Betty White, beloved star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls, follows up her hosting turn on Saturday Night Live with a new series, Hot in Cleveland. Not bad for 88.
Author David Carr Illustration Jeffrey Decoster
TWO BETTYS, BORN A YEAR APART IN THE 1920S, became famous for their prowess as homemakers: Betty Crocker, a fictitious figure created by General Mills in 1921, put a face on bags of cake mix. Betty White, born in 1922, helped create Sue Ann Nivens, the happy, hormonally charged homemaker on the classic sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
It’s hard to say which Betty is more famous at this point.
Betty White actually has limited culinary skills. “Meatloaf and spaghetti, but that’s about it,” she admits. “I’m hopeless.” But she has cooked up several iconic television characters, including the clueless Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. She’s won four Emmys, received a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild this past year and done myriad guest appearances, including spots on Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, The Practice and, of course, The Simpsons.
White turned 88 this year and doesn’t mind saying so. “Why kid? All these people have grown up with me on TV, so it doesn’t do any good to shave a few years off,” she says. But she certainly hasn’t slowed down. When we talked, she was busy getting ready for a new gig, hosting Saturday Night Live.
What’s a nice lady like this doing on one of the most savage comedy shows on television? The most popular ad aired during the latest Super Bowl was a Snickers spot in which she’s shown (via the glories of special effects) playing football and being tackled in a mud puddle. White—actually portraying a young man rendered geriatric without a Snickers—comes back to the huddle panting, and the quarterback suggests she’s playing like an old lady. Hands on her knees, she sighs, “C’mon, man, you’ve been riding me all day.”
“You’ve been playing like Betty White out there,” he taunts, to which she fires back, “That’s not what your girlfriend said.”
The commercial inspired the formation of an ad hoc committee on Facebook, demanding that the It lady of the moment host SNL. After half a million folks joined the cause, White was booked. And this month she returns to the form that made her a legend on TV Land’s new sitcom, Hot in Cleveland. The girl works.
White spoke to Hemispheres by phone from her Los Angeles home between gigs.
HEMISPHERES: You have a new show premiering this month called Hot in Cleveland. Why not just call it The Betty White Show?
WHITE: I actually did a couple of television shows called The Betty White Show. In fact, I was going to do another one a while back, and I wanted to call it Yet Another Betty White Show, but they wouldn’t let me. I guess we’ve all had enough “Betty White.”
HEMISPHERES: There’s no such thing as too much Betty.
WHITE: Bless you.
HEMISPHERES: Are you all fired up to say, “Live, from New York, it’s Saturday night!” ?
WHITE: I’m panic stricken, if you must know.
HEMISPHERES: After six decades in television, you still get nervous?
WHITE: Saturday Night Live is just so New York, and I’m not really very New York.
HEMISPHERES: Meaning you’re friendly and you smell nice?
WHITE: [Laughs] It’s just a different attitude. I watch Saturday Night Live and enjoy it, but I never thought I’d be hosting it. If I don’t do well, they’ll say, “Why did we do that?”
HEMISPHERES: Half a million people on Facebook certainly seemed to like the idea.
WHITE: I don’t know where this came from, because I am such a klutz when it comes to technology. I don’t even have email.
HEMISPHERES: Maybe those six Emmys of yours had something to do with it.
WHITE: Why, thank you. I’ll admit it’s a thrill, and I never take it for granted. I’ve been in this wonderful business for sixty-two years, and the fact that I’m still working at eighty-eight years old boggles my mind.
HEMISPHERES: Early in your career, you shared in the syndication rights to your shows. Shrewd move.
WHITE: Remember, when I started in television, television was just starting itself. We were sort of making it up as we went along, and at that point we didn’t know any better. It worked out very well, but now it is so much harder because so many people are involved, and it all ends up being part of a big negotiation.
HEMISPHERES: Desi Arnaz decided early on that he would pay for taping live shows if he got to keep the tapes. The networks reasoned that no one would ever want to watch the same show twice.
WHITE: That turned out pretty well for him.
HEMISPHERES: You’ve been called the First Lady of Game Shows for your many appearances as a guest star on Password, What’s My Line? and Match Game. Got a favorite?
WHITE: Of course, I have to be prejudiced in favor of Password, because I fell in love with the man in the middle.
HEMISPHERES: You outlasted five different hosts on that show and married Allen Ludden, who died in 1981. You’ve never remarried.
WHITE: He is the love of my life. When you’ve had the best, who needs the rest? He’s still around, trust me.
HEMISPHERES: Well, somebody’s certainly watching out for you. How did you end up together?
WHITE: We met when he was the host on Password, and then he moved to New York. I wasted a year I could have been with him, because he kept asking me to move and I refused. I finally relented, and we did a summer stock show together called Critic’s Choice. There was a scene at the end where he would put his arms around me and kiss me. Well, I must say that last scene sometimes would last a little longer…
HEMISPHERES: Sounds like you were a bit harder to get than your Mary Tyler Moore character, Sue Ann Nivens.
WHITE: Well, she did get around, but she was also the happy homemaker who could cook anything and clean anything. They used to ask Allen in interviews, “How close to Sue Ann is Betty?” He’d say, “They’re really the same person except Betty can’t cook!” On the show, Sue Ann had a little affair with Cloris Leachman’s character’s husband, and she always wondered why he came home with his clothes cleaner than when he went to work.
HEMISPHERES: My, that’s sort of spicy. And yet, you told Diane Sawyer that you laid down the law with SNL: “No nudity.”
WHITE: I turned down nudity back when it was even a possibility. It’s like humor. I think it’s what you don’t show that makes it interesting.
HEMISPHERES: You clearly love what you do, but don’t you get a little tired of working all the time? At what point in your career are you going to have enough laurels to rest on?
WHITE: I love working. Love it. I go in prepared to enjoy it instead of going in looking for the negatives. I always crack up at the people who start the conversation with, “You know what I hate?” If you don’t like something, then go in another direction, but cool the complaints.
HEMISPHERES: What does bother you?
WHITE: Unkindness or cruelty of any kind to anyone or any animal. The ones who mistreat animals mistreat each other as well. Right now, I’m sitting on the couch with Pontiac, a five-year-old golden retriever. He has his head on my lap.
HEMISPHERES: You’ve done a great deal of charitable work on behalf of animals.
WHITE: Thanks for mentioning that. The Morris Animal Foundation is a health organization that helped develop the feline leukemia vaccine and the spiral virus vaccine for dogs, and we’re also involved in protecting the mountain gorillas. I’ve been working with them for forty-five years.
HEMISPHERES: What do you watch on TV?
WHITE: I shouldn’t say this…
HEMISPHERES: But now you must.
WHITE: I don’t watch much television. I don’t have time. I haven’t had a day off in three years. I have a lovely weekend place in Carmel, and I haven’t been there in a long, long time. My friends go, but I never seem to find the time.
HEMISPHERES: Good lord, Betty, where are your priorities?
WHITE: I never said I was good person.
DAVID CARR writes about media and entertainment for The New York Times. Like Mary Richards, he got his start in journalism in Minneapolis.