Wednesday, March 31, 2010

White Supremacy

There’s a bit of a frenzy going on these days with our featured actress Miss Betty White. Despite the fact that she’s pushing 90, she is every bit as popular as she ever was and, as a result, the public basically cried out that she MUST be a guest host on Saturday Night Live. The producers took heed of this grassroots movement and she will do the honors on May 8th. It will be the first time I will have bothered to tune into the program in years.

Betty White was born just that, Betty Marion White, not Elizabeth, in Oak Park, Illinois in 1922 to doting parents. They didn’t have a tremendous amount of money, but they had affection, humor and always a collection of dogs in and around their home. Eventually, they moved to Los Angeles and Betty was raised in the shadow of the major Hollywood Studios. However, after briefly considering opera, she had goals of being a writer rather than an actress until she wrote a play for school, cast herself in the lead and was bit by the bug.

Shortly after high school, she took part in an early television broadcast, one that, according to her was like “science fiction” as the signal was delivered all the way from the 6th floor of a building to the ground! During WWII, Betty served in a volunteer organization, complete with uniform, displaying the type of sacrifice and dedication to home and flag that is all but extinct amongst a great many of the people who live in the US now.

Not long after the war was over, Betty was married twice briefly, both times unsuccessfully, knowing in her heart that a career was what she really craved more than housework or children. These failures, in her eyes, would put her off the notion of marriage for a long time.

Now single, Miss White started working in television on a local (L.A.) level, often logging 33 hours a week as a live TV hostess! Think about that… She practically lived on TV and this doesn’t count any of the prep time beforehand or even the additional variety show that she worked on every weeknight for a time! Always a multi-tasker, she continued to do informational programming (including the production end, in which she was a female pioneer) even as she was granted her own sitcom Life With Elizabeth.

Life With Elizabeth ran from 1952 – 1955 and was eventually syndicated nationally, giving her a far broader audience than she had enjoyed while working endlessly on the Los Angeles station. It’s almost impossible to count how many hours of TV White delivered while appearing as a sitcom actress, a variety and talk show hostess, a game show panelist and even the commentator for the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Not one to pigeonhole herself, she even won a role in formidable director Otto Preminger’s 1962 film Advise and Consent, as a female senator. Still, during the bulk of the 60s, White was a game show staple, appearing on To Tell the Truth, What’s My Line? and, most importantly, Password. Betty has appeared on every incarnation of Password right up to the crappy recent one with Regis Philbin in which she helped a contestant win $100,000! Through Password, she would connect with the man who became the great partner of her life, the original host of the show Allen Ludden.

Due to her two previous divorces, it took a lot of needling to get Betty to take the plunge again, but she did and it resulted in almost 18 blissful years of marriage for her. She and Allen forged a family with his three children from a deceased wife and a home full of various dogs, which Betty has never been without. Soon, she converted Allen into an animal lover as well and they appeared together on her 1971 series The Pet Set and, later, on The Liar's Club. The couple also worked together in stage productions around the US, notably Critic’s Choice and Guys and Dolls.

Betty became a frequent guest on Match Game as well and could always be counted on for clever answers, often with a sly double meaning. She was never, ever vulgar, but very knowing, amusing, vivacious and sharp. Occasionally, her well-known adoration of animals would become the brunt of a joke and she would feign (or maybe not feign!) horror. One episode had her playfully doing the start of a striptease while bump ‘n grind music played. She traded barbs with pal Brett Somers and almost became a sort of honorary fourth regular on the six-person celebrity panel.

Ludden and White had a strong friendship with network executive Grant Tinker and his wife, TV superstar Mary Tyler Moore. They regularly dined together, played games and so on. When some of Moore’s costars from The Mary Tyler Moore Show were preparing to spin-off into their own successful series, there would a void left on the program, so they decided to integrate another character. Producers decided to go for a “Betty White type,” but one in which the effervescent, cheery outward persona actually hid a devious, egocentric and sexually voracious inner self. Finally, when casting such a role became more of a trial than the powers that be anticipated, Moore asked them why they didn’t just ask BETTY WHITE!
Betty appeared on the show, sporting hair much lighter than she’d worn it in the previous couple of decades, and was an instant smash. She played Sue Ann Nivens, a happy homemaker personality who did on air demonstrations of cooking and crafts while delighting in cheerily deriding Mary’s character, emasculating Murray (played by Gavin MacLeod) and flirting heavily with boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner.) One memorable episode had MacLeod playing dress dummy for a wedding gown, enduring everything he could until finally he plopped White ass-first into the wedding cake meant for the segment. White, as only she could, took it like a trooper, licking her finger and stating that it could have used more vanilla.

This series went out on a very high note and could have continued for years longer, but Moore wished to stop it before the success was bled dry and the creative juices had a chance to grow stagnant. The final episode involved the primary cast, including White tearfully hugging one another goodbye while shuffling across the floor en masse to the box of Kleenexes that was nearby. White was sad to see such a plum role end, but she was nominated for an Emmy three times and won twice!

Like most of the other people from that series, she was quickly given her own show with the wildly creative title The Betty White Show. She played the unlikely part of a TV actress starring on a police series called “Undercover Woman.” Her costar was John Hillerman, who would later go on to success as the employer of Magnum P.I. Her Moore costar Georgia Engel appeared in this series as well. Though Betty always gave (and gives!) 110% to any project, this cheap-looking, unfunny show died a pretty quick death.

On the subject of death, Betty’s soul mate Allen Ludden died of cancer in 1981, robbing the couple of a lot of fun years ahead. White has scarcely had a slow moment in her career, but for a little while did limit her projects before diving back in to the work she adored, work she knew would keep her sane during this unhappy time.

In 1983, White became the first woman to win an Emmy for hosting a game show, the short-lived series Just Men! It featured two female contestants being asked to guess details about seven male celebrities who were present on the set with correct answers providing keys, one of which would open a new car!

White had been a frequent guest star on the wildly popular The Carol Burnett Show, sometimes appearing in the “Family” sketches as Eunice’s uppity sister Ellen. Later, when Vicki Lawrence began the series Mama’s Family (without the character of Eunice), White appeared quite a few times as Ellen, even working a little bit with Rue McClanahan, who played Lawrence’s sister Aunt Fran for one season. These two actresses would soon be reunited in a far greener pasture.

Susan Harris, who had written the popular series Soap and had contributed episodes to such acclaimed series as All in the Family and Maude, came up with a pilot script for an unusual series focusing on four older women, all either widowed or divorced, who cohabitate in a house in Miami, Florida. Called The Golden Girls, White was brought in to read for the sassy, sexy, southern belle Blanche, a character well within the range she had shown previously, in fact almost a combination of Sue Ann and Ellen. McClanahan, likewise, was cast in the role of Rose, a variation on the ditz Vivian she had portrayed on Maude.

She won the part, but right before the pilot was filmed, the director suggested that White and McClanahan switch roles in order to play against type and mix things up. This thrilled McClanahan who was dying to play Blanche, but confused White who felt she didn’t “get” Rose at all. Harris explained the part to her, giving her key information on how to play the role and from then on she soared. Her endearing naiveté and loony St. Olaf stories kept audiences screaming. In the attached photo, do we think Blanche could get the dang kitchen cabinets fixed a little better??

The Golden Girls ran for seven seasons and White was nominated for an Emmy every one of them. She won the first time she was nominated and though eventually all four of the stars received an Emmy apiece, the fact that she won before top-billed Bea Arthur seemed to cast a pall over things according to White’s autobiography. Rumors have persisted to this day of a feud between the two ladies with hearty evidence on both sides (that there was or wasn’t one.) Their styles of acting and interacting with the studio audience were vastly different, causing some degree of tension. As the show progressed, they had less and less interaction onscreen and, later, White and Arthur frequently declined to participate in videographies of one another or mention each other beyond a brief sentence. (Don’t let the crafty editors of Intimate Portrait fool you. Betty’s clips in Bea’s portrait were lifted from her own and have no mention of Bea at all in them.) Yet Arthur always refused to leave for lunch unless White was ready to come as well and insisted that she sit with her.

For my part, I think they were just too different to fully get along and also had incompatible feelings regarding their work. Bea always had to be lured into things, often preferring to stay home, and was quick to move on while Betty was a trooper and a workhorse, always ready to keep things going forever. They seem to have buried whatever hatchet may have been present when they, with Rue, accepted an award from TVLand in 2008, though perhaps they just grinned and bore it for the fans’ sake. It’s sad to think of these two disliking one another because I adore them both.

The show was a stunning success, spending five of its seven seasons in the top ten and gaining legions of fans, even after cancellation, due to the endless, multitudinous reruns, primarily on Lifetime TV (and later on Women’s Entertainment and Hallmark, in increasingly butchered versions.) When, like Mary Tyler Moore, Arthur decided to depart the series while it was still a reasonable success (and it, like Moore, went out with a memorable tear-filled hugfest), White, McClanahan and Estelle Getty made the unwise decision to try to continue in the utterly horrendous The Golden Palace. Not only was the dynamic destroyed by the absence of Arthur’s dry character, but also the setting was entirely new (and inane.) It was cancelled after limping along for most of a season.

In the wake of this memorable role, White stayed busier than ever before. Not only did she continue volunteering at The Los Angeles Zoo, but tirelessly helped with other animal welfare organizations as well. Career-wise, she sought all sorts of roles that would help shake off the looniness and less-than-bright qualities that she displayed so well as Rose. She turned up in the Morgan Freeman-Christian Slater action flick Hard Rain. She and Red Buttons worked as a couple in the Bruce Willis-Michelle Pfeiffer film The Story of Us.

Then she blew the lid off of her image as a foul-mouthed, cranky farmwoman in the giant crocodile thriller Lake Placid. This was followed a few years later by her portrayal of a snooty, racist neighbor in the Steve Martin-Queen Latifah comedy Bringing Down the House. Along the way have been countless guest appearances on popular series, comedic dramatic, talk and even stints on daytime soap operas such as The Bold and the Beautiful, on which she played Susan Flannery’s troublesome mother. She’s been nominated for five more Emmy’s since the end of Girls, winning once more for a flamboyant role on The John Larroquette Show.

Miss White was always noted for her comic gifts and her effortlessly accessible persona. Her quick wit (aided by a lifetime of games and a mastery of words) was hard to top. Besides this, however, she possesses an unheralded gift for drama as well. During Girls, for example, she was called upon occasionally to illustrate some sensitive social situation or issue and was always top-notch, able to elicit emotion, even tears, from viewers.

Her career has been a startling, stunning success, but she is STILL on the go! She had a featured role in Sandra Bullock’s popular film The Proposal, still making audiences howl as she searched her old wedding dress, with Bullock in it, for the breasts, comparing the task to an “Easter Egg Hunt!” Bullock had the honor of presenting Miss White with a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year and White was, again, sharp as a tack, hilarious, humble, mischievous, witty and somehow poignant.
Now comes the announcement that not only will she be hosting SNL, but she’s also about to costar in yet another sitcom! She will be playing the snappy, combative housekeeper to a threesome of L.A. transplants living in Cleveland. The TVLand series Hot in Cleveland (of which ten episodes have been ordered) stars Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick and, while it may not look entirely promising, one thing is positive. Betty White will make every moment of hers count.

Miss Betty White IS television. She’s literally been there from the start and taken part in virtually every type of production possible. What’s really amazing is that she was already 28 years old when she started to really get going. Had she not taken time off for civic duty and marriage, she could have (and surely would have) accomplished even more, though what she did do was more than any other human could dream of.

Do yourself a favor when you find you have the time and watch her Archive of American Television interview (presented in several sections on Part one is linked below. This lady, my friends, is a national treasure!


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