Spotlight On…Betty White

Amelia Brookes

Betty White, in her long and illustrious life, was many things – she was a young actress, the ‘First Lady of Game Shows’, a Golden Girl, and an iconic LGBTQ+ ally. She inspired millions, fought discrimination, had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and became the fourth Mayor of Hollywood. In lieu of her recent passing, we’ve decided to celebrate one hundred years of Betty White and her influence. So, where did her career begin and what it is about her that lead her to become such an important cultural figure?

A Young Actress

Starting on radio after discovering her love for performing in high school, Betty was introduced into the industry with no background status or help – one of her parents was a homemaker and the other worked at a lighting company. She played bit parts, read commercials, and sometimes worked for no pay, hoping that her determination would allow her to make progress in her career and find success. Eventually, her efforts paid off when she was offered her own radio show, named after herself, and she soon began appearing on television too, co-hosting and afterwards fully hosting Hollywood on Television in which her ad-libs and sketches earned her an Emmy nomination for ‘Best Actress’. In 1952, Betty – with her own production company – created Life With Elizabeth – a nationally syndicated comedy that was extremely rare for the 1950s in that she had her own creative control in nearly every capacity… and she was a 28 year old woman.

Betty always defended and asserted the decisions that she made in the face of the industry

Betty and The Industry

From 1952 to 1954, Betty hosted her very own talk show, The Betty White Show, and maintained full creative decision-making, hiring a female director. Her show was seen as controversial in the industry due to this and other creative choices; she as hired dancer Arthur Duncan as a regular cast member and ignored calls from Southern American radio stations to boycott the show due to his race, instead giving him more airtime. These factors eventually decreased viewership and the show was cancelled, but Betty always defended and asserted the decisions that she made in the face of the industry. There was one other notable like-minded woman that she met whilst this was happening, however, actress and comedian Lucille Ball. Neither of them knew that their friendship would last generations at the time – they went on to appear on many shows together and support each other through great personal loss.


The ’First Lady of Game Shows’

During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Betty starred on several game shows such as Password, What’s My Line? and The Match Game. Her various appearances on late-night shows in addition to these gave her the title within the industry of the ‘First Lady of Game Shows’. Meanwhile, after meeting him on the set of Password, she happily married Allen Ludden at the age of 39. He was the last of the three men that she wed during her life, and the last that she would ever love, never remarrying or even looking at another man after he passed away of stomach cancer in 1981. In an interview with James Lipton, she stated that when entering Heaven, she would want God to introduce her to Ludden as she walked through the pearly gates, so her first experience there would be seeing him.

A Golden Girl

In 1985, Betty gained the role that she is arguably know best for in the modern day, Rose Nylund in the famous sitcom Golden Girls. The show boosted Betty’s already successful reputation during its runtime from 1985-1992, but things weren’t always peachy in the studio. The difficult relationship between White and her co-star Bea Arthur was well-documented, with the former saying in interviews that ‘‘she was not that fond of me,’’ and that their personalities often clashed. However, when Bea passed away much later on, Betty recounted feeling much sadness and pain at her death, showing that despite their rift the two cared very deeply about each other.

Iconic LGBTQ+ Ally

In 2010, Betty White stated, ‘‘If a couple has been together all that time – and there are gay relationships that are more solid than some heterosexual ones – I think it’s fine if they want to get married.’’ In 1990, Golden Girls talked openly about the topic of HIV and AIDs, a topic that was rarely even brought up in public conversation and was one of the first sitcoms to do so. White also donated her own time to recording PSAs about how to avoid transmitting HIV through needles, and was in full support of LGBTQ+ rights groups. She even changed her name to ‘Betty Purple’ to support Spirit Day!

In December 2021, Betty White: A Celebration, was announced – a film based on her life that would be released on her 100th birthday. It will star many industry professionals that knew her throughout her time like Ryan Reynolds and Tina Fey. Despite Betty’s tragic passing, the film will go ahead as scheduled.

Betty is not just a cultural icon because of the awards that she won, or the success that she obtained via her storied career, but instead because of her courage, kindness, camaraderie, and ingenuity, which stayed constant no matter how old she was. And just like her life itself, may her memory forever stay golden.

Amelia Brookes

Featured Image courtesy of Loren Javier via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of goldengirls via instagram.com. No changes made to these images. 

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