One phrase that comes to mind when thinking of the extraordinary Betty White? “First Lady of Television.” A pioneer of sitcoms. A trailblazer on the producer front. Her first acting role was a small part in 1945’s Time to Kill. By 1952, she was brought on as a producer and star of Life with Elizabeth, a short-lived sitcom that made waves in its own right. White was one of the first female producers in the entertainment industry, even before Lucille Ball became a producer herself.
After a string of sitcoms, talk show and game show appearances, White solidified herself as a comedy legend in 1973 by joining The Mary Tyler Moore Show as recurring character Sue Ann Nivens. But the 1980s threw the floodgates open when White starred in the beloved series The Golden Girls alongside Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty. White portrayed the lovable and naive Rose Nylund which earned her a handful of Golden Globe nominations. The ’90s through the aughts ushered in more TV and movie roles, including 2009’s The Proposal opposite Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock. Additionally, White guest-starred on critically lauded sitcoms 30 Rock and Community.
Now, 2010 brought forth a new starring vehicle for White. She portrayed the sassy Elka Ostrovsky in TVLand’s Hot in Cleveland. The series also starred sitcom greats Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick. White was a fan favorite on the series and snagged an Emmy nod for her work. Once the show ended in 2015, White continued to work until 2019. She voiced the role of Bitey White in Toy Story 4.
Besides her versatile career, she also dedicates much of her time to animal advocacy. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, White talked about her next move: re-releasing The Pet Set. The Pet Set is a family talk show from 1971 which was hosted by White and announced by her late husband Allen Ludden. The show focused on celebrities and their pets. Additionally, White would bring awareness to pet care and wildlife preservation. The fact that she’s still working is downright inspirational.
Essentially, Betty White’s career is the very definition of “storied.” She has the distinction of resonating with not just the older generations, but the younger ones as well. As a somewhat older millennial, I recall watching White on The Golden Girls during the ’90s. She reminded me so much of my maternal grandmother. Not only were their appearances similar, but their voices were almost identical. If I closed my eyes, I couldn’t decipher between the two.
In 2013, I had the privilege of scoring a spot in the audience of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. White, who was 91 at the time, perfectly kept apace with Craig Ferguson‘s japes. The two were trading jokes as if they were playing an enthralling game of ping-pong. I was in awe of her quick wit.
I finally watched the Netflix documentary Betty White: First Lady of Television a few days ago. According to White’s assistant and agent, no one really knew about her biting, sardonic wit until she appeared on Comedy Central Roast of William Shatner in 2006. For most of her career, she was known as a sweet, wholesome bright light. Now, everyone knows White as the sassy jokester grandma.
Yesterday, White impishly told The Associated Press that now that she’s 99 she doesn’t have a bedtime. “Since I am turning 99, I can stay up as late as I want without asking permission!” Additionally, she revealed to PEOPLE that her secret to longevity is looking on the bright side. “I don’t like the other side. The positive side is a lot more fun.” She gave the magazine another pro-tip to living a long life. “A sense of humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You can lie to others — not that I would — but you cannot lie to yourself.”
So, what’s the First Lady of Television doing for her big day? According to The Associated Press, feeding the pair of ducks that regularly visit her Los Angeles home. Then, enjoying a hotdog and French fries with her longtime agent, Jeff Witjas. Witjas will bring her a bouquet of roses too.
Watching Betty White shows was an activity in which I partook with my late paternal grandmother. We both loved her. My Granny and I would laugh our rears off at her knack for comedic timing and her quick-witted one-liners. They’re memories I will forever cherish. In a way, White is like my third grandma. She’s the world’s grandmother.
Her perseverance and her sunny disposition are more than admirable — they’re a household staple. Betty White has made an indelible mark in entertainment. There is none like her. There will be none like her.
So, let’s take a page out of Betty White’s book. Try to look on the bright side of life. Keep a sense of humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Never stop laughing. Maybe smash some glass ceilings along the way. Here’s one of my favorite Betty White quotes from her book If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t):
Why do people say “Grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.
Happy Birthday, Betty. We love you.