I’m not the only one who feels as though I’ve lost a personal friend.
Betty White died, unexpectedly, on Dec. 31. As far as anyone knew she wasn’t sick, and her agent said she died in her sleep.
She was 99 and was looking forward to the celebration of her 100th birthday – yes, her 100th – on Jan. 17. She was excited about it – a special video program was in the works, and People magazine already had a special edition about her and the event on the newsstands.
The news rocked Hollywood and the world of entertainment.
The wonderful entertainer and actress Betty White has been a mainstay for decades – first in radio, then in television, and also in movies. She began in radio and the early days of television right after high school in Los Angeles – and she never looked back.
I never really followed her career, but I certainly enjoyed it as a weekly viewer and fan of her varied series – “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” where she was “Sue Ann” – on “The Golden Girls” where she played “Rose” – winning Emmy’s on both – and also in “Hot in Cleveland” as “Elka Ostrovsky” and her role as “Catherine Piper” in “Boston Legal.” Keep in mind, these successes came after she was 50 – and had been in the business successfully for all those prior years.
In addition to my being a loyal TV viewer of her work, I also had an experience with Betty White in person, and she forever impressed on me what a generous and genuine person she was.
Betty White got into early television in 1949 on a local talk show in Hollywood with host Al Jarvis. When he left the show, she stayed as host. Over the next years, she continued with her own TV shows, among them “Life with Elizabeth,” for which she won her first Emmy, sitcoms and variety shows, which she also produced, unusual in those days. Other series she appeared in were “Mama’s Family,” “Just Men” and “Ladies Man.”
Along with all that, Betty White began appearing on quiz shows and made a name for herself as a welcome and successful guest. You may have seen them – “I’ve Got a Secret,” “The Match Game,” “To Tell the Truth,” “What’s My Line” and “Password.”
It was on “Password” that she met the host, Allen Ludden, and that blossomed into a marriage in 1963 that lasted until his death from stomach cancer in 1981. The couple had no children together but raised his three children from a previous marriage.
White’s humor, salty comments and innocent looks were talents she played to perfection, and it buoyed her to amazing success.
Over her career, she won five Prime Time Emmys and one Daytime Emmy. She also was awarded a lifetime achievement Daytime Emmy and a Los Angeles Regional Emmy.
Her most recent and seventh Emmy was for outstanding guest actress, hosting a Mother’s Day episode of “Saturday Nite Live.”
The 2014 edition of “Guinness World Records” certified her career as the longest for a female entertainer – more than seven decades!
She wrote books, made headlines in a Super Bowl Snickers commercial, did summer theatre, narrated the Pasadena Rose Parade, and in addition to her show business work, she spent a good portion of her life advocating for animals. Any animal – as she said, “any with a leg at each corner,” but when asked about snakes, she added “Ohhh, I love snakes!”
Betty White worked to support the Los Angeles Zoo, the Morris Animal Foundation and other animal causes. That was where I had my opportunity to meet her in person and learn what a generous individual she was.
It was in Los Angeles in the early ’70s, and I was anchoring the evening news on Channel 11. One of the stories we were covering one night was an animal contest for which Betty White was a judge. She came into the station for the report and on-air interview.
She was with Allen, her husband; the two of them stayed until the end of the program and we had an opportunity to talk. As the conversation began to get to the “goodnights,” she asked me if I had had dinner, and I said no, that I was going home.
It was at that point that she invited me to join the two of them for dinner. How could I say no? I was stunned but said “yes.” We drove in separate cars to the restaurant and had a wonderful three-hour repast – good food, drink and talk. I am an animal advocate as she was, so we had much in common – to say nothing of talking about the television business.
What I found fascinating was that Betty was as interested in my life and interests as I was in hers – our dinner was filled with good conversation.
We had another contact associated with animals and television and at that time, and I had the opportunity to have her meet my children – she was as gracious as might be expected. My regret as that I didn’t pursue further contact. Who knows? We might have become friends.
But in the strange world of television, I was a friend of Betty White, as were millions of others – and I admit that when I learned of her death, I cried. But she will live on in her legacy of her work on the tube – filled with laughs and warmth and memories. And a beautiful legacy it is.
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