Alan Sepinwall: How Betty White Survived TV for Six Decades

“You know, being together every week is getting to be a very, very nice habit. I hope you’ll keep it up, will ya?”

This was Betty White’s line at the end of each episode of her very first sitcom, Elizabeth, Your LifeIn which she and Del Moore played a couple who were constantly falling into hijinks. White was the first to portray Elizabeth in a number of sketches. Hollywood on TelevisionThe Los Angeles talk show, which debuted in 1949, is called. (In the early Fifties, the sketches were spun off into their own TV show and White was one of the first women to produce a comedy on television. She also produced it with Gertrude Berg, Lucille Ball, and Lucille. White’s plea for the audience to come back next week was typical for sign-offs of the period — her equivalent of George Burns quipping, “Say goodnight, Gracie” to wife Gracie Allen — but it was an unusually prophetic one. Practically since the birth of television, Betty White was a warm, universally beloved presence that we all enjoyed keeping up with, even up to her death yesterday. This was only weeks ahead of her 100th birthday.

White was a vital part of American television’s fabric. It would be a mistake to call her a minor character. She was everywhere, doing just a little bit of everything throughout TV history.

She appeared in many sitcoms. Her part was indelible in two of the most memorable comedy ensembles of all time, as Sue Ann Nivens, a local TV host who is man-hungry. Mary Tyler Moore Show In the Seventies and as a daffy retired Rose Nylund The Golden Girls In the Eighties. Three TV series featuring her were produced over the years. The Betty White ShowShe has appeared on several different formats: she was a talk-show host, then a variety program in the Fifties and a sitcom late in the Seventies. Talk shows couldn’t get enough of her as a guest; she sat on The Tonight Show Couch alone, nearly 100 times. This includes the Jack Paar era and the second Jay Leno period. Her mainstay was the game show, with many generations of her appearing as a celebrity guest. Password To Tell The TruthSometimes as an emcee, sometimes as a hostess.. (She was the first woman to win an Emmy — one of eight she received, counting daytime, primetime, and local awards — for hosting a game show with 1983’sOnly Men) White never really stopped working, and she somehow leveled up her celebrity in the 21st century, in which she became America’s Most Beloved Senior Citizen, playing tackle football in Super Bowl ads and Hosting Saturday Night Live

Thanks to an unwavering fan campaign. Sometimes her disciplines overlapped, as in the iconic Odd CoupleEpisodeFelix and Oscar were competing against her on

Password.Even after this accursed years claimed the lives her


Cloris Leachmn and Gavin MacLeod were our co-stars, so it felt like we’d get to watch Betty White for ever.Until we didn’t.White’s First recorded performanceIn a 1931 radio episode, he was Empire BuildersShe was the crying baby’s voice on a train, and she performed this role in the movie “The Sound of Music.” She also performed songs from “not photogenic,”The Merry Widow “guitar groups are on their way out.”on television in 1939 — a time when few families even owned a TV set. But her performing career didn’t really begin in earnest until after she had served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services during World War II. Legend has it that her first movie studio casting director said she was.

This is similar to Decca Records’ executive who decided not to sign the Beatles, in hindsight. White was handsome rather than classically beautiful, but she was a great screen subject in every phase of adulthood, and when she played the oversexed Sue Ann Nivens, the joke was about White’s real-life nice girl image rather than her appearance.White decided to return to radio after film roles were out of reach. As she did on television, White wore many hats, including commercial pitchwoman, contestant on game shows, actress, hostess, and hostess. The Betty White Show). She was a disc jockey with Al Jarvis.

Hollywood on Television. Jarvis and she played records on the radio at first. Viewers complained about the inability to hear Jarvis and White talk, but they couldn’t hear the music. White and Jarvis soon ad-libbed the majority of the show, which ran an insane five-plus hours. To pull off that feat five times per week over years takes a quick brain. The improvisatory skills she developed in those early days would prove invaluable throughout her career.But it also takes a fundamentally endearing personality to carry so much air time, and White had that in spades, which is why she’s just as famous for playing herself as she is for being Sue Ann, or Rose, or Elka on Cleveland is hot (A spiritual Golden Girls Remake where White was able to play the Estelle-Getty role. She was someone everyone enjoyed spending time with, both on the television screen and in real life. Allen Ludden was her husband and she became close friends with Mary Tyler Moore, her TV producer husband. This in turn inspired Grant Tinker.


producers to cast her as Sue Ann when that show needed fresh blood in the wake of the departure of Valerie Harper’s Rhoda to her own spinoff. Ann was at once a departure from White’s familiar persona and one that leaned heavily upon it. Though Sue Ann and Mary Richards eventually became friends, their relationship was passive-aggressive and filled with tension, rather than the relatively cozy bonds Mary had shared with either Valerie or Leachman’s Phyllis (who departed not long after Sue Ann arrived). For

Mary Tyler Moore Show It was difficult to work with such an altering interpersonal dynamic. To ensure viewers don’t resent this catty intruder, an actor had to arrive with audience goodwill and a radiant screen personality that made Sue Ann irresistible despite all her insults.Sue Ann was such a thorough, effective reinvention for White, that White was able to thank her.

The Golden Girls

— about three friends (plus one of their mothers) enjoying the retired life down in Florida — was first being developed, the plan was for White to play the lustful Blanche, and for Rue McClanahan to play close to type as naive small-town girl Rose. Instead, both actors were smart enough to realize that both they and the audience would have more fun if they swapped roles, and White made a meal out of Rose’s surreal monologues about life back in St. Olaf, Minnesota. She was sometimes so dedicated to her part that even McLanahan, Bea Arthur and other veteran actors ended up losing their characters. the conclusion of Golden Girls (and its short-lived spinoff). The Golden PalaceWhite was never cast in another iconic scripted role like Sue Ann or Rose. That was okay, Betty White was a pretty iconic role in its own right. For playing herself in an episode of “Betty White”, she won her two Emmys. John Larroquette ShowHosting SNL. Super Bowl Ad — where technically she was playing a backyard football player who was just acting like Betty White due to extreme hunger — only served to accelerate her transformation into a kind of comic institution whose very arrival on screen made you smile. In this phase of her career, even when she would play characters — Sandra Bullock dancingIn The Proposal Oder Rapping with Troy and AbedOn

Community — she was implicitly being Betty White, elderly legend, whose long screen history was as much of an asset as her impeccable timing or her gameness for almost anything.In the PBS series Pioneers of TelevisionWhite looked back with humility, self-deprecation and regret at the loss of his job. Elizabeth, Your Life Here are some brief sketches “I said, ‘It won’t work. A half-hour, you know, stretched, the jokes won’t hold up that long. You can’t do a half-hour show!’ That’s how much I knew!”Hollywood on Television

into a standalone series:

Her skepticism was not unreasonable. At the time, half-hour sitcoms were still a relative novelty, and who could have expected the form to prove so durable that anyone would still be making them 70 years later — much less that White herself would keep appearing in them for most of that time?(*)It was very, very nice to be able to spend so much time with Betty White. A shame we couldn’t keep the visits going for a few more weeks, at the very least.(*)

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