Betty White celebrated her 93rd birthday this week. The age-defying TV titan is best known for her roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls. White has appeared in sitcoms, on game shows, and, most recently, on Saturday Night Live as the host, after a Facebook-fuelled effort to get her to host the show. A marvel of unflagging energy, she has grown busier and more widely beloved with every passing year playing off of and against her ‘wholesome’ reputation. There’s a twinkle to her, reflected in her Accepting a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild last year, when she told the audience, “I’ve worked with quite a few” of you, then added: “Maybe had a couple. And you know who you are.” At the podium afterward George Clooney thanked her for her discretion.
That Betty White looks like a kindly old grandmother only heightens the jolt and joke of her sauciness. On screen that sweetness has long had an air of mischief about it, and that air has grown thicker and thicker over the last decade and a half. She was a seemingly sweet old lady who fed whole cows to a giant crocodile in the 1999 movie Lake Placid and copped to a fondness for pills (especially suppositories) in a guest appearance on the TV series Ally McBeal. On a Comedy Central roast of William Shatner she jested that they had been intimate just before the show and, alluding to Star Trek in order to kid him about his weight, said: “Darling, you were supposed to explore the galaxy. Not fill it.”
In the industry White is regarded as a pioneer of American television for being one of the first women to have creative control in front of and behind the camera. She is also noted for being the first woman to produce a sitcom which contributed to her receiving the honorary title as the Mayor of Hollywood in 1955. In a career that has spanned more than 70 years, White has received three American Comedy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild awards, four Golden Globes nominations, a BAFTA, a Grammy, and 23 Emmy nominations with six wins. White is the only woman to have won an Emmy in all performing comedic categories and also holds the record for longest span between Emmy nominations for performances—her first was in 1951 and her most recent was in 2011, a span of 60 years—and has become the oldest nominee overall as of 2014, aged 92, for best reality show host. She is also the oldest winner of a competitive Grammy Award, which she won at age 90 for her seventh book If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t).
Betty White is a comedic veteran with excellent timing and a wonderfully daffy persona, but she is something we rarely see these days: in on her own joke. This world can be lousy with ironic posturing and snide resurgences, but the sincere goodwill towards Betty is refreshing. We don’t have many years left with Ms. White, but maybe if we keep her busy, she’ll stick around for a bit longer.
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Richard Ng (1939-2023)