Beloved actress and cultural icon Betty White has died, her agent and close friend Jeff Witjas told People. She was 99, just a few weeks shy of what would have been her 100th birthday on January 17.
“Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever,” Witjas said to People in a statement. “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.”
She launched her TV career in daytime talk shows when the medium was still in its infancy and endured well into the age of cable and streaming. Her combination of sweetness and edginess gave life to a roster of quirky characters in shows from the sitcom “Life With Elizabeth” in the early 1950s to oddball Rose Nylund in “The Golden Girls” in the ’80s to “Boston Legal,” which ran from 2004 to 2008.
But it was in 2010 that White’s stardom erupted as never before.
In a Snickers commercial that premiered during that year’s Super Bowl telecast, she impersonated an energy-sapped dude getting tackled during a backlot football game.
“Mike, you’re playing like Betty White out there,” jeered one of his chums. White, flat on the ground and covered in mud, fired back, “That’s not what your girlfriend said!”
The instantly-viral video helped spark a Facebook campaign called “Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!,” whose half-million fans led to her co-hosting “Saturday Night Live” in a much-watched, watch-hailed edition that Mother’s Day weekend. The appearance won her a seventh Emmy award.
A month later, cable’s TV Land premiered “Hot In Cleveland,” the network’s first original scripted series, which starred Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick as three past-their-prime show-biz veterans who move to Cleveland to escape the youth obsession of Hollywood. They move into a home being looked after by an elderly Polish widow — a character, played by White, who was meant to appear only in the pilot episode.
But White stole the show, and the salty Elka Ostrovsky became a key part of the series, an immediate hit. She was voted the Entertainer of the Year by members of The Associated Press.
“It’s ridiculous,” White said of the honor. “They haven’t caught on to me, and I hope they never do.”
The world looks different now. She was great at defying expectation. She managed to grow very old and somehow, not old enough. We’ll miss you, Betty. Now you know the secret. pic.twitter.com/uevwerjobS— Ryan Reynolds (@VancityReynolds) December 31, 2021
By then, White had not only become the hippest star around, but also a role model for how to grow old joyously.
“Don’t try to be young,” she told The AP. “Just open your mind. Stay interested in stuff. There are so many things I won’t live long enough to find out about, but I’m still curious about them.”
White remained youthful in part through her skill at playing bawdy or naughty while radiating niceness, including as “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1973.
“While she’s icky-sweet on her cooking show, Sue is really a piranha type,” White once said.
In 1985, White starred on NBC with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty in “The Golden Girls,” playing single women in Miami retirement. White played Rose, a gentle, dim widow who managed to misinterpret most situations. She drove her roommates crazy with off-the-wall tales of childhood in fictional St. Olaf, Minnesota, an off-kilter version of Lake Wobegon.
White, who had claimed to be “militantly single” since a 1947-1949 marriage, later weakened in her resolve.
“I had always said on `The Tonight Show’ and everywhere else that I would never get married again,” she told a reporter in 1963. “But Allen outnumbered me. He started in and even the children got in the act. And I surrendered — willingly.”
The marriage lasted from 1963 until his death from cancer in 1981.
Off-screen, White tirelessly raised money for animal causes such as the Morris Animal Foundation and the Los Angeles Zoo. In her 2011 book “If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t),” White explained the origins of her love for dogs. During the Depression, her dad made radios to sell to make extra money. But since few people had money to buy the radios, he willingly traded them for dogs, which, housed in kennels in the backyard, at times numbered as many as 15 and made White’s happy childhood even happier.
She was born Betty Marion White in Oak Park, Illinois, and the family moved to Los Angeles when she was a toddler.
“I’m an only child, and I had a mother and dad who never drew a straight line: They just thought funny,” she told The Associated Press in 2015. “We’d sit around the breakfast table and then we’d start kicking it around. My dad was a salesman and he would come home with jokes. He’d say, `Sweetheart, you can take THAT one to school. But I wouldn’t take THIS one.′ We had such a wonderful time.”