Betty White, the Emmy-winning TV star who had a remarkable later-career resurgence in films, TV commercials and the hit series The Golden Girls and Hot in Cleveland, has died. She was 99.
According to longtime agent and friend, Jeff Witjas, White “died peacefully in her sleep at her home” early on New Year’s Eve morning early this morning,” he tells People.
The Los Angeles Police Department responded to a death investigation on the 500 block of Carmelina Avenue in Los Angeles at 9.30 am. Friday morning. White would have celebrated her 100th birthday on January 17. White is believed to have died Thursday night at her Brentwood home.
To People, Witjas said her death had still come as a great shock: “Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever.
“I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don’t think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again,” he said.
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Witjas emphasised that White had not been ill but had been extremely cautious during the COVID-19 pandemic. She spent most of the past two years at the home she loved with her many pets. She had round-the-clock caretakers in her final years, Witjas said.
White, who played Sue-Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s and Rose on The Golden Girls from 1985 to 1992, was a staple on TV for more than 60 years, having started as the sidekick on a local Los Angeles daytime show that kept her on live TV five hours a day, five days a week.
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The energetic blonde with the honeyed voice and girl-next-door beauty was one of the rare performers to remain as popular into her nineties with new generations of viewers — thanks to reruns of Golden Girls — as she was in her sitcom heyday.
In her 80s, White was still stealing scenes in film comedies such as The Proposal, You Again and Bringing Down the House, as well as making regular appearances on late-night talk shows, where she delighted audiences with her quickfire repartee with Jay Leno, Craig Ferguson and other hosts.
Her well-reviewed turn alongside Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in 2009’s The Proposal boosted her profile, and suddenly she was everywhere: starring in the well-received Super Bowl commercial spot for Snickers and hosting Saturday Night Live after a fan campaign to land her the job started on Facebook (White had actually been offered the gig years before but turned it down).
She was hired by producers of Hot in Cleveland for a guest shot in the pilot but was quickly pressed into service as a series regular. Cleveland was an instant hit thanks in no small measure to White’s star power. She earned SAG Awards for her work on the show in 2011 and 2012 and her 17th career Emmy nomination.
The hits she had in the series department were giant ones and made her a household name. Her characters on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a homemaker with a rather saucy reputation, and on Golden Girls, a rather befuddled simpleton, were part of television history. Both programs brought her Emmys, two for Moore and three for Golden Girls.
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Born in Oak Park, she moved with her family to Los Angeles, where her acting aspirations began at Beverly Hills High School. Shortly after graduation, she made her professional stage debut as part of the Bliss Hayden Little Theater, of which she was a member for several years. She also did guest stints on radio shows such as Blondie, This Is Your FBI and The Great Gildersleeve before branching into early television. White made her first screen appearance, however, in the 1945 educational short “ime to Kill, promoting the benefits of the GI Bill.
In 1953 White landed her first sitcom, Life With Elizabeth, which was short-lived, as was daytime talkshow The Betty White Show in 1954, A Date With the Angels in 1957 and comedy variety skein“The Betty White Show in 1958.
She then drifted into game shows, including To Tell the Truth, I’ve Got a Secret, Match Game, Password and What’s My Line?. White was also a regular on the nighttime Jack Paar Show and the syndicated woman’s daytime show Girl Talk. During that time she had her own radio show on CBS, Ask Betty White.
White had worked with Password host Alan Ludden and was appearing in summer stock with him in 1962 in Critic’s Choice when they became romantically involved; they married the next year. (White had been briefly married to Frederick Barker and to Lane Allen but had been single since 1949). They would co-star for years in summer stock in productions such as Brigadoon, Any Wednesday and Guys and Dolls as well as on TV on Password.
In 1971, White, an animal lover, had a talk show called The Pet Set, about celebrities and their pets. (She later wrote the book Betty White’s Pet Love.)
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White was a friend of Mary Tyler Moore when Moore’s producers were looking for a regular like Cloris Leachman. The character of Sue Ann was created with White in mind but offered to several actresses before the producers decided to go with White (who claimed, perhaps rightly, that for a time her gameshow persona was so ingrained in everyone’s mind that she was ignored for other acting jobs).
The character of the Happy Homemaker, who always had sex on the brain, was an instant success and brought her back-to-back Emmys as a supporting actress in 1974 and 1975.
After the Moore show ended, another series was developed for White in which she co-starred with Georgia Engel. The Betty White Show debuted in 1977 but was cancelled after half a season. She returned to gameshows as well as miniseries and TV movies like The Best Place to Be, This Ring, Before and After and The Gossip Columnist.
In 1983 she hosted another game show, Just Men. The show was panned but brought her another Emmy. She had a recurring role in Mama’s Family, a spinoff of a regular skit on The Carol Burnett Show in which Rue McClanahan also recurred.
Though she was originally slated for the role of the promiscuous southern Belle on The Golden Girls, she chose instead to play Rose, the slightly akilter but sweet-hearted character in the series targeted at an older demo (McClanahan got the Belle role). It was a huge hit running into the early ’90s and added two more Emmys to White’s shelf. She carried on for another season in the spinoff The Golden Palace and then segued into a regular role on Newhart series Bob and 1995’s Maybe This Time.
Television movies and regular guest appearances on shows as diverse as St. Elsewhere and Suddenly Susan kept White constantly in front of the camera, as did the occasional TV movie like Weekend in the Country.
In 1999 an appearance in David E. Kelley’s monster crocodile movie Lake Placid renewed attention on White: She lampooned her love of animals by playing a smiling but foul-mouthed woman who protects the predator that’s dispatching humans.
She was a television phenomenon in the 2000s, guesting as herself on Ugly Betty as well as in animated form on both The Simpsons and Family Guy and providing voices for many animated films and TV shows.
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White recurred on soap The Bold and the Beautiful from 2006 to 2009, on That ’70s Show and as Catherine Piper both on The Practice and on Boston Legal. In 2010 she became the oldest person ever to host Saturday Night Live.
In January 2012 the NBC special Betty White’s 90th Birthday: A Tribute to America’s Golden Girl was the most-watched program on the night. White hosted and produced the hidden-camera reality show Off Their Rockers in 2012 2013, earning two more Emmy nominations.
Her most recent book, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t), was published in 2011. She won a Screen Actors Guild life achievement award in 2010.
Ludden died in 1981, and White never remarried.
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