The Irrepressible Persistence of Betty White

I was first introduced to Betty White on Lifetime.

The Golden Girls was a mainstay on the cable channel, airing in hours-long blocks in the mid-2000s the way that Friends currently airs on TBS. There was nothing about the show that should’ve been compelling to me. The story of four 50-plus single white women living in a house in Miami and navigating life in semi-leisure was miles removed from my Black lower-middle-class upbringing in Queens, New York. 

Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White in The Golden Girls (Courtesy: NBC)

I can’t exactly pinpoint how The Golden Girls kept my teenage attention on summer afternoons. Cynicism would dictate that I was merely bored and would’ve watched anything (to be fair, I watched a lot of syndicated television). A more mature and critical eye might suggest seeing these four women suffer through their hijinks – at an age when society insists we’re supposed to have everything figured out – was compelling, even comforting.

Whatever the reason, The Golden Girls, with its all-time-best opening theme, endured, as did White’s portrayal of the lovable Rose Nylund from St. Olaf, Minnesota. In hindsight, endurance was core to Rose as a character. She wasn’t as sharp as Dorothy, amorous like Blanche, or acerbic like Sophia. Still, Rose kept up with her housemates and even surpassed them, lobbing off stories about life on the farm in St. Olaf with baffling and hilarious ease, confounding her housemates and endearing her to the audience.

Like her most famous creation, Betty White persisted and crafted a singular career in entertainment. She spent most of her adult life as a near-constant on television, charming audiences with her impeccable comedic timing and irrepressible warmth. Before her signature role on The Golden Girls, White was chewing up men and spitting them out as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, sending up the “happy homemaker” and winning two Emmys for her efforts. Before that, she was a staple on ‘60s game shows and late-night television. And before that, she helmed several television programs: Life with Elizabeth, Date with the Angels, and, as you might expect, The Betty White Show. (There were three separate programs with that title, in 1954, 1958, and 1977.)

Susan Flannery, Pamela Mills, Betty White, and John McCook on The Bold and the Beautiful (Courtesy: CBS)

White could’ve wrapped up her career with Rose Nylund (a role she continued in The Golden Girls spin-off The Golden Palace in 1993) and been a certified television legend, immortalized by syndication, as I discovered her. Instead, she continued working, stealing scenes in too many television series to count. I would next encounter White on the daytime soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful in 2006. She played Ann Douglas, the long-estranged mother of Stephanie Forrester (played by Susan Flannery). White was stunning as the frosty and prim Ann, who refused to believe her husband physically abused Stephanie. Reminiscing about the “good old days,” White weaponized her approachability and aimed it squarely at Flannery’s Stephanie and the audience. It was a masterclass that was shockingly ignored by the Daytime Emmys the following year.

Her arc on The Bold and the Beautiful coincided with White’s resurgence in pop culture. In 2009, she starred opposite Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in the romantic comedy The Proposal. The film was a box office smash, grossing over $300 million worldwide and opening White up to a new generation of fans who somehow missed her on reruns of The Golden Girls. Even better than the film was its press tour, which included a brilliant promotional video where White users her “national treasure” status to troll Reynolds into the ground. The following year, the Internet did one thing right and successfully petitioned for White to guest-host Saturday Night Live, for which she won another Emmy. 

Betty White and Valerie Bertinelli in Hot in Cleveland (Courtesy: TV Land)

In 2010, I was a public relations intern for TV Land during my freshman year of college. The channel had just launched Hot in Cleveland, its first original series starring White alongside Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick, and Jane Leeves. It was a show that owed a great debt to The Golden Girls, gathering four television icons and transplanting them into a new environment where they experienced hijinks at an age when society insists we’re supposed to have everything figured out. I worked the red carpet premiere of Hot in Cleveland and Happily Divorced starring Fran Drescher, meeting her, Tichina Arnold, and others. 

I didn’t get to meet White in person, but I did witness the treatment she received at the premiere event. What stuck with me then, and still does a decade later, is how lovingly celebrated she was at that event, ushered down the red carpet like a priceless monument on display for lavish celebration. It is so rare for someone to be acknowledged and appreciated when they’re alive; we usually write the loveliest words after they’re gone. However, that night, I imagine that she knew just how deeply she was revered.

Betty White’s legacy lies in its unprecedented scope. She prevailed in an industry that disposes of talent with startling efficiency, possessing a cross-generational appeal that very few entertainers have. There is no one entry point to her work, no right way to discover and celebrate her talent. I detailed three for myself, and I doubt others share the exact same connection with White’s work. Whatever her character – Sue Ann, Rose, Elka, Grandma Annie, herself as a public persona – to know Betty White was to love her. Her ubiquity in popular culture was steadfast, unassuming, and thoroughly deserved.

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