The Life and Legacy of Betty White

 by Amelia Cooper

Pete Souza, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On the 17th January 1922, world-renowned actress and comedian Betty White was born in Oak Park, Illinois as the only child of her electrical engineer father Horace White and housewife Tess. At the age of two White and her parents moved to Los Angeles, which arguably helped propel her into stardom as she grew. Throughout her childhood, White was fascinated by the entertainment industry and knew that she wanted to be a part of it when she became old enough. Right at the start of her almost century-long career in showbusiness, just one month after graduating high school in 1939, White starred in an experimental television transmission show in which she sang songs from the operetta “The Merry Widow” with one of her high school classmates. This television show was classed as experimental as it was created during a time in which the idea of television itself was still in the developmental stages, and helped to introduce White to the industry that she would remain to be a pivotal part of for the rest of her life. In 1941, when the USA entered WWII, White volunteered for the American Women’s Voluntary Services in which she drove a PX truck carrying supplies to the Hollywood Hills, in addition to participating in events for troops who were going to be deployed overseas. 

After the War, White resumed her search for stardom and travelled to different movie studios in the hopes of becoming employed. However, she was rejected by many of these studios as a result of her not being ‘photogenic enough’. As a result of this, she started to work in radio rather than television and ended up starring in several radio shows which gained her recognition around the USA, hence allowing her to participate or lead in many different television shows. One of the most prominent points within her career was White having her own television show in 1952: “The Betty White Show”. This show, as well as opening up her audience to more people across the US, allowed White to showcase her forward-thinking views on social issues such as the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community, racism at the time, and animal rights. White faced copious amounts of backlash in 1952 for including black tap dancer Arthur Duncan on “The Betty White Show”. Southern states in the US, which still had Jim Crow laws against people of colour, stated that they would boycott the show if White continued to include Duncan on her show and to this White responded: “I’m sorry, live with it”. This did result in her show being quietly cancelled by NBC, as both the ratings and viewings rapidly declined, however, White never gave up her advocacy towards marginalised groups of society. Whilst Betty White is known mainly for her performances on TV shows of the mid to late 20th century such as “Life with Elizabeth”, ”Date with the Angels”, and “The Betty White Show”, she also worked behind the scenes in shaping much of the golden age of show business. In 1952, she became the first woman ever to create a production company. In collaboration with writer George Tibbles and executive producer Don Fedderson, Brandy Productions created shows such as “Life with Elizabeth”, which was an initially extremely low budget production that eventually garnered both White and her on-screen character’s husband Del Moore their primetime Emmy awards. From the end of “Life with Elizabeth”, in 1955, White was becoming a household name. After appearing in “Date with the Angels” up until 1958, White made her debut on the stage in a production of “Third Best Sport” in Pennsylvania.

At the turn of the 1960s, White was a staple of many TV game and talk shows, and this success continued well into the 70s. In 1963, however, White married the host of the television game show “Password” Allen Ludden and they remained married until Ludden’s death in 1981. White never remarried after his passing. The entire decade of the 1960s was both prosperous and busy for White, as the list of game shows in which she became a regular grew. The 1970s brought change and new opportunities for her though, with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” being created and starring White for many of the later seasons. The sensation that this show became is unimaginable, with the show winning 51 Emmy awards in total over the duration of its run on television, and White herself bringing home 5 of the primetime Emmy awards for best-supporting actress. After the show finished in 1977, White resumed her work on television and was deemed by many as being ‘the first lady of game shows’ as a result of the immense amount of work that she did on them. Arguably one of Betty White’s most well-known ventures, “Golden Girls” started in 1985 and continued until 1992. The show resulted in White winning one Emmy for best actress and being nominated in the same category each year for the entire run of the show. She continued winning Emmys for various television roles throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, but her roles were never as era-defining as those of her earlier acting days. 

Jump to 2009, when the corporation Mars starred Betty White in their advertisement for Snickers at the Super Bowl XLIV and her resurgence to the screen began. The few years before this come back did have some minor roles for White, in the film “The Proposal” and Massachusetts based legal dramedy “Boston Legal” which ultimately aided her television careers revival. As a result of the massively successful Snickers advert, Betty White became a pop culture icon for much of the younger generation who had previously not known of her, with a Facebook group being made titled “Betty White to Host SNL (Please)”. After this campaign grew to half a million members, it was revealed that she would indeed host SNL in May 2010, hence crowning her the title of oldest SNL host. As a result of this new, younger crowd, she started a clothing line and “Betty White calendar”, with the proceeds from both of these going to various animal charities that she supported throughout her career. In the decade that followed, several different documentaries have been made about this icon of the screen, with one set to be released on what would have been White’s 100th birthday, the 17th January 2022. On New Years Eve 2021, White passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 99, after an 80-year long career (and 8 Emmys, a Grammy, 3 American Comedy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) bringing smiles to millions across the globe, but she will forever be remembered as the quick-witted, and occasionally foul-mouthed, legend that she always was.