At some point in the last 30 or 40 years — in a career that spanned nine decades on the small screen — Betty White became possibly the only thing you could express love for without anybody attempting to disagree. There are people who don’t like chocolate, people who are allergic to puppies, people who complain that beach vacations are too sandy. But the affection that Betty White engendered seemed to cross every imaginable demographic.
It wasn’t that White wasn’t loved before that semi-recent wave of living beatification. The thing you have to understand about Betty White is that she was named the honorary Mayor of Hollywood, a position reflecting local adulation if not tangible governmental power… in 1955, before basically any of the things that she will be celebrated for today.
By 1955, White had already gone from radio favorite to one of the busiest and most powerful people in the fledgling medium of television. Heck, “television” barely existed when she first started appearing on it in 1939 at the age of 17. It wasn’t just that people didn’t own televisions at that point; it was borderline impossible to watch it. But it didn’t matter if the medium existed in any widespread way. Betty White was a star in it.
But by the time of her symbolic mayoral coronation, she had an Emmy nomination for the sitcom Life with Elizabeth, which she starred in and executive produced through her Bandy Productions banner. The level of power she had might not have been unprecedented — see also Lucille Ball and Gertrude Berg — but whatever the vanguard was, White was in it.
By 1955, she’d already had two different talk shows bearing the name The Betty White Show and she’d already made herself a go-to pitchman for a variety of products. The second of those incarnations of The Betty White Show (there would be two more shows with that title) was produced under her full control, and she was able to push for a female director. She was also able to make Arthur Duncan a cast member on the series, and when certain affiliates in certain parts of the country balked at airing a show with a Black regular, she was able to both stand her ground and give Duncan more screen time.
Like I said, she was as important as she was beloved, and by the 1960s, White was beloved enough that she was a go-to talk show guest and one of the most adored celebrities on every possible TV game show and panel series.
She was a TV institution before she won multiple Emmys as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a role that for almost any other actress would have been career-defining and a part that already relied on audience affection for the idea of Betty White as a longtime household staple. If Sue Ann wasn’t the breakout character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show — obnoxiously sweet on-camera, vicious and voracious off-camera — it was only because The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the rare series in which each character could have taken a place on the sitcom character Mt. Rushmore, and each character could have been, and in a few cases later became, the revered centerpiece of their own sitcom.
It’s beyond my ability to process that in 2021, fans of that show already had to grieve Gavin MacLeod, Cloris Leachman and Ed Asner. Asner’s death in August left White as the show’s last surviving regular. Oh, and Asner was another figure who was as important — particularly for his union advocacy — as he was beloved. As was Moore, a successor to White’s starring and producing legacy, who died in 2017. What a show!
White was the last surviving star of The Golden Girls as well, and in Rose Nylund, that sitcom gave her another indelible part that would have been career-defining for any other actress — any figure whose career hadn’t already been defined a half-dozen times over. Rose, with her stories of growing up in St. Olaf, Minnesota, was probably the first role to make White into the nation’s collective relatable grandmother, a symbolic capacity she fulfilled for multiple generations, as she defied expectations for what Hollywood could expect from women, from women of a certain age and more.
Every generation and every demographic got to have their own reason for putting Betty White on a pedestal, and in listing the myriad ways she was iconic, I’ve either ignored or undersold that White was iconic because she was spectacular at what she did. Whether scripted or entirely off-the-cuff, she was always one of the funniest people going. She had comic timing that was without parallel, and somehow she only got better as she stole scenes in shows like Boston Legal, then stole an entire blockbuster movie in The Proposal and then became the subject of the first-and-only successful grassroots campaign to crown a Saturday Night Live host (depending on how you view the contest that made Miskel Spillman a host in 1977). That could have been a career culmination, too, but White went on to star in and win awards for shows like Hot in Cleveland and Betty White’s Off Their Rockers.
There are probably people who don’t care for babies. The lactose intolerant have no use for ice cream. As many people hate the Cowboys, Yankees and Lakers as cheer for them. Nothing brings everybody together.
Betty White did. She stood alone, and she earned it.