Multiple Emmy Award-winning actress and animal rights activist Betty White, who most famously starred in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls, has died, just days short of her 100th birthday. White passed peacefully Thursday night at her home, her agent Jeff Witjas confirmed to Deadline.
“Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever,” Witjas said in a 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.”
Although White is most notably known for playing sweet and naive Rose in The Golden Girls from 1985-1992, her career began more than four decades prior in her adopted home of Los Angeles. But the road to becoming a star would be paved with challenges for Betty Marion White Ludden, the only child of Christine Tess White and Horace Logan White, born in Illinois in 1922.
White seriously explored an acting and modeling career after high school before putting it all on hold to serve in the American Women’s Voluntary Services stateside during World War II. Not only did she drive supplies to a temporary camp in a PX truck up to the Hollywood Hills, but she also shared her talents as an entertainer by cutting a rug at dances with military enlistees ahead of their deployment.
When the war ended in 1945, White married U.S. Army Air Force pilot Dick Barker whom she met while volunteering. She moved to rural Ohio (population 800) where she and Barker lived with his parents on a chicken farm. The marriage ended after 8 months, according to Newsweek.
Amid the booming Golden Age of Hollywood, White returned to Southern California and set her sights on becoming a film actress before pivoting to radio after she was rejected multiple times for not being photogenic enough. No job was too big or small for White, who played bit parts on hit shows like Blondie (based on the comic strip) and This Is Your FBI, including reading commercials (her first spoken line on the air was an ad for Parkay), singing, and creating sound effects for little to no pay.
White tied the knot a second time in 1947, but her marriage to theatrical agent Lane Allen ended in divorce after two years. She knew she’d made a mistake when Allen asked her to leave show business.
She made the right choice for herself and her big break came in 1949. White joined the variety series Hollywood on Television opposite host Al Jarvis which earned her a Best Actress Emmy nomination in 1951. She stayed with the show after Jarvis and his replacement Eddie Albert departed, becoming one of the first women to host a TV show solo.
Simultaneously she produced (under her Bandy Productions banner) and starred in the comedy series Life With Elizabeth, which also boasted a female director, Betty Turbiville, a rarity at the time. White portrayed the titular character, a married suburbanite settling into life with her husband Alvin (Del Moore) that ran for 65 episodes from 1953-1955.
Her work both in front of and behind cameras helped paved the way for other women who followed and cemented her legacy as an industry pioneer. And she also used her power to make Hollywood more inclusive by hiring Arthur Duncan, an African American performer, as a regular on her NBC variety show The Betty White Show in 1954 though the decision brought much controversy.
When viewers demanded Duncan be removed, White was steadfast. “I said, ‘I’m sorry. Live with it,’” she recalled of the incident in the PBS documentary, Betty White: First Lady of Television. Due to her refusal to replace Duncan and multiple time slot changes, the show was canceled by the end of that year.
White met the love of her life, TV show host Allen Ludden, in 1961 on his game show Password when she was a guest. Feeling like a failure because she was a divorcee twice over, she turned down Ludden’s two proposals before finally saying “I Do” two years later. The two were married until his death from stomach cancer in 1981 and never remarried.
After appearing on a multitude of talks shows and more game shows, White made her big-screen debut in the 1962 political drama Advise & Consent in the role of Senator Bessie Adams of Kansas. It would take two decades for her to do another film though reviews of her performance were positive.
In later years she appeared in Lake Placid, The Story of Us, Bringing Down the House, The Proposal, and as a voice actor in The Lorax and Toy Story 4.
But it was on TV where White shined the brightest. In 1973, she joined her good friend Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show playing perky Sue Ann Nivens for 46 episodes.
“Sue Ann was a huge career mood change,” White says of the character she lovingly refers to as the “neighborhood nymphomaniac” in her 2011 book If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t). “The Mary Tyler Moore Show aired for seven years altogether. I came on in the fourth season, in what was to have been a one-shot appearance. The most episodes I ever did during one season was 12 of 22—the other seasons, I did only 5 or 6 episodes. But people still remember Sue Ann. She was such a mess!”
She won her second and third Emmy Awards for her portrayal of Sue Ann and a Grammy Award in 2011 for Best Spoken Word Recording for the audio version of the bestselling book. Across her eight decades-long career, White was honored with a total of 8 Emmy Awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.
The Golden Girls came knocking in 1985, a comedy series that followed four widows sharing their lives and a home with an obscene amount of wicker in sunny Miami. White would go on to play Rose, the role originally offered to Maude’s Rue McClanahan. The pair swapped at the suggestion of the pilot’s director Jay Sandrich—and the rest is history.
White played Rose from 1985 to 1992 when the show ended after Bea Arthur, who played Dorothy Zbornak, announced her departure. Rose reappeared in The Golden Girls short-lived spin-off series The Golden Palace alongside McClanahan and Estelle Getty.
Guest appearances in various other popular shows followed including The Practice, The John Laroquette Show, The Bold and the Beautiful, and Boston Legal before joining TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland in 2010.
Throughout her life, White was a passionate animal lover that advocated for beasts large and small. She supported various charitable organizations the benefitted the animal kingdom like the Morris Animal Foundation, Farm Sanctuary, PAWS/LA, and SPCLA, among many others.
White tweeted for the final time about her upcoming milestone just days ago.
— Betty White (@BettyMWhite) December 28, 2021
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