Betty White passed away at the age of 99 on December 31, 2021, just about two weeks shy of her 100th birthday. Here's what you should know about the life and legacy of the star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls.
1. Her name was Betty, not Elizabeth.
On January 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the future television icon was born Betty Marion White, the only child of homemaker Christine Tess (née Cachikis) and lighting company executive Horace Logan White. In her autobiography If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t), White explained her parents named her “Betty” specifically because they didn‘t like many of the nicknames derived from “Elizabeth.”
2. Betty White was a Guinness World Record holder.
In the 2014 edition of the record-keeping tome, White was awarded the title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) for her more than 70 years in show business. The year before, Guinness gave out Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Male) to long-time British TV host Bruce Forsyth. As both began their careers in 1939, they’d be neck-and-neck for the title, were they not separated by gender.
3. Her first television appearance is lost to history.
Even White couldn’t remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939. But in an interview with Guinness World Records, she recounted the life-changing event, saying, “I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the ‘Merry Widow Waltz.’”
4. White’s initial rise to stardom was derailed by World War II.
Before she took off on television, White was working in theater, on radio, and as a model. But with WWII, she shelved her ambitions and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her days were devoted to delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, but her nights were spent at rousing dances thrown to give grand send-offs to soldiers set to ship out. Of that era, she told Cleveland Magazine, “It was a strange time and out of balance with everything.”
5. Her first sitcom hit was in the early 1950s.
Co-hosting the Al Jarvis show Hollywood on Television led to White producing her own vehicle, Life with Elizabeth. As a rare female producer, she developed the show alongside emerging writer-producer George Tibbles, who would go on to work on such beloved shows as Dennis the Menace, Leave It to Beaver, and The Munsters. Though the show is not remembered much today, in 1951 it did earn White her first of 21 Emmy nominations. Of these, she won five.
6. White loved a parade.
From 1962 to 1971, White hosted NBC’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Bonanza’s Lorne Greene. But that’s not all. For 20 years (1956 to 1976), she was also a color commentator for NBC’s annual Tournament of Roses Parade. However, as her fame grew on CBS’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White (and all the rival promotion that came with her) from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who told People, “On New Year's Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade.”
7. She was married three times.
White and her first husband, Dick Barker, were married and divorced in the same year, 1945. After four months on Barker’s rural Ohio chicken farm, White returned to Los Angeles and her career as an entertainer. Soon after, she met agent Lane Allen, who became her husband in 1947, and her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit show business. She wouldn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for widower/father of three/game show host Allen Ludden.
8. Her meet-cute with husband number three happened on Password.
Bubbly Betty was a regular on the game show circuit, but she met her match in 1961 when she was a celebrity guest on Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. Though White initially rebuffed Ludden’s marriage proposal (he wore the engagement ring around his neck until she changed her mind), the pair stayed together until his death in 1981. Today, their stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame sit side by side.
9. White originally auditioned for the role of Blanche on The Golden Girls.
Producers of the series thought of White for the role of the ensemble’s promiscuous party girl because she’d long played the lusty Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, they eyed Rue McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose Nylund because of her work as the sweet but dopey Vivian Harmon on Maude. Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked the two to switch roles. And just like that, The Golden Girls history was made.
10. If she hadn’t been an actor, White would have been a zookeeper.
“Hands down,” she confessed in a 2013 interview. This should come as little surprise to those aware of White’s reputation as an avid animal lover and activist. Not only did she try to visit the local zoo of wherever she traveled, but she was also a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends of Animals group, as well as a Los Angeles Zoo board member, who donated “tens of thousands of dollars” to the zoo, according to Entertainment Tonight. In 2010, White founded a T-shirt line to benefit the Morris Animal Foundation, one of her most beloved charities.
11. She passed on a role in As Good as It Gets because of an animal cruelty scene.
White was offered the part of Beverly Connelly, onscreen mother to Helen Hunt’s character, in the 1997 Oscar-winning movie As Good as It Gets. But the devoted animal lover was horrified by the scene where Jack Nicholson’s curmudgeonly anti-hero pitches a small dog down the trash chute of his apartment building. As White explained on The Joy Behar Show, “All I could think of was all the people out there watching that movie … and if there’s a dog in the building that’s barking or they don’t like—boom! They do it.” She appealed to director James L. Brooks in hopes of having the scene cut. Instead, he kept it and cast Shirley Knight in the role.
12. A Facebook campaign made White the oldest person to ever host Saturday Night Live.
In 2010, a Facebook group called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered so many fans (hundreds of thousands) and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was happy to make it happen. At 88 years old, White set a new record. Her episode, for which many of the show’s female alums returned, also won rave reviews and gave the show its highest ratings in 18 months. White won her fifth Emmy for the performance.
13. She actually was older than sliced bread.
14. White loved junk food.
The key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with health food as far as White was concerned. In 2011, her Hot in Cleveland co-star Jane Leeves dished on White’s snacking habits, saying, “She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries, and Diet Coke. If that’s key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives.” Fellow co-star Wendie Malick concurred: “She eats red licorice, like, ridiculously a lot. She seems to exist on hot dogs and French fries.”
15. She had a crush on Robert Redford.
The ever-quotable White once gave this cheeky confession: “My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford.’” Though she had more than 110 film and television credits on her filmography, White never worked with the Out of Africa star, who was 14 years her junior.
A version of this story originally ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2023.