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For someone who is—at the tender age of 100—the living embodiment of America’s Sweetheart, both celebrated and beloved, it’s hard to believe there is still anything left to say, or appreciate, about the incomparable Betty White.
Yet there is.
In his highly perceptive 1987 book “TV Sirens,” author Michael McWilliams perhaps put it best: “If Lucille Ball is the Queen of Television, then its Princess is Betty White.”
The comparison isn’t just conjecture.
After almost 70 years (and counting) on the small screen, a houseful of Emmys and Emmy nominations, and admission into the TV Hall of Fame (in 1995), Betty White has no peer in television history besides the great redhead.
But even then, considering White’s full career and the breadth of her achievements, her continuing legacy is actually quite different than Lucy’s.
Throughout her epic career on television, Lucille Ball--with only a few subtle, progressive changes--almost always played the same type of character. This, of course, is fine—it is what the world loved her for and it is what she was genius at. But in an important contrast, Betty White’s many small screen incarnations are quite different from each another: her Sue Ann Nivens is far removed from White’s Elizabeth (in her early sitcom “Life with Elizabeth) and her Vickie Angel (her character from the 1950s series, “A Date with the Angels”), and Rose Nylund (“The Golden Girls”) are both light years away from Elka, White’s most recent characterization on TVLand’s “Hot in Cleveland.”
With “Betty White Show” co-stars
The diversity of her work—in which we must also take into account her appearances as Ellen on “Mama’s Family,” her season as “over the hill” actress Joyce Whitman on her own “The Betty White Show” (1977-78), and her recurrent appearances on “The Love Boat” as game sea-goer Betsy Boucher—illustrates a singular talent and an awe-inspiring knowledge of her craft. It is no wonder that White has been bestowed with a lifetime achievement award by her own peers and union, the Screen Actors Guild, in 2010.
Furthermore, while Lucille Ball was never a slouch as a guest star on someone else’s program or when appearing as herself on talk shows or game shows, she never quite excelled in these other genres and TV forms as fully as Betty White has. Even I, an avowed Lucy fanatic, is rather hard-pressed to name a singular Ball guest spot, one in which she was as good as on any episode of her own series.
But, for White, after beginning her regular small-screen appearances with a trio of back-to-back primetime sitcoms (the aforementioned “Life with Elizabeth” and “A Date with the Angels,” both in the 1950s), she next became best known to viewing audiences as herself via some raucous and randy appearances on Jack Paar’s late night talk show and via her escalating game show regularity on such programs as “To Tell the Truth” and “Make the Connection” in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
Later, after staging a “yes, we did miss you” and Emmy-winning comeback on “Mary Tyler Moore,” White skillfully returned to the fertile ground of the game show milieu becoming, in many ways, the Grand Dame of TV Game Shows thanks her connection to the shows “Match Game” and, of course, “Password.”
As amusing as she always was, White always delivered the goods. The facts are the facts: her contestant partners always stood a better chance of walking away with prize money if they were teamed opposite her on “Password” or “Pyramid” or any other daytime competitive effort.
But, in regard to game shows, White didn’t stop there. In 1983, she took on a role that had seldom been open to women—being a game show host herself. As the host/ess of NBC daytime’s “Just Men,” White oversaw two female contestants, a lot of question and a gallery of seven celebrity “hunks.” White was funny and completely unflappable as the show’s MC and that same year took home the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host, the first woman ever so honored.
Also during the interment years between “Mary Tyler Moore” and “The Golden Girls,” White became a valuable go-to guest star not only on such classic primetime shows—like “Love Boat,” “Mama’s Family,” etc.—but also in various sketches on late-night talk shows. She enjoyed a particular special rapport with Johnny Carson and played opposite him in many memorable “Tonight Show” skits, including one where she was Jane to Carson’s Tarzan.
Her quick-study, fast-on-her-feet ability, which would serve her well years later on her highly-rated, highly-talked about hosting of “Saturday Night Live,” has since been tapped into by other, more recent late-night hosts, notably Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson.
Finally, as if that were not enough, Betty White has, again, in recent years, evolved, with the times and the medium. While her TVLand sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland,” is, in many ways, charmingly retro and celebratory of the sitcom form--right down to its “Taped in front of a live, studio audience” salvo—Betty White kept with the zeitgeist and, in 2012, she embraced TV’s latest reinvention--reality TV. Her senior-celebrating practical joke show, “Off Their Rockers,” which began on NBC and later moved to Lifetime, earned her yet another new group of fans…and an additional Emmy nomination for Outstanding Reality TV Show Host.
Considering all this—not to mention practically stealing the show from Sandra Bullock and others in “The Proposal” on the big screen and starring in one of the most famous Super Bowl commercials in history—is there nothing Betty White can’t do?
Certainly there seems to be no genre Betty White cannot embrace and make her own. Yet, even as she evolves and reinvents herself, she always remains distinctly Betty White in the way that Lucy always remained Lucy.
Yes. Certainly, this is one Princess who has, forevermore, earned her place in the royal court of television.
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