV part on the series she helped with create, Life With Elizabeth, in 1952. In the 1960s, when she wasn’t getting parts, she focused on game shows. White was a frequent guest celebrity/panelist on every version of Password All-Stars, The Hollywood Squares, Match Game, and The $10,000 Pyramid.
She met her third husband, Alan Ludden, when he hosted Password and she appeared on it. They were married for 18 years until his death in 1981 and she has described him as “the love of my life.”
White’s television high point of the 1970s was playing flirtatious and ambitious Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, winning her three Emmys. Subsequently, on The Golden Girls, the producers decided to mix it up and she played the naive Rose Nylund. She is the last surviving star of that cast. She had admitted in interviews that she and Bea Arthur, another of the stars, did not get along that well. “She was not fond of me,” White said. “It was my positive attitude–that made Bea mad sometimes. If I was happy, she’d be furious!”
After turning down hosting Saturday Night Live three times, White bowed to a fan campaign on Facebook and hosted it in May 2010, the show seeing its biggest rating jump in years.
“I couldn’t believe it ,” she said about the grass roots movement to have her host SNL. She admitted to having a hard time with the demands of the live show and suffering stage fright over it. But she told Entertainment Weekly, “Stage fright is what puts the edge, I think, on a performance.”
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com