Betty White found gold on the small screen and upended expectations

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Betty White: Now that was a career. And that was a pro, adored by millions who appreciated comic skill and the ability to get the last laugh.

The Oak Park, Illinois, native, who died Dec. 31 just weeks before her 100th birthday, was the daughter of a homemaker and a lighting company executive. She became a Californian when she was just a year old, after the family’s move to Alhambra, California, a few miles from downtown Los Angeles. She worked in radio — first in 1930, at age 8! — and would seek out radio gigs as she grew older, having already been dismissed as “unphotogenic” by Hollywood casting agents.

Over the next half-century and more, White avenged that idiotic mischaracterization by wielding one of the greatest, most recognized smiles in American television. She did so across a remarkable spectrum of vivacious sincerity and subtly wicked parody, supported by timing and presence and craft that came together as a natural force as it has for precious few others.

We know her for so much long-running situation comedy: As Rose Nylund, of St. Olaf, Minnesota, on “The Golden Girls”; as Elka Ostrosky on “Hot in Cleveland”; and as Sue Ann Nivens, star of “The Happy Homemaker” on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Betty White onstage with presenter Kate McKinnon during the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Casting the peerless “MTM” ensemble, Moore and company wanted an “icky sweet” Betty White type, with a twist. The character was like whipped cream concealing knives: a shark one second, a kitten the next. Lo and behold! Betty White turned out to be perfect for it.

In 2021, we lost Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman and Gavin MacLeod  before White. For countless Americans (I’ll just count one: me), the ritual of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” followed by “The Bob Newhart Show” Saturdays on CBS was like going to comedy school once a week, learning from geniuses. Newhart, still with us at 92, is another Oak Park native.

With White it’s worth remembering what she did and when, at the point of TV’s relative infancy.

In 1949 White and L.A. disc jockey Al Jarvis began co-hosting a daily five-and-a-half-hour talk show, “Hollywood on Television,” live. After a brief stint with a new co-host, Eddie Albert (who left to do “Roman Holiday”), White fronted the show solo. She was, by most accounts, the first female TV talk show host.

She’d do sketches featuring a fictional spinoff character, which led to a domestic sitcom soon afterward, “Life with Elizabeth” co-starred Del Moore (best known as Professor Warfield in “The Nutty Professor”), airing from 1953 to 1955. Take a look at one of those “Life with Elizabeth” episodes sometime. In the opening credits, she holds a broad, friendly smile for a full eight seconds, like a champ. From the perspective of today, it looks like a joke; back then, it was the blueprint. Smile, girls! Hold it!

From left, Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Betty White in "The Golden Girls." (ABC/TNS)

Elsewhere on the show, in between scenes, White pitched Geritol (”for tired blood”) and other products of dubious worth nonetheless  worth millions in revenue. White, too, was basically a product for sale at that stage, though of increasingly evident value and versatility.

She married her third husband, “Password” host Allen Ludden, in 1963, a year after White appeared in a dramatic role as a Kansas senator in “Advise and Consent.” With her luck (to go with the prodigious expertise) in landing long-running sitcoms, luck and expertise that continued in various forms well into the 21st century, drama took a back seat.

What I love about White, among other reasons to love her, is the way she gently but firmly turned the tables on her own persona. She came into national familiarity as a sugary paragon of female domesticity.  And complicated and deepened that cliche by sheer will and skill.

Revisit any number of “Mary Tyler Moore Show” episodes, such as the one where Sue Ann auditions for a locally produced program outside her “Happy Homemaker” wheelhouse. It’s a special kind of hilarious. She took a character type — the slightly unnerving  font of hospitality White was allowed to be in the ‘50s — and in that archetype, she found nugget after nugget of gold.

Late in life, she advised: “Don’t try to be young. Just open your mind. Stay interested in stuff.” It worked for Betty White, to the end. She served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services in World War II and, as former first lady Michelle Obama tweeted Friday: “She broke barriers, defied expectations, served her country, and pushed us all to laugh.”