Emmy-winning actor and TV personality was the longest-working star in US television
After sources told TMZ that the star had died on Friday (31 December), White’s agent and close friend confirmed her death in a statement.
“Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever,” Jeff Witjas wrote. “I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don’t think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again.”
White was weeks away from what would have been her 100th birthday, which had been celebrated with a new documentary about her life, and cover story for People Magazine in the US in which the star shared her secrets to longevity. She said that she enjoyed “a quiet life” at home in California following her years in entertainment, playing crossword puzzles and card games, along with watching animal documentaries, golf and Jeopardy!
Over the course of her eight decades in showbusiness, White won eight Emmys and one Grammy, was the first woman to produce her own US sitcom, and appeared in work as diverse as the sitcom Hot in Cleveland and the horror movie Lake Placid. She remains best known for her role as the daffy and adorably naive Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls, which ran from 1985 until 1992.
Ambitious from the off, the California native wrote and starred in her own play while still in high school, and graduated eager to find fame in film and television. After being told that she was not “photogenic”, White initially made her name in radio, and lent her voice to adverts, comedy sketches and radio musicals. She would break into television hosting a daily variety show, before producing and starring in her own sitcom, Life with Elizabeth, in 1953. At just 28, she became the first woman to create and star in her own TV series.
Her own variety series, The Betty White Show, followed in 1954. White’s power in the industry, even in the Fifties, was proven by her refusal to bow to racists after she recruited a Black dancer to appear on the show. The presence of tap dancer and singer Arthur Duncan on the series led to calls for a boycott, which White ignored.
“All through the South there was this whole ruckus,” White recalled in 2018. “They were going to take the show off the air if we didn’t get rid of Arthur because he was Black. Evidently through the South at that point it was a very heavy [thing], and I said, ‘I’m sorry, but he stays. Live with it!’”
In the wake of her variety show, White became a popular celebrity and a fixture on TV game shows. After several appearances on celebrity versions of the game show Password, White embarked on a romance with its host, Allen Ludden. The pair were married in 1963, and remained together until Ludden’s death from cancer in 1981. The couple had no children, but White was stepmother to Ludden’s three kids from his previous marriage. White was previously married to a Hollywood talent agent, with their marriage coming to an end when White refused his wishes for her to abandon her career.
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In the Sixties and Seventies, White appeared on a number of sitcoms, most notably earning two Emmys for her role as a sexually voracious TV star on the comedy series The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In 1985, she embarked upon what would become her signature role: Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. She would win an Emmy for her performance, and was nominated for four Golden Globes across its seven-season run.
It wasn’t the rosiest of sets, however. In 2011, White confirmed long-standing rumours that she and her co-star Bea Arthur didn’t always get along. “Bea had a reserve,” she revealed during a Q&A for her book If You Ask Me. “She was not that fond of me. She found me a pain in the neck sometimes. It was my positive attitude, and that made Bea mad sometimes. Sometimes if I was happy, she’d be furious!”
White experienced a pop culture resurgence in 2009 after appearing in the romantic comedy The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. The internet seemed to awaken to her brand of salty wit as a result, with White regularly appearing in memes and appreciation tweets. A petition demanding US broadcaster NBC recruit White to host Saturday Night Live also proved successful, with White presenting the long-running sketch show for the first time in 2010.
White’s subsequent roles included another sitcom, Hot in Cleveland, as well as her own hidden-camera prank series, Off Their Rockers. White also voiced a toy sabre-toothed tiger named Bitey White in the 2019 film Toy Story 4, and played versions of herself in The Simpsons, 30 Rock and Ugly Betty. In 2013, she was recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the woman with the longest TV career in entertainment.
White suggested to The Guardian in 2012 that her longevity in the industry was more or less an accident. “I think after 63 years in the business people grow up with you, and they have children and then they grow up with you,” she explained. “They think you’re a fixture, so I think they don’t know how to get rid of me, to be honest.”
Following the death of Bea Arthur in 2009 – of White’s Golden Girls co-stars, Estelle Getty died in 2008 and Rue McClanahan died in 2010 – White said that she did not fear the end.
“I think death is a friend, in a sense,” White told Female.com. “My mother taught me that. She taught me that we know the answers to so many things, but there’s one thing nobody on the planet knows. What happens when somebody dies? Does it just end? Do they go someplace else? We don’t know, any of us … But she always says, when we’d lose somebody, it was – ‘Well, now he knows the secret.’ So, to me, now Bea knows the secret. It doesn’t keep it from hurting us who are left behind. But I’ll be very interested in knowing the secret.”