Happily single at 88, Betty White is having the time of her life with a new TV series, a new movie and a 2011 calendar surrounded by hunky bachelors.
It is hard to imagine a more beloved icon of American womanhood than Betty White. From The Golden Girls to Saturday Night Live, from her quick-witted interviews to her work with animal charities like the Morris Animal Foundation, this 88-year-old comedy legend is not just a great advert for lusty humor but for living an independent single life too.
As her popularity hits a new peak, the nation’s love affair with White seems to grows stronger with each passing year. White clearly gets the joke too. She loves playing up her public image as a flirtatious, acid-tongued, sexually rapacious senior. Even 25 years ago, talk show legend Johnny Carson described his longtime friend as “somewhere between Mother Theresa and a call girl.” It was meant as a compliment, and White took it as such.
In January this year, White told George Lopez she was “just a whore who can’t say no.” She was talking about her acting work, of course, but with a knowing twinkle in her eye. Later the same week, accepting her Lifetime Achievement prize at the Screen Actors Guild awards ceremony, she quipped that she had worked with many of the stars in the audience, and “maybe had a couple … you know who you are.” Cue roaring applause.
Meanwhile, momentum was building behind an unofficial Facebook campaign to have White host Saturday Night Live, eventually mustering a phenomenal half a million supporters. “That’s more people than I’ve dated,” she joked on the Ellen DeGeneres Show in March. The interview with Ellen ended when a shirtless young hunk gave the veteran star a table dance. “Do I get to take him home?” White hooted.
In her hilarious Superbowl Snickers commercial and her SNL preview clips, White again reinforced her image as America’s favorite raunchy old broad.
“They call me a cougar, and they say I’m dating a young hottie,” she laughed, naming wholesome pin-up Zac Efron as the alleged target of her predatory advances. When White finally made her SNL debut in May, alongside fellow female alumni Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, audience ratings bounced to an 18-month high.
With her gift for racy double entendres and her long experience in live broadcasting, White was a natural for SNL. Her opening monologue affectionately mocked the online campaign to land her the hosting job: “I didn’t know what Facebook was, and now that I do know what it is, I have to say it sounds like a huge waste of time.” The spoof NPR sketch on cake baking was another perfect fit for White, who kept a straight face during a parade of suggestive lines: “My muffin hasn’t had a cherry since 1939.”
White’s enduring comic persona as a rampant man-eater dates back to her role as “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which spanned 1973 to the final season four years later. Nivens was apple-pie wholesome in public, sex-crazed and acerbic in private, an ideal mix for White’s comic gifts. The role earned her two back-to-back Emmy awards and a short-lived solo sitcom spin-off on CBS.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show may have made White a household name in her fifties, but she had already been a comedy star since her teens. Born in Oak Park, Illinois in January 1922 to travelling salesmen Horace White and his wife Tess, her ancestry is a mix of Danish and Greek. After her family relocated to Los Angeles during the Great Depression, White settled in Beverly Hills.
She began acting and modeling straight after graduating high school in 1939, putting work on hold to join the American Women’s Voluntary Services when World War II broke out. In the 1940s, she co-hosted a series of comedy shows on radio and television, breaking new ground for women in 1952 by forming her own production company with writer George Tibbles and producer Don Fedderson. The sitcom they created, Life with Elizabeth, ran from 1952 to 1955. It became a nationally syndicated star vehicle for White, winning her the first of six Emmys to date.
White was briefly married twice in her twenties, to U.S. Army Air Corps pilot Dick Barker and Hollywood agent Lane Allen. Both ended in divorce. It was not until 1961, when she joined the panel of Password as a regular celebrity guest, that she met the love of her life — the show’s host Allen Ludden.
Ludden was a recent widower with three children, and White was dating somebody else. But his steady, persistent courtship eventually wore down her defenses and they married in June 1963. Around the same time, White earned the nickname “The First Lady of Game Shows” due to her regular guest appearances on what’s My Line?, To Tell The Truth, I’ve Got a Secret and many others.
White and Ludden remained together until his death from stomach cancer in 1981. Sadly, he did not live to see her greatest television triumph in The Golden Girls, which ran from 1985 to 1992 and became a worldwide sensation.
Focused on the antics of four older single women in Florida, this much-loved sitcom was sharply scripted and surprisingly bold, smuggling themes such as AIDS and menopause into prime time. Crucial to its appeal was the strong screen chemistry between White and her three co-stars Beatrice Arthur, Estelle Getty and Rue McClanahan, which blossomed into long off-screen friendships.
White earned another Emmy for playing Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls, a “terminally naïve” but good-hearted innocent from the Minnesota backwater of St Olaf. Originally she was offered the part of the sexually rapacious Blanche, with McClanahan playing the dim-witted Rose, effectively reprising characters that both had played in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But the pilot director Jay Sandrich suggested switching roles to avoid typecasting, and both women agreed. Keeping up with Blanche’s wild bedroom antics may have proved too much, even for White. “If I had half that sex life, I’d be dead from exhaustion,” she joked in DVD Talk magazine last year.
The Golden Girls may have ended in 1992, but it remains a globally syndicated smash even today, with a huge cult following, particularly among women and gay men. In that sense, it was a kind of silver-haired precursor to Sex and the City. In a cruel irony, although White was the oldest of four original stars, she is now the only survivor following the deaths of Getty in July 2008, Arthur in April 2009, and McClanahan in June of this year.
Ever since The Golden Girls, America’s love affair with Betty White has only grown stronger. Indeed, over the last decade she has been inescapable, with guest appearances in Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, The Bold and the Beautiful, The Simpsons, My Name Is Earl, King of the Hill, The Family Guy and many other hit shows. Her sporadic film career has also enjoyed a boost with several scene-stealing roles, including the comedy horror yarn Lake Placid and last year’s Sandra Bullock rom-com smash, The Proposal.
With her stock running high following The Proposal and her sensational Saturday Night Live appearance, White is back in the spotlight again. She is currently co-starring in a well-received new sitcom on the cable network TV Land, Hot In Cleveland, playing the snooty housekeeper to three LA single women, Valerie Bertinelli, Wendy Malick and Jane Leaves, who decide to relocate to the Midwest so they can date “real” men. She will also soon be seen another movie, the matrimonial comedy You Again, starring Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Is there room for relationships in this late-blooming rush of work and fame? It seems not. White has never married again in the three decades since Ludden’s death. And despite relishing her comic caricature as a modern-day Mae West with an army of lovers on call, she admitted to Larry King in March that she is essentially an “incurable romantic” who never really got over losing Ludden. The last date she recalls going on was “about five years ago.” But, she complained to King, “dating is work now, it used to be fun.”
Even so, America still loves the notion of White as the oldest cougar on the block. In May, gossip columns went into overdrive when pictures emerged of her sharing a kiss with Morgan Freeman, even though it was just a chaste peck at an awards ceremony. She always names Robert Redford as her fantasy man, but admits wistfully they have never even met. A lifelong campaigner for animal rights, nowadays she shares her bed only with her beloved golden retriever, Pontiac.
Perhaps Betty White has become the fantasy grandmother we would all like to have, and a shining example of the glorious old age we all hope to enjoy. As she nears the end of her ninth decade, America’s favorite golden girl remains a life-affirming icon of a true singular: independent, good-humored and with an eternally youthful spirit.
And besides, who needs just one man when the whole country already loves you?
Copyright © 2010 Stephen Dalton/Singular Communications, LLC.