Remembering the Late Great Betty White
A reflection on Betty White's historic career, raw talent and beautiful soul
Written by: Ashley Lubecky
Betty White, dubbed the “first lady of television,” began her career as a performer in 1939. She would then go on to become the first woman to produce a nationally broadcast television show, to star in a national sitcom, to receive a national Emmy nomination, and to receive a Game Show Emmy, as well as the first producer to hire a female director. Her career as a performer would continue to expand for eight decades, earning her the Guiness World Record for the longest television career. This career included everything from hosting and producing her own television show, to being a celebrity guest star on game shows like “Match Game” and “Password,” to appearing in sitcoms like “The Golden Girls” and “Hot in Cleveland,” to starring in movies like “The Proposal” and “The Lost Valentine,” in addition to hosting “Saturday Night Live.” Along the way, Betty White won over the hearts of many with her raw talent and adorable, sassy personality, leaving kindness, warmth, laughter and inspiration in her wake.
Betty White’s first television appearance was on a local broadcast show in 1939, in which she performed a song by her idol, Jennette McDonald. This short performance unleashed her pure talent to the world, which many would come to love and adore, and launched her career as a performer and television personality.
This performance sparked the interest of one man in particular, Al Javis, a radio disc jockey. Upon seeing Betty’s performance on this broadcast, Al invited her to appear regularly on his new television talk show, “Hollywood on Television,” which aired live for 5 and a half hours six days a week. “Hollywood on Television” aired from 1949 to 1953, and was eventually rebranded “The Betty White Show” with the departure of Al Javis and Eddie Albert. The daily longevity of this show emphasized Betty’s raw talent; she was able to keep fans entertained for five and a half hours a day as she showcased her sparkling personality.
Betty White singlehandedly debunked the excuse of “coming from a different generation” in relation to controversial opinions on race, gender and sexual orientation.
Following “Hollywood on Television,” Betty White co-founded Bandy Production and produced the series “Life with Elizabeth,” becoming the first female producer of a national television show. Betty not only produced “Life with Elizabeth,” but took on the role of the main character, Elizabeth, also making her the first woman in history to lead a national sitcom. Additionally, Betty became the first woman to receive a national Emmy nomination for her role as Elizabeth in this sitcom.
Betty went on to produce “The Betty White Show” when it was picked up by NBC in 1954, and shortened to a half hour live show five days a week. Additionally, Betty hired a female director for “The Betty White Show,” making her the first producer to do so. “The Betty White Show” eventually went national but, unfortunately, was soon canceled because Betty rightfully refused to give into racism — Betty’s guest and friend, Arthur Duncan, a Black man, frequently appeared on the show, performing tap dance and musical numbers. At the time, stations from the South urged Betty to take Arthur off of the show because of his race. Betty fought back, saying “live with it,” and instead gave Arthur more air time. Eventually, “The Betty White Show” was canceled from live television, but became a sitcom decades later.
"... She was the goldenest of them all and will be forever missed.” - Don Cheadle
When appearing on “The Golden Palace” — a spinoff of “The Golden Girls” — in 1992, with co-star Don Cheadle, Betty darkened her hair and makeup to accommodate the contrast in lighting in their skin tones. After Betty’s passing, Don wrote on Twitter; “Betty was the best of the best, when we were shooting scenes together it was difficult for the DP to get the lighting right between my chocolate and Betty's white! She was either a ghost or I was the shadow. I came on set one day and Betty had darkened her make up/hair a bit in an attempt to accommodate for it. Nobody asked her to do it. And that’s just one small example of her overflowing generosity…She was the goldenest of them all and will be forever missed.”
Betty was also a supporter and advocate of LGBTQ+ rights and said, “If a couple has been together all that time — and there are gay 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.” Betty White singlehandedly debunked the excuse of “coming from a different generation” in relation to controversial opinions on race, gender and sexual orientation.
Into the 1960s, Betty White appeared on more game shows, including “Password,” “Pyramid” and “Match Game.” These consistent game show appearances dubbed her the “first lady of games shows.” Additionally, Betty met her late husband, Allen Ludden, from appearing on “Password” in 1961. In a “Television Academy” interview from 1977, Betty said of their relationship, “We felt like we knew each other.” Betty later went on to host the game show “Just Men!” and became the first woman to receive the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Game Show Host in 1983.
When you find something funny or enjoyable, the whole body has a different attitude, it relaxes, and that’s gotta be healthy, as opposed to the tension and the worry.
Betty continued to amaze fans with her talent as the years went on, appearing in many sitcoms, including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-1977), “Mama’s Family” (1983-1990), “The Golden Girls” (1985-1992), “That ‘70s Show” (1998-2006), “Hot in Cleveland” (2010-2015), and many more. She starred in various movies, including “Bringing Down the House” (2003) and “You Again” (2010), and hosted a Mother Day’s episode on “Saturday Night Live” on May 8, 2010. Betty also appeared in commercials, WWE Monday Night Raw, as well as voice-acted in animated films including “Tom Sawyer” (2000), “Toy Story 4” (2019) and “Dog Gone Trouble” (2019).
Betty White passed on December 31, 2021, days before her 100th birthday, which would have been January 17, 2022. Betty’s last appearance in a film was the animated role in “Dog Gone Trouble” (2019), where she played Mrs. Sarah Vanderwoozie, an eldery woman who passes in the film. In a bittersweet coincidence, her character’s first lines within the film are: “Hello everyone. I have some sad news. I bit the big one! I’ve cashed in my chips. I’m dead.”
Aside from being a great performer and producer, Betty White was a treasured soul who fought for animal rights, opposed racial injustices and supported LBGTQ+ rights.
In “Betty White: The First Lady of Television,” Betty shared how she would like to be remembered: “If you look at those negatives, you spoil all the good stuff, and it goes by and it’s gone, and you haven’t tasted it. If you don’t at least notice it and accentuate the good stuff when the bad, really tragic stuff comes along, it makes it tough to handle. When you find something funny or enjoyable, the whole body has a different attitude, it relaxes, and that’s gotta be healthy, as opposed to the tension and the worry.”