It's been a terrible year for so many reasons, and now we have another sad milestone — TV icon Betty White has died at 99, just weeks shy of her 100th birthday.
White's agent and friend Jeff Witjas told People, "Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever. I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don't think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again."
Her The Proposal co-star Ryan Reynolds tweeted of her passing, "The world looks different now. She was great at defying expectation. She managed to grow very old and somehow, not old enough. We’ll miss you, Betty. Now you know the secret."
Just this past week, White told People of her upcoming centennial birthday, "I'm so lucky to be in such good health and feel so good at this age. It's amazing."
White, who went on to become TV royalty, was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on January 17, 1922. Her family moved to L.A. when she was an infant, and she made her radio debut 91 years ago on Empire Builders. Her lifelong adoration for animals nearly led her to become a forest ranger. Instead, she began writing and performing, spurred on by her admiration for the movie duo Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.
Shortly after graduating from Hollywood High, White made her TV debut in 1939, singing songs from The Merry Widow on a show that would have been accessible by only a tiny percentage of Americans.
In 1945, she was an extra — not the lead, as is often erroneously reported — in the propaganda movie short Time to Kill.
A WWII volunteer and model, she focused on radio for several years, appearing on classic shows like Blondie and The Great Gildersleeve and hosting her own radio show, The Betty White Show.
Incredibly, White's early days in television, the medium that would make her an enduring star, included six-day weeks of live TV that required her to ad-lib and sing for hours on end. In 1951, she was among the nominees for the first Emmy to honor women in TV.
After working on Hollywood on Television (1952), she became the first woman ever to produce a TV sitcom when she starred on Life with Elizabeth (1953-1955). In 1954, she hosted a new iteration of The Betty White Show, this time for TV. During this time, the show received complaints from viewers in the South over her inclusion of African-American performer Arthur Duncan as a regular cast member, and White famously answered calls for a boycott with, "I'm sorry. Live with it."
Following a rare failure with the sitcom Date with the Angels (1957-1958), White became ubiquitous on game shows and talk shows, perfect showcases for her sparkling and saucy personality. She was on Password so many times she married host Allen Ludden, the love of her life. White initially resisted his proposals — having had two brief marriages in the '40s — but finally acquiesced and stayed with him from 1963 until his death from cancer in 1981.
Along with other TV duties, she was closely associated with the annual Tournament of Roses Parade.
White made a late-blooming feature-film debut as a senator in Advise & Consent (1962) for director Otto Preminger. Her next film was 1998's Hard Rain. She played herself in the 1998 Eddie Murphy comedy Holy Man, had a delicious comedic part in Lake Placid (1999), and also appeared in the films The Story of Us (1999), Bringing Down the House (2003), The Third Wish (2005), Love N' Dancing (2009), The Proposal (2009), You Again (2010), and provided a voice for 2012's The Lorax.
But it was television that always provided the perfect canvas for White's sparkle. In 1973, her classic character Sue Ann Nivens, the nymphomaniacal host of a cooking spot called The Happy Homemaker, was added to Mary Tyler Moore, proving so popular she became a series regular. With her death, all of the main cast members of the show have now died, including White, Ed Asner, Gavin MacLeod and Cloris Leachman in 2021 alone.
White won two Emmys for her work on Mary Tyler Moore, and was spun off into a series entitled The Betty White Show (1978).
White won a Daytime Emmy for hosting the short-lived game show Just Men! and took a recurring role on Mama's Family (1983-1984), recreating her bitchy character Ellen Harper Jackson from various appearances on The Carol Burnett Show.
In her sixties, White achieved her greatest success as ditzy Rose Nylund, the St. Olaf transplant living with Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan), Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) and Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) on The Golden Girls (1985-1992), a ratings juggernaut and pop-cultural reset that redefined how TV treated mature women, pushed boundaries regarding sexuality and other issues, and became a multi-generational hit that is widely viewed 36 years after its debut.
She won another Emmy for playing Rose, a character she continued on The Golden Palace (1992-1993).
White remained busy on TV, including appearances on The John Larroquette Show (1996), for which she won an Emmy playing herself; The Practice (2004); two voice spots on The Simpsons (2000 & 2007); Boston Legal (2005-2008); and The Bold & the Beautiful (2006-2009).
Her career heated up again thanks to late-night TV bookings that showcased her humor. Her work in a popular Snickers commercial seemed to help rebrand her as a delightfully dirty ol' lady, leading to one of her only major film roles, in the smash hit The Proposal with Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock.
By then, White had as many young fans as old fans, leading to a campaign for her to host Saturday Night Live, which she did at age 88 in 2010, snagging an Emmy as Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.
Arm-twisting brought her back to a new sitcom called Hot in Cleveland in 2010. The series ran for five years, with White on 124 episodes opposite Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick.
After that series ended, White made fewer and fewer appearances. Her final series work was on Bones (2015 & 2017) and Fireside Chat with Esther (2015-2018). She was the nominal host of Betty White's Off Their Rockers (2012-2017), and she closed her performing career voicing Bitey White in Toy Story 4 in 2019.
White — the only woman ever to have received an Emmy nomination in all performing comedic categories — was the recipient of five Primetime Emmys, two Daytime Emmys (one for Life Achievement), and a 1952 Los Angeles Emmy. Among countless other honors, White was a SAG Life Achievement Award recipient.
Thank you for being a friend, Ms. White.