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10 Enduring Facts About TV Legend Betty White

Depending on when you first noticed Betty White, you may remember her for a particular role from the almost-too-numerous-to-count programs that featured her peppy presence. She was Elizabeth, Sue Ann, Rose, Mitzi, Catherine, and Elka at various points, but also just as likely to surface as herself for a variety of hosting and panelist gigs. And while her face became — and remains — recognizable to anyone within eyesight of a screen, there is of course more to learn about a public figure who found ways to stay healthy and inspired over a highly productive life that stretched for nearly 100 years. Here are 10 facts about one of the most decorated, beloved, and enduring performers of her generation.

She was one of the first women to appear on TV

It’s fitting that the actress who claimed the Guinness World Records title for longest TV career by a female entertainer was also one of the first women to actually appear on television. As she recalled in her memoir Here We Go Again: My Life in Television, the big moment came in early 1939, after she’d drawn attention for singing at her Beverly Hills High School graduation. Selected to perform alongside a fellow student for an experimental TV broadcast, White danced and sang parts of Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow from a converted office in downtown Los Angeles. Although the broadcast traveled only from the sixth floor to a monitor in the lobby, the moment was exciting enough to pique the young performer’s taste for an encore.

She served stateside during World War II

Like many patriotic Americans, White put aside her career ambitions to serve her country after the United States entered World War II. In this case, that meant joining the American Women’s Voluntary Services (AWVS), which had White delivering supplies to gun emplacement stations throughout the Hollywood Hills — even though she'd just learned how to drive. Additionally, the AWVS had her sewing uniforms despite her lack of experience in that department. Although the assignments kept her far from conflict zones, White recalled the tense times of having to drive with curtains drawn and only the parking lights on after the occasional spotting of a submarine off the Pacific coast.

Her first radio job consisted of saying one word

With television not yet grabbing audiences in the immediate postwar years, White sought to work her way into show business via radio. As described in Here We Go Again, the burgeoning actress began showing up to weekly casting calls throughout Los Angeles, until one producer politely broke the news that she needed union membership to get a job. Taking pity on White as she slunk out the door, the producer hired her to utter the name of a radio sponsor at the start of one of his programs, a gig that would help her obtain her union card. As such, with the magic word "Parkay," the margarine company behind the comedy The Great Gildersleeve, White's professional career was up and running.

She was one of TV's first female producers

White enjoyed an unusual amount of power and influence for a woman in Hollywood in the early 1950s. Following her successful transition to the small screen in 1949 with Hollywood on Television, White co-founded Bandy Productions to become one of the industry's first female producers. That led to her co-starring role in the sitcom Life With Elizabeth, which in turn resulted in her first Emmy Award nomination. Additionally, the actress-producer launched the groundbreaking first iteration of The Betty White Show. Along with hiring a rare female director in Betty Turbiville, White made waves by employing a Black dancer named Arthur Duncan for the program, famously telling critics who objected to his presence to "live with it."

She met the love of her life on his game show

A frequent guest on game shows through the 1950s and '60s, White wound up with an unexpected grand prize after appearing on the Allen Ludden-hosted Password in 1961. Their initial interaction was brief, but they became fast friends while working in a stage production together the following summer, with Ludden half-jokingly dropping hints that he wanted to get married. Although the twice-divorced White shot down his increasingly serious proposals, Ludden remained undeterred; once, after she rejected the ring he presented to her, Ludden began wearing it on a chain around his neck. White finally said yes after receiving a stuffed white bunny with diamond earrings for Easter in 1963, and they were happily married until Ludden’s passing from stomach cancer in 1981.

Her guest appearance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show became a steady gig

Heading into the fourth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, producers wanted a "sickening, yucky, icky Betty White-type" to guest-star as a saccharine TV hostess with a mean streak and a turbo-charged sexual appetite. They didn't initially reach out to White herself, as the actress was close friends with the show's star and some worried that a failed audition would spark tension between the two. Ultimately, though, the decision-makers sought out the original model after another dozen actresses failed to impress, and White proved such a hit as the homewrecking Sue Ann Nivens that writers quickly set about turning her guest appearance into what became a two-time Emmy-winning role.

She was originally supposed to play Blanche on The Golden Girls

When NBC executives began putting together The Golden Girls in the mid-1980s, the original idea was to have White star as the libidinous Blanche Devereaux. It was director Jay Sandrich who pointed out that White had already delivered a version of that character with Sue Ann Nivens, and suggested the actress switch things up by playing the sweet, clueless Rose Nylund instead. That presented a problem for White, who wasn't sure how to embody the character as presented in the pilot script. Heeding the advice of Sandrich, who told her to simply approach Rose as "totally naive," White went on to claim her third Primetime Emmy for the part and earned a nomination for each of the seven seasons The Golden Girls aired.

She really, really loved animals

Had she followed a different path in life, White very well could have ended up as a forest ranger or a zookeeper. Instead, the animal-loving actress found ways to incorporate her second love into her life's work. That included a stint in the early 1970s as host of The Pet Set, which featured celebrities and their beloved nonhuman companions, and her creation of the 1974 TV special Backstage at the Zoo. Off-camera, White was a longtime board memberof the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA), and was active with other organizations such as the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Morris Animal Foundation. Her commitment to animal welfare was such that she devoted a memoir to the subject with Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo, its proceeds benefiting GLAZA and the L.A. Zoo.

She was skilled at needlepoint

While the responsibilities of her acting jobs and animal charities would be enough to keep most people busy, White somehow also found the time to become prolific at needlepoint. Picking up the hobby when she was 14, the self-taught stitcher displayed impressive dedication to the craft, with some projects taking years to complete. One interviewer recalled how White and Ludden typically spent their evenings discussing the day's work over drinks of vodka and lemon, as White toiled away with her needle. Once, after noticing how much of their home was filled with his wife’s stitched rugs and pillows, Ludden noted, "My god, we must drink a lot."

She was Saturday Night Live's oldest host

While White remained a regular presence on TV through the 1990s and early 2000s, her impressive late-career flourish seemingly stemmed from an innocuous Snickers commercial that aired in early 2010. After the spot debuted during the Super Bowl, a Texas man launched a Facebook petition intended to land the veteran actress a hosting gig on the long-running sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. The campaign worked, and on Mother's Day 2010, the 88-year-old White became the oldest host in SNL's history. Along with generating the show's highest ratings in a year and a half, the performance netted a fifth and final Emmy for White, and set the table for a productive decade that included a starring role in yet another hit comedy, Hot in Cleveland, and one more hosting gig with Betty White’s Off Their Rockers.

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