Betty White's Career in TV: "From Life With Elizabeth" to "Betty White's Off Their Rockers"
Originally published in July 2015
Betty White is 93 years old and has been in show business since the late 1940s. Radio first, then television. Along the way, she’s even made it to the silver screen.
So when Betty White makes this statement, she does so from experience:
The audience today has heard every joke. They know every plot. They know where you’re going before you even start. That’s a tough audience to surprise and a tough audience for whom to write. It’s much more competitive now, because the audience is so much more…sophisticated.
In this installment of Advanced TV Herstory, we’re going to examine the Betty White Approach to Success, Longevity and Role Modeling Comic Genius through every decade TV has been in existence.
What are Betty White’s secrets to success? Raised in the Depression, she is from the first generation of TV celebrities. She’s ridden a wave of solid, steady roles over the years. Her reputation of being hardworking and upbeat became her brand.
We’re also going to take a deep look into how Betty White’s career has influenced other women characters and actresses.
So, a little background from her childhood and personal life:
Betty was born suburban Chicago in January 1922, an only child to parents Tess and Horace White. She credits her parents with being excellent storytellers, and as we listen to clips from shows through the years, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for her sense of timing within her comic delivery.
While Betty was young, the family moved to Los Angeles to advance Horace’s career. Picture Betty, who admits her girlhood interests were in writing, animals and forestry, also starting to hang out with children of people who were building the motion picture industry. While in grammar school, radio had become a staple in every home, film had transitioned from silent to talkies and even early color movies.
Betty was a student leader of theater productions, often writing the script AND acting a lead role.
Show biz bug clip
Following her graduation from Beverly Hills High, Betty served in the WAV Corps, married a serviceman, moved to Ohio, divorced the serviceman, moved back to LA, and fell in love with an theatrical agent at about the same time she was taking acting lessons. She married the agent but ultimately divorced him over the matter of whether she wanted to have children.
Want a career, having a child…
That sums up her personal life, now about Betty’s Early Career
Through the late 40s, she helped produce a radio show that was transitioning over to TV, ultimately to be named Hollywood on Television. She was responsible for the show behind and in front of the camera for 5 hour show that aired 6 days a week and spawned a variety show in the evenings. She learned all the tools and tricks of this emerging communications forum from the ground up, with the most sophisticated technology in America. Her show---yes produced by Betty White---Life with Elizabeth was a spin-off from Hollywood on Television.
Life With Elizabeth Intro
It lasted only a few years, but her comic stylings had already made her a household name across the country. Following Life with Elizabeth, she starred in Date with the Angels.
Both shows were in a sense rom-coms, featuring White and a male co-star with whom she plays a newlywed couple complete with wacky neighbors. These shows, which can be viewed as time capsules of post World War II American economics, domestic life and morals, serve up comedy via verbal sparring and physical gags.
Watching these shows is a lot like watching Burns and Allen, which migrated from radio too or Father Knows Best, which first aired in 1954. There’s a big difference, though, Life with Elizabeth starred Betty White. And she carried a presence in every scene.
Young and at the top of her craft, this show put a date stamp on how women were viewed, how they dressed and how clever they could really be. After all, American women had just fulfilled a myriad of duties during World War II, only to be laid off or relegated to lesser roles with lesser pay. We were still years away from Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique.
Life With Elizabeth Distraction 1
In Life With Elizabeth, Betty looks like she’s having great fun. Part of the gag is that she laughs at her own jokes or just smiles a huge smile, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus does. Big teeth, big smile, pronounced jawline.
Life With Elizabeth Distraction Closure
National sitcoms mirrored the national psyche, the man’s voice always got the last word. In fact, the last line of Life With Elizabeth was the man’s, though the facial expressions were all Betty’s.
Watching Life With Elizabeth 60 years after it aired is painful for the acceptability of gender stereotypes from the era. But Betty uses her exuberant confidence to make each episode memorable and in a sense, you know she’s making history with her work. At any point in her career, Betty could have called it quits, but for her, work was fun. We can look at her body of work (and not just her body) in awe.
From Life With Elizabeth, she embarked on Date with the Angels, in which the dialogue was more sophisticated and the production quality was better than Life With Elizabeth, but it ran for less than a year. White was recognized for her on-camera presence and by then, a decade of industry experience.
Of course they thought she should get her own variety show in 1958.
Or, as we might ask, How many The Betty White Show versions are too many?
Actually, in the course of her entire career, there have been THREE Betty White Shows. All were very short lived. The two in the 50s were talk show-variety based. In 1977, the geniuses behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show launched the third Betty White Show which lasted only 14 episodes. Failed TV series descriptions sometimes make me wonder, what the hell were they thinking? Here’s how Wikipedia synopsized it: Seriously, no actress could carry this story line:
Joyce Whitman, played by Betty White, is a middle-aged actress who lands the lead in a fictitious police series: Undercover Woman, a parody of Angie Dickinson’s Police Woman. Joyce is thrilled with the show, but less pleased to learn that the director is her ex-husband, played by John Hillerman.
What we’ve learned is that now into her mid-90s, Betty will likely veto ANY notion of there being a 4th shot at a Betty White Show.
Okay, we’ve tracked her through the late 50s, rising up through the business side of the industry that established her as the head of a production company. What did she do in the 60s and early 70s, before she got the offer of Sue Ann Nivens?
She did what every TV comic that didn’t do stand up ended up doing at some point.
Matchgame Intro clip
With syndicated TV shows in short supply, TV schedules needed to fill time between the daytime dramas. Game shows filled that void, and TV comics and personalities filled the seats.
Betty’s presence on game shows was partly due to her evolving relationship with game show host and developer Allen Ludden, whom she married in 1963. In California’s TV social circuit, they were royalty right up until Ludden died of cancer in 1983. Betty was a regular panelist on Password, which Ludden hosted for 19 years.
Celebrities with comic experience had better mastery of timing and ad libbing their roles than serious actors. In the 60s and early 70s, when so much social change throughout America made airing comedy shows more difficult – remember we started the 60s with The Beverly Hillbillies and ended it with Julia, starring Diahann Carroll as a single mother working as a nurse. – dozens of talented actors and actresses kept their skills and timing sharp on game shows.
Few of those game show alumni are alive today. Ruth Buzzi is.
At a time in her career where Betty hit the dearth of good roles for middle-aged women---proven so well with the Betty White Show of 1977---Betty took the work where she could get it. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, recognized by the Writers Guild of America as the 6th Best Written Series of All Time, was a landmark in Betty’s career. The role of Sue Ann Nivens earned Betty two Emmys. And those on The Mary Tyler Moore Show knew that they wanted a Betty White kind of actress for TV’s first cougar.
MTM Intimate Portrait 2000
Betty White, no stranger to live TV, stepped into a well-written show, performed with a team of professionals, and brought comic timing that catapulted Sue Ann from a one-time character to a regular, filling the fashion boots left by Valerie Harper’s Rhoda.
So yeah, Cougar Town may just owe some DNA to Sue Ann Nivens.
Since this is Advanced TV Herstory, we already know Betty went on to play in two more ensemble shows, both focused on inter-generational living experienced by women. Golden Girls was cast with award-winning actresses Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan, of Maude fame and Estelle Getty, who was actually younger than Betty but played Bea Arthur’s mother.
Four strong, accomplished actresses showing up for work each day. That must have been quite a set. Golden Girls mopped up a roomful of Emmys over its seven years. These women were easy to relate to. The writing was sharp, and the timing of these actresses was spot on. Reportedly, show ratings indicated strength in the under 30 demographic, which gives an interesting perspective to comedy transcending generations..
Those involved with Golden Girls’ development sought out Betty for the role of Blanche – another cougar role. Betty thought differently, as did Rue.
Rue McClanahan Paley
Hmm, successful series that feature relationships of four women… How many can you name?
- Living Single
- Sex and the City
- Hot in Cleveland
Designing Women gets partial credit because it was workplace-based, though it sure seemed like they were friends who didn’t have friends outside of work.
Have I missed any?
Did Golden Girls pave the way for women to talk freely about things that interest the audience largely comprised of women? From Sue Ann to Rose and then to Elke Ostrovsky in Hot in Cleveland, Betty’s timing and confidence brings out the best in her ensemble, offering up sarcasm and sauciness that appeals to audiences of all ages.
Hot in Cleveland first bit
Advanced TV Herstory may endeavor to analyze this entire show model in another episode. Eight well-written shows with eight talented casts broke through all sorts of taboo topics and have made women 16 to 100 laugh and cry, call and text best friends, mothers, daughters.
Remember too that Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan and Betty White – as TV stars of a certain age, were never viewed under the same spotlight as actresses who came just a few years after them. We really know little about their personal lives and as a result, our impressions of them, even those who have passed on, remain quite high. These were hard-working women who earned the right to performing into their 60s and 70s.
Betty White has been smiling for the camera since 1950 and has a reputation for her positive attitude. She is very well-known for her interest in animals, their health and safety. She once told CNN’s Piers Morgan that her most treasured moment in her public life was spending time with Koko the Gorilla.
Her humor has certainly evolved with the times, but she’s noted in her own writings that she’s turned down many opportunities. She’s also taken on a few dramatic roles, when the quality of the writing or storyline met her standards. Take the 2009 Sandra Bullock rom com, The Proposal, Betty White’s memorable appearances are precious.
Even after a distinguished career in comedy, Betty proves that she is an actress of wide range. Simply watch her touching scene in the 2011 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie The Lost Valentine as a reminder.
Let’s review of some of the secrets to Betty White’s long career:
- She wasn’t afraid, even in high school, to assert herself.
- She wasn’t afraid to tell her first two husbands that her desire for a career would not be compromised by having a child or children. She had made up her mind.
- She has a passion outside of her work, animals. In that respect, she joins a handful of other Hollywood women like Tippi Hedren, Stefanie Powers and Doris Day in putting their time and money where their hearts are. Morris Animal Foundation and the LA Zoo are just two of many organizations she’s supported.
- SHE IS OVER 90 and Betty is still putting humor to the test. While maintaining her role as Elka Ostrovsky on Hot In Cleveland, Betty also began producing a reality show Betty White’s Off Their Rockers. It aired for two seasons on NBC and was picked up by cable’s Lifetime for its third. The show’s premise is a group of seniors playing tricks on people from younger generations, proving true the bumper sticker adage: “Old age and trickery will overcome youth and skill every time.”
- Hard work and her love of crosswords and domestic and wild animals seems to have kept her mind as vibrant as any 93 year old’s. Impish and still delivering.
To put her age in context, here are names of actresses long passed, who if they were alive today, would STILL be younger than Betty:
- Judy Garland was 6 months younger than Betty.
- Marilyn Monroe was 4 ½ years younger than Betty
- Jean Stapleton of Edith Bunker fame – a year younger
- Jayne Meadows – who led a TV career very comparable to Betty’s up through the 70s live to the age of 96– passing just this year.
- Barbara Bel Geddes who had a brilliant career on the silver screen & TV, born the same year as Betty, passed in 2005
- Brett Somers, game show circuit regular with an earlier career in comedy, born 1924-passed in 2007
- And another Hollywood townie, Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched fame, born 11 years after Betty, 1933, passed in 1995.
So many careers cut short, lost to cancer or the demons of show business.
But wait, Betty is still in good company. These octagenarians and septagenarians appear from time to time on the big and small screen. It’s such a sign of respect for significance and tradition that casting decisions include these names:
- Carol Burnett is 82
- Angela Lansbury is 89
- Marion Ross is 87
- Cloris Leachman, who holds a record for Emmy nominations with Betty, is 89
- Ruth Buzzi is 78
- Joan Collins is 82
- Maggie Smith – Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey is 80
- Shirley MacLaine – occasional foil for Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey is 81- or at least she is in this life.
- Debbie Reynolds is 83
- Shirley Jones is 81
- Doris Day is 90.
In 2013, Betty White earned the title in The Guinness Book of World Records for the longest career in television. She says she’s the lucky one, for having had the chance to do the work she loves over the course of an entire lifetime.
Advanced TV Herstory says we’re the lucky ones. Betty stepped up when few women wrote and produced TV. At the age of 93, she may lament that audiences have gotten more sophisticated. They’ve seen it all and can deliver the line before she can. Writing is vital to the success of any performance, but with tears of laughter streaming down our faces - Betty’s delivery of so many great lines - as Sue Ann Nivens, Rose Nilund or Elke Ostrovsky, reminds that timing is everything.
Thank you Betty White.
Thank you Life with Elizabeth
This installment of Advanced TV Herstory uses interviews found in the 43 minute TV from the year 2000, Betty White, an Intimate Portrait available on YouTube and a 2006 Paley Center interview with Rue McClanahan, Betty White and others from the Golden Girls.
Music you’ve heard comes from Freemusicarchive.org – specifically Project 5am’s Wet Ashtray and Ultratech’s Burn It Down Girl
Script editing by Liz Erdmann.