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How Betty White's ‘Happy Homemaker’ Came About

How ‘The Happy Homemaker’ Came About

By Billy Ingram

She’s the reining Queen of Television. Betty White, although retired, has been the star or co-star in one hit series after another starting with Life With Elizabeth in the early-1950s, then long successful runs on daytime game shows in the 1960s, leading to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls, and finally Hot in Cleveland.

It was The Mary Tyler Moore Show that made Betty White a sitcom superstar in the 1970s. “Nobody knew going in that the Mary Tyler Moore show would be an all-time classic,” Betty says in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “Grant [Tinker, Mary’s husband] and Mary, and Allan [Ludden, Betty’s husband] and I were really close, and so we knew that they were starting this show, so we were sweating it out with them. We went to the pilot, and we saw it, and it didn't hit the ground running. It didn't start as a big hit. It had a rather rocky first year, as a matter of fact, so we were rooting for it and watching it grow. Well, then it took off, and then it was wonderful.”

Betty’s character, the duplicitous yet sickly sweet Sue Ann Nivens aka The Happy Homemaker, didn’t appear until season 4 - and it was supposed to be a one-and-done situation.

 

In the interview, Betty White explains how ‘The Happy Homemaker’ role almost passed her by. “Early in the fourth season, I got a call one day... Could I do the next week's Mary Tyler Moore show? The casting people called me, and I said, 'Sure.' They described... They wanted a happy homemaker who was a sickening, yucky, icky, Betty White type. Well, what I found long after the fact was they had written a part and they said, 'That's the kind we want,' and Ethel Winant said, 'Well, why don't you get Betty?' Ethel Winant was the casting director... casting, big casting. 'Why don't you get Betty?' They said, 'Oh no, Betty and Mary are friends, so if Betty doesn't get the part, it might make it awkward for Mary. We don't want to do that.’”

The production kept casting about, looking for the right actress but kept coming back to Betty in their minds. “So Ethel said, 'Why don't you do Betty? She's not going to hurt you. It's a one-shot anyway.' So the day I got the call, it sounded like a cute idea and funny because she was just lovely on camera. She was so sweet and so nice until the red lights went off, and then she was a monster. She was also the neighborhood nymphomaniac.”

Sue Ann made an instant impression when she was introduced at a party in Mary’s apartment, suggesting that they hurriedly rearrange the living room to make it suitable. But it was after the party that Sue Ann revealed her more devious side.

“We never saw [Phyllis’ husband] Lars,” Betty says of that episode that introduced her character. “The party ended and Phyllis came back to Mary's apartment, said that her husband had kindly offered to take Sue Ann Nivens home and they hadn't shown up. It's now four o'clock in the morning, and she couldn't understand it. Well, finally, Sue Ann calls and it seems that in swerving to avoid hitting a dog, they had run into a tree. Fortunately, they found an all night body shop, and, of course, Phyllis bought it all.

“Gradually, as time went on, Phyllis began to catch on Lars would come home with his clothes cleaner than when he left home. Of course, [however] rotten Sue Ann was, she was a great home economist and she always had to take the spots out.”

Phyllis did finally catch on and, at the end of the show, confronted Sue Ann in her on-set kitchen, on camera. “Sue Ann had to go and check on her chocolate souffle,” Betty says. “Well, Phyllis now is telling her off. She said, 'I don't care about your chocolate souffle,' and she banged the oven door. So I had to get the souffle out of the oven, poor baby. We had to close the oven doors somehow so I kicked it with my knee and closed the oven door. That night they started writing the next script, and I was written in as a regular.”

Read About Betty White’s Funny But Failed Sitcom After Mary…


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How Betty White's ‘Happy Homemaker’ Came About

BETTY WHITE

 

SEE ALSO:
Betty White : An Appreciation

 

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