The world’s oldest broadcast television station first went on the air in 1928. About ten years later, Betty White was on the air, too. She made her debut by singing a song from the operetta The Merry Widow, essentially repeating a performance from her recent high school graduation play. Television had its semi-official coming out party at the New York World’s Fair a few months later. It’s reasonable to say that for as long as television has been around, White has been on it. More than anyone else, she lived the history of the medium.
I remember watching when White was given the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, more than a decade ago. I knew her work well, of course. At least I thought I did. I’d watched her play Sue Ann Nivens with snappy, salacious authority and Rose Nyland as a wellspring of daffy charm. As an insatiable consumer of game shows during my youth in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, I saw her pop with personality on any number of celebrity-filled panels, including on programs hosted by her beloved husband, Allen Ludden. I watched her playfully romp through a movie role that traded on her real-life reputation as a tireless animal advocate, and she was at the center of one of my favorite moments of meta tomfoolery on St. Elsewhere, when she guested as an army captain and had a hallway encounter with a psych ward patient who believed he was fictional Minneapolis news producer Mary Richards.
The retrospective clips package for her SAG award was a reminder not only that White had been a part of so much more entertainment — especially television entertainment — than any single viewer could be expected to consume, but that she launched her showbiz career at a time when anyone expected to make their way in the profession had to be ready and able to do just about anything. She needed to act, perform sketch comedy, emcee, interview a guest, sing, dance, enthusiastically deliver ad copy, crack wise, or engage in sentimental banter. Whatever the moment called for, White might be called to step and perform. By any reasonable assessment, stepping up and performing was exactly what she did, over and over and over. If there was no immediate opportunity for her, she made her own, developing Life with Elizabeth, her first TV sitcom, and The Pet Set, a talk show that provided a platform for her famous friends to gush about their furry and feathered companions. She had a broadcaster’s instinct for filling the schedule that was met by a skill for making that filler consistently engaging.
White made the most of her life. By all accounts, she was a delight to be around, gracious in her success and generous in her work. She appreciated her vaunted place in the history of U.S. entertainment, it seemed, and yet there was no indication she was puffed up by it. Instead, what fortified her was the ability to parlay her prominence to championing animal welfare. The past couple days, I’ve thought often of a fairly recent clip, in which White visits with keepers at the Los Angeles Zoo, an organization she was centrally involved with for decades, and nuzzles with a bear in their care. Beaming, White announces, “I’m the luckiest old broad on two feet.”
It’s a lovely sentiment, and I’m glad she felt that way. Really, though, I know it was all of us, tuning in to watch her, who were the lucky ones.