Betty Marion White Ludden (January 17, 1922 – December 31, 2021) was an American actress and comedian. A pioneer of early television, with a career spanning eight decades, White was noted for her vast work in the entertainment industry and being one of the first women to work both in front of and behind the camera. She was the first woman to produce a sitcom (Life with Elizabeth) in the United States, which contributed to her being named honorary Mayor of Hollywood in 1955. White is often referred to as the "First Lady of Television", a title used for a 2018 documentary detailing her life and career.
Betty Marion White was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on January 17, 1922. She stated that Betty was her legal name and not a shortened version of Elizabeth. She was the only child of Christine Tess (née Cachikis), a homemaker, and Horace Logan White, a lighting company executive from Michigan. Her paternal grandfather was Danish and her maternal grandfather was Greek, with her other roots being English and Welsh (both of her grandmothers were Canadians with roots in Ontario).
White's family moved to Alhambra, California in 1923 when she was a little over a year old, and later to Los Angeles during the Great Depression. To make extra money, her father built crystal radios and sold them wherever he could. Since it was the height of the Depression, and hardly anyone had a sizable income, he would exchange the radios for other goods, including dogs on some occasions.
White attended Horace Mann Elementary School in Beverly Hills and Beverly Hills High School, graduating in 1939. Her interest in wildlife was sparked by family vacations to the Sierra Nevada. She initially aspired to a career as a forest ranger, but was unable to accomplish this because women were not allowed to serve as rangers at that time. Instead, White pursued an interest in writing. She wrote and played the lead in a graduation play at Horace Mann School, and discovered her interest in performing. Inspired by her idols Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, she decided to pursue a career as an actress.
After the United States entered World War II in 1941, White volunteered for the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her assignment included driving a PX truck with military supplies to the Hollywood Hills. She also participated in events for troops before they were deployed overseas. Commenting on her wartime service, White said, "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything."
In 1947, she married Lane Allen, a Hollywood talent agent. They divorced in 1949 because he wanted a family but she wanted a career rather than children.
Her first radio jobs included reading commercials and playing bit parts, and sometimes even doing crowd noises. She made about five dollars a show. She would do just about anything, like singing on a show for no pay. She appeared on shows such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This Is Your FBI. She was then offered her own radio show, called The Betty White Show. In 1949, she began appearing as co-host with Al Jarvis on his daily live television variety show Hollywood on Television, originally called Make Believe Ballroom, on KFWB and on then KLAC-TV (now KCOP-TV) in Los Angeles.
In 1952, the same year that she began hosting Hollywood on Television, White co-founded Bandy Productions with writer George Tibbles and Don Fedderson, a producer. The trio worked to create new shows using existing characters from sketches shown on Hollywood on Television. White, Fedderson, and Tibbles created the television comedy Life with Elizabeth, with White portraying the title character. The show was originally a live production on KLAC-TV in 1951, and won White a Los Angeles Emmy Award in 1952.
White began hosting the show by herself in 1952 after Jarvis's departure, spanning five and a half hours of live ad lib television six days per week, over a continuous four-year span. In all of her various variety series over the years, White would sing at least a couple of songs during each broadcast. In 1951, she was nominated for her first Emmy Award as "Best Actress" on television, competing with Judith Anderson, Helen Hayes, and Imogene Coca; the award went to Gertrude Berg. At this point, the award was for body of work, with no shows named in nominations.
White won five Primetime Emmy Awards, two Daytime Emmy Awards (including the 2015 Daytime Emmy for Lifetime Achievement), and received a Los Angeles Emmy Award in 1952. White was the only woman to have received an Emmy in all performing comedic categories, and also holds the record for longest span between Emmy nominations for performances—her first was in 1951 and her last was in 2014, a span of over 60 years. In 2015, she received the Lifetime Achievement Daytime Emmy. She also won three American Comedy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990), and two Viewers for Quality Television Awards. She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1995 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at Hollywood Boulevard alongside the star of her late husband Allen Ludden. In 2009, White received the TCA Career Achievement Award from the Television Critics Association.
In 1954, as The Betty White Show became national across the United States, White was criticized by many in the Southern states for having Arthur Duncan, a Black tap dancer, on her variety show and was asked to remove him. In the 2018 documentary Betty White: First Lady of Television, White recalled threats to take the show off-air "if we didn’t get rid of Arthur, because he was Black." She refused, saying "he stays, live with it".
By the 1960s, White was a staple of network game shows and talk shows: including both Jack Paar and later Johnny Carson's era of The Tonight Show. She made many appearances on the hit Password show as a celebrity guest from 1961 through 1975. She married the show's host, Allen Ludden, in 1963. She subsequently appeared on the show's three updated versions, Password Plus, Super Password, and Million Dollar Password. White made frequent game show appearances on What's My Line? (starting in 1955), To Tell the Truth (in 1961, 1990, and 2015), I've Got a Secret (in 1972–73), Match Game (1973–1982), and Pyramid (starting in 1982). She made her feature film debut as fictional Kansas Senator Elizabeth Ames Adams in the 1962 drama Advise & Consent; in 2004, on talk show Q&A, host Brian Lamb remarked on White's longevity as an actress besides the fact she was playing a strong female senator in 1962. He and Donald A. Ritchie noted that viewers would have seen the Senator Adams character to reflect Margaret Chase Smith. In 1963, White starred in a production of The King and I at the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre, with Charles Korvin co-starring as the king.
In July 1959, White made her professional stage debut in a week-long production of the play, Third Best Sport, at the Ephrata Legion Star Playhouse in Ephrata, Pennsylvania.
On June 14, 1963, White married television host and personality Allen Ludden, whom she had met on his game show Password as a celebrity guest in 1961, and her legal name was changed to Betty White Ludden. He proposed to White at least twice before she accepted. The couple appeared together in an episode of The Odd Couple featuring Felix's and Oscar's appearance on Password.
While they had no children together, White was stepmother to Ludden's three children with Margaret McGloin Ludden, who died of cancer in 1961. Allen Ludden died from stomach cancer on June 9, 1981, in Los Angeles. White never remarried. When asked the reason for this in an interview with Larry King, White responded by saying "Once you've had the best, who needs the rest?". When asked by James Lipton on Inside The Actor's Studio that should Heaven exist, what would she like God to say to her when she walked through the Pearly gates, White replied "Come on in Betty. Here's Allen."
White was a pet enthusiast and animal welfare advocate, who worked with organizations including the Los Angeles Zoo Commission, The Morris Animal Foundation, African Wildlife Foundation, and Actors and Others for Animals. Her interest in animal welfare began in the early 1970s while she was producing and hosting the syndicated series The Pet Set, which spotlighted celebrities and their pets. As of 2009, White was the president emerita of the Morris Animal Foundation, where she served as a trustee of the organization beginning in 1971. She was a member of the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association since 1974. Additionally, White served the association as a Zoo Commissioner for eight years.
A running gag was how Sue Ann's aggressive, cynical personality was the complete opposite of her relentlessly perky TV persona on the fictional WJM-TV show, The Happy Homemaker. "We need somebody who can play sickeningly sweet, like Betty White," Moore suggested at a production meeting, which resulted in casting White herself. White won two Emmy Awards back-to-back for her role in the hugely popular series, in 1975 and 1976.
In 1975, NBC replaced White as commentator hostess of the Tournament of Roses Parade, feeling that she was identified too heavily with rival network CBS's The Mary Tyler Moore Show. White admitted to People that it was difficult "watching someone else do my parade", although she would soon start a ten-year run as hostess of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for CBS. Following the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977, White was offered her own sitcom on CBS, her fourth, entitled The Betty White Show (the first a quarter century earlier), in which she co-starred with John Hillerman and former Mary Tyler Moore co-star Georgia Engel. Up against Monday Night Football in its timeslot, the ratings were poor and it was canceled after one season.
White was the recipient of The Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters Golden Ike Award and the Genii Award from the Alliance for Women in Media in 1976. The American Comedy Awards awarded her the award for Funniest Female in 1987 as well as the list of lifetime achievement awards in 1990.
Following the success of the Snickers advertisement, a grassroots campaign on Facebook called "Betty White to Host SNL (Please)" began in January 2010. The group was approaching 500,000 members when NBC confirmed on March 11, 2010, that White would in fact host Saturday Night Live on May 8. The appearance made her, at age 88, the oldest person to host the show, beating Miskel Spillman, the winner of SNL's "Anybody Can Host" contest, who was 80 when she hosted in 1977. In her opening monologue, White thanked Facebook and joked that she "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 appearance earned her a 2010 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.
After making the transition to television from radio, White became a staple panelist of American game shows, including Password, Match Game, Tattletales, To Tell the Truth, The Hollywood Squares, and The $25,000 Pyramid. Dubbed "the first lady of game shows", White became the first woman to receive the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Game Show Host for the show Just Men! in 1983. She was also known for her appearances on The Bold and the Beautiful, Boston Legal, and The Carol Burnett Show. Her biggest roles include Sue Ann Nivens on the CBS sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973–1977), Rose Nylund on the NBC sitcom The Golden Girls (1985–1992), and Elka Ostrovsky on the TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland (2010–2015). She gained renewed popularity after her appearance in the 2009 romantic comedy film The Proposal (2009), and was subsequently the subject of a successful Facebook-based campaign to host Saturday Night Live in 2010, garnering her a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.
In 1983, White became the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Game Show Host, for the NBC entry Just Men! Due to the amount of work she did on them, she was deemed the "First Lady of Game Shows".
In 1985, White scored her second signature role and the biggest hit of her career as the St. Olaf, Minnesota native Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. The series chronicled the lives of four widowed or divorced women in their "golden years" who shared a home in Miami. The Golden Girls, which also starred Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan, was immensely successful and ran from 1985 through 1992. White won one Emmy Award, for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series, for the first season of The Golden Girls and was nominated in that category every year of the show's run (Getty was also nominated every year, but in the supporting actress category).
The American Veterinary Medical Association awarded White with its Humane Award in 1987 for her charitable work with animals. The City of Los Angeles further honored her for her philanthropic work with animals in 2006 with a bronze commemorative plaque near the Gorilla Exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. The City of Los Angeles named her "Ambassador to the Animals" at the dedication ceremony.
The Golden Girls ended in 1992 after Arthur announced her decision to depart the series. White, McClanahan, and Getty reprised their roles as Rose, Blanche, and Sophia in the spin-off The Golden Palace. The series was short-lived, lasting only one season. In addition, White reprised her Rose Nylund character in guest appearances on the NBC shows Empty Nest and Nurses, both set in Miami.
After The Golden Palace ended, White guest-starred on a number of television programs including Suddenly Susan, The Practice, and Yes, Dear where she received Emmy nominations for her individual appearances. She won an Emmy in 1996 for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, appearing as herself on an episode of The John Larroquette Show. In that episode, titled "Here We Go Again", a parody on Sunset Boulevard, a diva-like White convinces Larroquette to help write her memoir. At one point Golden Girls co-stars McClanahan and Getty appear as themselves. Larroquette is forced to dress in drag as Bea Arthur, when all four appear in public as the "original" cast members.
In December 2006, White joined the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful in the role of Ann Douglas (where she would make 22 appearances), the long-lost mother of the show's matriarch, Stephanie Forrester, played by Susan Flannery. She also began a recurring role in ABC's Boston Legal from 2005 to 2008 as the calculating, blackmailing gossip-monger Catherine Piper, a role she originally played as a guest star on The Practice in 2004.
White appeared several times on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson appearing in many sketches and returned to Password in its latest incarnation, Million Dollar Password, on June 12, 2008, (episode #3), participating in the Million Dollar challenge at the end of the show. On May 19, 2008, she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, taking part in the host's Mary Tyler Moore Show reunion special alongside every surviving cast member of the series. Beginning in 2007, White was featured in television commercials for PetMed Express, highlighting her interest in animal welfare.
According to the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Garden's ZooScape member newsletter, White hosted "History on Film" from 2000 to 2002. White donated nearly $100,000 to the zoo in the month of April 2008 alone. White served as a judge at the 2011 American Humane Hero Dog Awards ceremony at The Beverly Hilton hotel on October 1, 2011, in Los Angeles.
In 2009, White starred in the romantic comedy The Proposal alongside Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Also in 2009, the candy company Mars, Incorporated launched a global campaign for their Snickers bar; the campaign's slogan was: "You're not you when you're hungry". White appeared, alongside Abe Vigoda, in the company's advertisement for the candy during the 2010 Super Bowl XLIV. The advertisement became very popular, and won the top spot on the Super Bowl Ad Meter.
In September 2009, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) announced plans to honor White with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award at the 16th Screen Actors Guild Awards. Actress Sandra Bullock presented White with the award on January 23, 2010, at the ceremony, which took place at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. She was a Kentucky Colonel. In 2009, White and her Golden Girls cast mates Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty were awarded Disney Legends awards. White was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in December 2010. In 2010, she was chosen as the Associated Press's Entertainer of the Year.
White had a strained relationship with her The Golden Girls co-star Bea Arthur on and off the set of their television show, commenting that Arthur "was not that fond of me" and that "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." After Arthur's death in 2009, White said, "I knew it would hurt, I just didn't know it would hurt this much." Despite their differences, The Golden Girls was a positive experience for both actresses and they had great mutual respect for the show, their roles, and the achievements made as an ensemble cast.
Mary Tyler Moore and her husband Grant Tinker were close friends with White and her husband Allen Ludden. In 2010 The Interviews: An Oral History of Television interview, Moore explained that producers, aware of Moore and White's friendship, were initially hesitant to audition White for the role, for fear that if she hadn't been right, it would create awkwardness between the two.
In June 2010, White took on the role of Elka Ostrovsky, the house caretaker on TV Land's original sitcom Hot in Cleveland along with Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendie Malick. Hot in Cleveland was TV Land's first attempt at a first-run scripted comedy (the channel has rerun other sitcoms since its debut). White was only meant to appear in the pilot of the show but was asked to stay on for the entire series. In 2011, she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Elka, but lost to Julie Bowen for Modern Family. The series ran for six seasons, a total of 128 episodes, with the hour-long final episode airing on June 3, 2015.
A Betty White calendar for 2011 was published in late 2010. The calendar features photos from White's career and with various animals. She also launched her own clothing line on July 22, 2010, which features shirts with her face on them. All proceeds go to various animal charities she supported.
White published several books. In August 2010, she entered a deal with G.P. Putnam's Sons to produce two more books, the first of which, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), was released in 2011. In February 2012, White received her first Grammy Award ("Best Spoken Word Recording") for the audio recording of the book.
On November 9, 2010, the USDA Forest Service, along with Smokey Bear, made White an honorary forest ranger, fulfilling her lifelong dream. White said in previous interviews that she wanted to be a forest ranger as a little girl but that women were not allowed to do that then. When White received the honor, more than one-third of Forest Service employees were women.
In January 2011, White received a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series for her role as Elka Ostrovsky in Hot in Cleveland. The show itself was also nominated for an award as Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series, but lost to the cast of Modern Family. She won the same award again in 2012, and later received a third nomination.
White also starred in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of The Lost Valentine on January 30, 2011 (this presentation garnered the highest rating for a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation in the previous four years and according to the Nielsen Media Research TV rating service won first place in the prime time slot for that date), and from 2012 to 2014, White hosted and executive produced Betty White's Off Their Rockers, in which senior citizens play practical jokes on the younger generation. For this show, she received three Emmy nominations.
In September 2011, White teamed up with English singer Luciana to produce a remix of her song "I'm Still Hot". The song was released digitally on September 22 and the video later premiered on October 6. It was made for a campaign for a life settlement company, The Lifeline Program, and it is her only commercial single to date, peaking at number 1 on the Dance Club Songs chart. White has also covered songs on her live television shows, such as "Nevertheless I'm in Love with You", "It's a Good Day", "Getting to Know You" and "A 'No' That Sounds like 'Yes'".
In October 2011, White was awarded an honorary degree and white doctor's coat by Washington State University at the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association's centennial gala in Yakima, Washington.
White served as a judge alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Wendy Diamond for the American Humane's Hero Dog Awards on the Hallmark Channel on November 8, 2011.
White's success continued in 2012 with her first Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording for her bestseller If You Ask Me. She also won the UCLA Jack Benny Award for Comedy, recognizing her significant contribution to comedy in television, and was roasted at the New York Friars Club. A television special, Betty White's 90th Birthday Party, aired on NBC a day before her birthday on January 16, 2012. The show featured appearances of many stars whom White worked with over the years as well as a message from then sitting president Barack Obama. In January 2013, NBC once again celebrated White's birthday with a TV special featuring celebrity friends, including former president Bill Clinton; the special aired on February 5.
White earned a Guinness World Record for "Longest TV career by an entertainer (female)" in 2014 and in 2018 for her lengthy work in television. White received eight Emmy Awards in various categories, three American Comedy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a Grammy Award. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was a 1995 Television Hall of Fame inductee.
On February 15, 2015, White made her final appearance on Saturday Night Live when she attended the 40th Anniversary Special. She participated in "The Californians" sketch alongside members of the current SNL cast members as well as Bill Hader, Taylor Swift and Kerry Washington. In the memorable sketch White ends up kissing Bradley Cooper.
In 2017, after 70 years in the industry, White was invited to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. At age 95, this made her the oldest new member at the time.
In 2017, sixty-three years after the show was canceled, Duncan appeared as a surprise guest on the series premiere of the reality talent series Little Big Shots: Forever Young, where he performed and reunited with White, later thanking her again for her support.
On August 18, 2018, White's career was celebrated in a PBS documentary called Betty White: First Lady of Television. The documentary was filmed over a period of ten years, and featured archived footage and interviews from colleagues and friends. In 2019, White appeared in Pixar's Toy Story 4, providing the voice of Bitey White, a toy tiger that was named after her. The other toys she shared a scene with were named and played by Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner, and Mel Brooks. White commented that "It was wonderful the way they incorporated our names into the characters ... And I'm a sucker for animals, so the tiger was perfect!"
In December 2021, before White's death, it was announced that a new documentary-style film about her, Betty White: A Celebration would be released in U.S. theatres on her 100th birthday, January 17, 2022. It is set to feature a cast of friends including Ryan Reynolds, Tina Fey, Robert Redford, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Jay Leno, Carol Burnett, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, Valerie Bertinelli, James Corden, Wendie Malick, and Jennifer Love Hewitt. In addition to the planned documentary, People magazine featured her as the cover story of its January 10, 2022, newsstand publication and a separate commemorative edition to celebrate the anticipated milestone, which were released days before her death.
On the morning of December 31, 2021, White died in her sleep at her home in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles from a stroke she had on Christmas Day. She was 99. Her remains were cremated and given to Glenn Kaplan, who was entrusted with carrying out her advanced health care directive.