Betty White (born Betty Marion White on January 22, 1922 in Oak Park, IL) is an American Actress, Comedienne, Singer, Producer, and frequent Game Show Panelist. She is best known to TV audiences for her numerous TV roles: Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show from 1973-1977, Ellen Harper Jackson on Mama's Family from 1983-1986, Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls from 1985-1992 and Elka Ostrovsky on Hot in Cleveland from 2010-2015. She is also very well to known to Game Show audiences for her numerous appearances on Game Shows such as The $25,000 Pyramid, The $100,000 Pyramid, Match Game, Super Password, Body Language, and Hollywood Squares.
Born Betty Marion White in Oak Park, Illinois, the only child of Christine Tess (née Cachikis), a homemaker, and Horace Logan White, a lighting company executive. Her paternal grandfather was Danish and her maternal grandfather was Greek, with her other roots being English and Welsh (both of her grandmothers were Canadian). White's family moved to Los Angeles, California, during the Great Depression. She attended Horace Mann School Beverly Hills and Beverly Hills High School. With high hopes of becoming a writer, she wrote and played the lead in a graduation play at Horace Mann School and discovered her interest in performing and it was here she decided to become an actress. Author Michael McWilliams said in his book TV Sirens, "If Lucille Ball is the Queen of Television, then its Princess is Betty White." but White did not start off as television royalty.
Betty made rounds to movie studios looking for work, but was always turned down because she was "unphotogenic". Refusing to give up, she then started to look for radio jobs where being photogenic did not matter. Her first radio jobs included reading commercials and playing bit parts, and sometimes even doing crowd noises. She made about five dollars a show. She would do just about anything, like singing on a show for no money, or making an appearance on the local game show. White began her television career in 1939, three months after high school graduation, when she and a classmate sang songs from The Merry Widow on an experimental Los Angeles channel. Betty then found work modeling, and her first professional acting job was at the Bliss Hayden Little Theatre but her career was disrupted immediately, as World War II broke out, causing her to join the American Women's Voluntary Services. In the 1940s, she worked in radio, appearing on shows such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This is Your FBI all for which landed her to getting her own radio show titled The Betty White Show.
In 1949, she began appearing as co-host with Al Jarvis on his daily live television variety show Hollywood on Television, originally called Al Jarvis' Make-Believe Ballroom on KFWB radio and on KLAC-TV in Los Angeles. White began hosting the show by herself in 1952 after Jarvis' departure, spanning five and a half hours of live ad-lib television six days per week over a contiguous four-year span altogether. In all of her various variety series over the years, White would sing at least a couple of songs during each broadcast. In 1950, Betty was nominated for her first Emmy Award as "Best Actress" on television, competing with such legendary stars as Judith Anderson, Helen Hayes, and Imogene Coca (the award went to Gertrude Berg). This was the very first award and category in the new Emmy history designated for women on television.
In 1952, the same year that she began hosting Hollywood on Television, White co-founded Bandy Productions with writer George Tibbles and Don Fedderson, a producer. The trio worked to create new shows using existing characters from sketches shown on Hollywood on Television. White, Fedderson, and Tibbles created the television comedy Life with Elizabeth, with White portraying the title role. The show was originally a live production on KLAC-TV in 1951, and won White a Regional Los Angeles Emmy in 1952. Life with Elizabeth was nationally syndicated from 1952 to 1955, allowing White to become one of the few women in television with full creative control in front of and behind the camera. The show was unusual for a sitcom in the 1950s because it was co-produced and owned by a twenty-eight-year-old woman who still lived with her parents. White said they didn't worry about relevance in those days, and that usually the incidents were based on real life situations that happened to her, the actor who played Alvin, and the writer.
In 1954, she briefly hosted and produced her own daily talk show, The Betty White Show, on NBC (not to be confused with her 1970s sitcom of the same name). Following Life with Elizabeth, she appeared as Vicki Angel on the sitcom Date with the Angels from 1957 to 1958. The show later became another variety series before going off the air.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, White appeared on a number of late night talk shows and daytime game shows. White made many appearances on the hit game show Password as a celebrity guest from 1961 through 1975 and it was here that she met and eventually married the show's host, Allen Ludden.
In 1973, Betty made a guest appearance in season four of The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a Happy Homemaker. As a result of this appearance, she landed her most significant role at that point as the sardonic, man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens, The Happy Homemaker, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a full-time cast member. The character of Sue Ann Nivens became a huge hit with the TV audiences and playing this role won White two back-to-back Emmys. She considers her part as Sue Ann in the show one of the highlights of her professional career, but she describes her television image as "icky sweet." She felt that she was the very definition of feminine passivity, owing to the fact that White always seemed willing to satirize her own unique persona on screen in just such a way.
Following the ending of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977, White got her own sitcom on CBS, her second series entitled The Betty White Show (the first having been broadcast a quarter century earlier), during the 1977–78 season, in which she co-starred with future Magnum P.I star John Hillerman and former Mary Tyler Moore co-star Georgia Engel. It was canceled after one season. White appeared several times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson appearing in many sketches, and began guest-starring in a number of television movies and television miniseries, including With This Ring, The Best Place to Be, Before and After, and The Gossip Columnist.
Beginning in 1983 to 1985, she had a recurring role playing Ellen Harper Jackson on the series Mama's Family, along with future Golden Girls co-star Rue McClanahan. White had originated this character in a series of sketches on The Carol Burnett Show in the 1970s. Mama's Family was able to breathe new life in syndication after being canceled by NBC in 1985. White parted ways with the show with the exception of one final appearance in 1986 in the episode titled "Best Medicine".
In 1985, White landed her second signature role and the biggest hit of her career as the St. Olaf, Minnesota-native Rose Nylund on the NBC sitcom The Golden Girls. The series chronicled the lives of four widowed or divorced women in their "golden years" who shared a home in Miami. The Golden Girls, which also starred McClanahan, Bea Arthur, and Estelle Getty, was immensely successful and ran from September 14, 1985 to May 9, 1992. White only won one Emmy for her portrayal of Rose Nylund in Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series category for the first and was nominated in that category every year of the show's run (the only cast member to receive that distinction – Getty was also nominated every year, but in the supporting actress category). Shortly after the ending of The Golden Girls, White along with Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty reprised their roles for a new spin-off series titled The Golden Palace, Bea Arthur chose not to continue on with the new series but did appear in a special guest starring role for a two-part episode. The Golden Palace was not ever close to a ratings smash and was cancelled after one season. In addition, Betty (as well as her Golden Girls co-stars) also reprised her Rose Nylund character in guest appearances on the NBC spin-off shows Empty Nest and Nurses, both set in Miami.
Prior to the premiere of The Golden Girls, White was originally offered the role of Blanche Devereaux while Rue McClanahan was offered the role of Rose (the two characters being similar to roles they had played in Mary Tyler Moore and Maude, respectively). Jay Sandrich, the director of the pilot, suggested that since they had played similar roles in the past, they should switch roles, Rue McClanahan later said in a documentary on the series that White originally had doubts about her ability to play Rose, until the show's creator took her aside and told her not to play Rose as stupid but as someone "terminally naive, a person who always believed the first explanation of something." Even though she was the eldest of the four women actors, White is the only surviving cast member of the series, following the deaths of Estelle Getty in July 2008, Bea Arthur in April 2009, and Rue McClanahan in June 2010.
After The Golden Girls ended, Betty then went on to appear in numerous guest-starring roles in a string of TV shows including Ally McBeal, The Ellen Show, That '70s Show, Joey, and Malcolm in the Middle. She received Emmy Award nominations for her appearances on Suddenly Susan, The Practice, and Yes, Dear. In 1996, she won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, appearing as herself on an episode of The John Larroquette Show in an episode titled "Here We Go Again", a spoof on Sunset Boulevard, a diva-like White convinces Larroquette to help write her memoirs. At one point her Golden Girls co-stars Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty appear as themselves. Larroquette is forced to dress in drag as Bea Arthur, when all four appear in public as the "original" cast members. White comically envisions her Rose as the central character with the others as mere supporting players.
The actress has also lent her voice to several animated shows, including The Simpsons, King of the Hill, The Wild Thornberrys, and Family Guy. In 1999, she had a supporting role in the monster film Lake Placid, as a widow who later is revealed to have raised the giant crocodile (which accidentally ate her husband).
White's career has been in revival throughout the first two decades of the 2000s, and her continuing cultural relevance is reflected in the numerous television and film projects she has been a part of. In December 2006, she made the move to Daytime TV as she joined the CBS soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful in the role of Ann Douglas, the long-lost mother of the show's matriarch, Stephanie Forrester (played by Susan Flannery). In February 2007, Betty reprised her role as Ann, who wished to move to Los Angeles to be near her daughters. The characters of Ann and Pamela Douglas (played by Alley Mills) disappeared after the March 27, 2007 episode and were not mentioned again until the October 19, 2007 episode, when Ann appeared briefly. Daytime TV audiences loved the character of Ann Douglas as Betty would go on to appear in three more episodes on December 10, 2007, August 28, 2008, and October 28, 2008. She returned to the show on November 18, 2009 and in the November 19, 2009 episode her character revealed that she was dying of advanced pancreatic cancer. In all, White made 22 appearances as Ann Douglas with the November 23, 2009 episode being her very last appearance on the show as Ann dies due to complications from her illness, with both her daughters at her side on the beach at Paradise Cove.
Some of White's movie credits include Dennis the Menace Strikes Again, Hard Rain, and supporting roles in the 2003 film Bringing Down the House alongside Steve Martin and Queen Latifah and in the 2009 film The Proposal alongside Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.
A grassroots campaign on Facebook called "Betty White to Host SNL (Please)" began in January 2010. The group was approaching 500,000 members when NBC confirmed on March 11, 2010 that White would in fact host Saturday Night Live on May 8. The appearance made her, at age 88, the oldest person to host the show, beating Miskel Spillman, the winner of SNL's "Anybody Can Host" contest, who was 80 when she hosted in 1977. Betty's appearance on SNL garnered the show's highest ratings since November 1, 2008, when Ben Affleck hosted. In her opening monologue, White thanked Facebook and joked that she "didn't know what Facebook was, and now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time." Her appearance also earned her a 2010 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, her seventh Emmy win overall.
In June 2010, she took on the role of Elka Ostrovsky the house caretaker on the TV Land original sitcom Hot in Cleveland alongside Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick. In 2011, she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Elka but lost to Julie Bowen for Modern Family.
During a break from filming Hot in Cleveland, White also starred alongside Jennifer Love Hewitt in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of The Lost Valentine on January 30, 2011. This presentation garnered the highest rating for a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation in the last four years and according to the Nielsen Media Research TV rating service won first place in the prime time slot for that date.
From 2012 to 2014, White hosted and executive produced Betty White's Off Their Rockers, in which senior citizens play practical jokes on the younger generation. For this show, she received three Emmy nominations.
A primetime special titled Betty White's 90th Birthday Party aired on NBC a day before her birthday on January 16, 2012. The show featured appearances of many stars with whom White has worked over the years, including her Hot in Cleveland co-stars Malick, Leeves, and Bertinelli. Betty White's Off Their Rockers aired following the celebratory event, and returned in April 2012 as a recurring show which resulted in an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program. White's success continued in 2012 with her first Grammy Award for a spoken word recording for her best seller If You Ask Me. She also won the UCLA Jack Benny Award for Comedy, recognizing her significant contribution to comedy in television, and was roasted at the New York Friars' Club. Hot in Cleveland continued its rating success and Betty receiving her third consecutive Screen Actor's Guild Award nomination. In January 2013, NBC once again celebrated Betty White's birthday with a TV special featuring celebrity friends, including former president Bill Clinton; the special aired on February 5.
In 2014, she reprised her Elka Ostrovsky character as a guest appearance in an episode on the TV Land sitcom The Soul Man starring Cedric the Entertainer. On June 3, 2015, after five seasons and still high ratings, Hot in Cleveland ended it's run on TV Land.
Betty is also extremely well known to TV Game Show audiences for her frequent appearances as a panelist of various game shows including both the $25,000 and $50,000 adaptations of Pyramid, Match Game, Body Language, and Super Password, in which White appeared throughout it's entire six year run on NBC and one memorable moment came from the series finale episode in March 1989 where she took apart and destroyed in what host Bert Convy always referred to as "The magic toaster", a prop used to conceal a bonus word that the celebrity player would give clues to the regular player in order to win a bonus cash prize, and threw across the stage as the studio audience was left in stitches.
In November 2003, she appeared on the syndicated Game Show Hollywood Squares with many Game Show greats including Monty Hall, Bob Eubanks, Jamie Farr, and Tom Kennedy during their special "Game Show Week II". In 2008, she made a cameo appearance on an episode of Wheel of Fortune during "Pet Adoption Week".
In 1983, White hosted her very own Game Show titled Just Men! on NBC Daytime. Even though the show failed to strike a chord with the game show audience and was cancelled after just one season, Betty took home the Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host making her the very first Female Game Show Host to win an Emmy which would not happen again until 2005 when Meredith Vieira, who hosted the syndicated version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? at the time, became the second female Game Show Host to win an Emmy (Vieira won a second Emmy in 2009).
White is also a pet enthusiast and animal health advocate who works with a number of animal organizations, including the Los Angeles Zoo Commission, the Morris Animal Foundation, African Wildlife Foundation, and Actors & Others for Animals. Her interest and passion for animal rights and welfare began in the early 1970s while she was both producing and hosting the syndicated series, The Pet Set, which spotlighted celebrities and their pets.
As of 2009, White is the president emerita of the Morris Animal Foundation, where she has served as a trustee of the organization since 1971. She has been a member of the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association since 1974. Additionally, White served the zoo association as a Zoo Commissioner for eight years.
Before Allen Ludden, White previously married twice. First to Dick Barker, a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot, the marriage was short-lived. Second in 1947, she married Lane Allen, a Hollywood agent, their marriage ended in divorce in 1949.
On June 14, 1963, Betty married Ludden and legally changing her name to Betty White Ludden. He proposed to White at least twice before she accepted. The couple appeared together in an episode of The Odd Couple featuring Felix's and Oscar's appearance on Password. Ludden and White both appeared together as panelists on the game show Tattletales and occasionally appeared together on Match Game (1974, 1975, and 1980) and one particular episode, White sat in the audience and was prompted to criticize one of Ludden's wrong answers on camera.
On June 9, 1981, Allen Ludden passed away from stomach cancer in Los Angeles. They had no children together, though she is stepmother to his three children from his first marriage, when his wife had died. White has not remarried since Ludden's death. In an interview with Larry King, when asked whether or not she would remarry, she replied by saying "Once you've had the best, who needs the rest?".
She is also a registered Democrat and publicly endorsed President Barack Obama in 2012 saying she "likes how he represents us".
In a 2011 interview, White said that she always knew her close friend Liberace was gay and that she sometimes accompanied him to premieres. An avid and vocal supporter of gay rights, White said that "If a couple has been together all that time – and there are homosexual relationships that are more solid than some heterosexual 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.
At the age of 94, Betty White is still going strong and is not showing any sign of slowing down anytime soon.