Turning 90 is a wonderful thing, and being TV’s “It Girl” at age 90 is nothing short of amazing.
Those two achievements belong to none other than Betty White, whose 1995 book was appropriately called Here We Go Again. “The original idea,” Betty wrote, “was to visit the earliest days of television while I could still remember them.” White assumed, understandably, that her career was pretty much behind her—she was, after all, in her seventies.
In 2010, in an updated forward to the ’95 book, she wrote, “Who could have dreamed at the time, that, fifteen years later, I would still be hanging in there, busier than ever before?” Now at age 90, her star burns more brightly than ever before, as she appears in the hit TV show “Hot In Cleveland” and has been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series. ( She was nominated for the same award for the first time in 2011, at the young age of 89—and won.)
Indeed, 2010 was a crazy year for Betty, and it began with a sassy Snickers commercial, then morphed into a Facebook campaign to make Betty the oldest guest host on “Saturday Night Live” and “somewhere in here I agree to do a guest stint on a pilot for a new series” with the stipulation that “it would be only a one-shot deal.” It starred Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendy Malick. An instant hit, there was an order for ten episodes. In spite of the agreement that she wouldn’t be involved, Betty ended up doing all ten, and then the series got picked up for twenty more episodes. “I have no business working this much at this age,” she said.
In the madcap year of 2010 she even showed up in the sitcom, “The Middle,” starring Patricia Heaton. She played a spiteful librarian who enjoyed making life hell for second-graders.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1922, Betty was barely out of high school when she received her first big break—singing for an experimental LA television station. By 1953, she was starring in a series called “Life With Elizabeth” and she made regular appearances in the ’60s and ’70s on “Password,” hosted by her husband, Allen Ludden.
Her most famous roles were as the devious Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970–1977) and the hilariously ditzy Rose on “The Golden Girls” (1985-1992). But her list of credits even includes: “Mama’s Family,” “The Bold and the Beautiful,” and “Ugly Betty.”
Nabbing the popular actress isn’t enough; for some reason writers love putting her in unlikely situations—like throwing her in the slammer. They love having her say things you don’t expect to hear from a nice little old lady. The results are delightful.
“I’m in freaking jail here!” she yelled last year on “Hot in Cleveland.” Betty plays the widow of a Mafioso who absconds, faking his death, leaving her to take the heat for sitting on stolen loot. Oh, actually, she doesn’t technically play a widow—although “dead,” he showed up this season—played by Don Rickles, no less. In jail for a couple of hours, she starts singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” until her unseen cellmate tells her to knock it off. When the camera does show the snarling woman sharing the space, it’s none other than Mary Tyler Moore.
Leave it to Ms. White to make being a “senior citizen” fashionable. No doubt partly in deference to her age group, “Hot” has boasted a “Who’s Who” of guest stars, and many of them, like the beloved Moore, are older. What a treat to see Carl Reiner, Tim Conway, Orson Bean, Buck Henry, Hal Linden (“Barney Miller”) and John Mahoney (“Frasier”).
Betty White is not just about comedic timing. She’s just as famous for her passion for animals. She communes with elephants, giraffes and chimps, too, as trustee for the Los Angeles Zoo. She has tirelessly worked to raise funds for improvements to various areas of the Zoo, such as “the Red Ape Rainforest for our orangutans, followed by a great new home for our gorillas,” as she explains in her 2011 book, Betty & Friends—My Life at the Zoo.
It seems appropriate that Betty White, at the age of 90 has landed on the network “TVLand.” In spite of a wonderful film career, from “Time to Kill” in 1945 to “The Proposal” in 2009, the land of TV is where this always-delightful pioneer belongs.