Betty White Still A Hit, With Ever-Younger Fans

"One thing they don't tell you about growing old," Betty White writes, "You don't  feel old, you just feel like yourself. And it's true. I don't feel 89 years old. I simply am 89 years old." i i

"One thing they don't tell you about growing old," Betty White writes, "You don't feel old, you just feel like yourself. And it's true. I don't feel 89 years old. I simply am 89 years old." Matt Sayles/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Sayles/AP
"One thing they don't tell you about growing old," Betty White writes, "You don't  feel old, you just feel like yourself. And it's true. I don't feel 89 years old. I simply am 89 years old."

"One thing they don't tell you about growing old," Betty White writes, "You don't feel old, you just feel like yourself. And it's true. I don't feel 89 years old. I simply am 89 years old."

Matt Sayles/AP
If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't) by Betty White
If You Ask Me: (And of Course You Won't)
By Betty White
Hardcover, 272 pages
Putnam Adult
List Price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt

Betty White has been on television — in her words — "forever." Her new memoir, If You Ask Me, focuses on the past 15 years of her life and career.

Far from slowing down, that career has been skyrocketing as a new generation gets to know her style of humor. White tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen that her latest fans are probably a product of just being around for so darn long.

"They kind of think, 'Well, she's always here, so we might as well watch her.' And it's fun. You meet friends of all ages on the street," White says. "By on the street, you understand, I mean walking down the street."

People also get a kick out of a sweet, 89-year-old-lady with a naughty mind, but White doesn't see it that way.

"I don't think of it as naughty," she says. "I don't like dirty humor. I like double entendre, because then the people who get it, enjoy it — and the people who don't get it, don't know about it.

"The people who drive me crazy are the ones who say something with a double meaning, and then they poke you in the ribs with their elbow and say, 'Didja hear what I said, didja get it?'" she adds. "I want to go home at that point."

Her late husband, Allen Ludden, was once asked how close her character Sue Ann Nivens, the home economist/neighborhood nymphomaniac on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, was to the actual Betty White. He responded that they were the same person — except White couldn't cook. The Nivens character did help form the persona many see today, but White says there was other work that defined her, too.

"Long ago, I did a five-and-a-half-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week talk show for four years, early on in Los Angeles," she says. "When you're on that many hours with no script, you know, you get very comfortable — maybe overly comfortable — with that small audience. As I say, you hit and run. If there's a double meaning, you drop it, and then you try to get away as fast as you can."

That careful comedic timing is one of her trademarks. "You can go past that magic moment to comment on something, and the laugh is killed," she says.

"Or, there are a lot of people — actors particularly — who think they can reword a joke and put it in their own language," she adds. "But they put in a couple of extra syllables. Humor's a rhythm, it's like music. You put in a couple of extra syllables, you kill the laugh."

Despite her rejuvenated fame in an age of celebrity madness, success doesn't seem to have gone to her head. "You know how overrated you are, so you can't feel too smart," White says. She credits her mother with advice that keeps her grounded.

"If you lie to anybody on the planet, don't lie to that person reflected in the mirror," she says. "Always be able to meet your own eyes, and know that you're telling the truth."

Excerpt: 'If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't)

If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't) by Betty White
If You Ask Me: (And of Course You Won't)
By Betty White
Hardcover, 272 pages
Putnam Adult
List Price: $25.95

I 'M EIGHTY-NINE?

One thing they don't tell you about growing old — you don't feel old, you just feel like yourself. And it's true. I don't feel eighty-nine years old. I simply am eighty-nine years old.

If I didn't feel so well, I might have a different philosophy altogether.

But I fall into traps sometimes.

Let's say I meet someone I find attractive. I have to keep reminding myself of how old I am, because I don't feel like I'm that old. I fight the urge to flirt and try to shape up. No fool like an old fool.

But I don't get depressed as the number climbs. Perhaps because I don't fear death. To some it is such a bete noire that it ruins some of the good time they have left. Estelle Getty was so afraid of dying that the writers on The Golden Girls couldn't put a dead joke in the script. This was early on — long before she ever got ill. Again, I'm quoting my mother, but her take on the subject I thought was great. She said we know so much and can discover so much more, but what no one knows for sure is what exactly happens when we pass on. When we'd lose someone we would grieve, of course, but she would say, "Now he knows the secret." Somehow that helped the pain for me.

And now — she knows the secret.

If you've ever lost a loved one, or witnessed it, you can't help but see that the body is an envelope for the letter. My friends kid me that when it happens to me, Allen's going to be up there waiting for me and probably my mom and dad. That's my family. But before I can get to them I'm going to have to wade through Booty and Binky and Bob and Panda and Kitta and all my pets through the years — Picturing that always starts me laughing.

ON REFLECTION

In show business, the mirror obviously plays a big part in one's life, but early on — long before I started working — my beloved mother taught me another role the mirror plays. I can still hear her:

"Bets, you can lie to anyone in the world and even get away with it, perhaps, but when you are alone and look into your own eyes in the mirror, you can't sidestep the truth. Always be sure you can meet those eyes directly. Otherwise, it's big trouble, my girl."

It may sound like a cliche, I realize, but oh, it's so true. On rare occasions I have tried to prove my mom wrong. I stare back at my reflection and try to rationalize my way out of something, but it never works. Those eyes in the looking glass take on a life of their own. It still works, Mom. Even after all these years.

THE RED CARPET

Several times throughout this opus, I mention how much I love this business I'm in. And I mean every word of it.

But for all the things I enjoy about it, if ever I'm asked if there's something I don't like, the answer is a resounding Yes.

Red-carpet events.

Don't get me wrong. When I'm at home watching television, I love seeing who's there and what they're wearing. But when you're the walkee, it can be an absolute nightmare.

In real life, you step out of the car and immediately you're struck blind and deaf as you're greeted by a line of photographers armed with flash cameras and microphone-wielding television reporters, three deep, all shouting at you.

Betty!

Betty!

Over here!

Betty, look here!

Look up, Betty!

Mrs. Ludden! (They know that will get my attention!) With all the flashing lights and the noise, you tend to lose your balance. All of a sudden, you're staggering and you're sure people are thinking, Oh, she's had a few!

The lights are glaring and the noise is horrendous, but you try to be as polite as possible, because these aren't villains, they're just people trying to do their jobs. Sometimes the function has somebody who takesyou down the carpet. For instance, TV Land will send someone if the four of us are doing the event. But always, I also have Jeff walking behind me, at the edge of the media zone, off the red carpet. Riding shotgun, which I need.

Historically, premieres have always had these redcarpet events. But the process has taken on new proportions of late. Every event has a system of protocol, and the number of stars and reporters and photographers and media outlets just seems to grow and grow.

TYPECASTING

After more than thirty hours a week on live television for four years, there were those who thought of me as sickeningly sweet. They'd say, "She'll make your teeth fall out!" But if we met at a party, they would tell me, "Oh, you're not as bad as I thought you were!"

I was certainly typecast as icky sweet on Life with Elizabeth and even Hollywood on Television. But then Sue Ann Nivens came along and changed the whole picture. It feels like everyone's there with a microphone. And I know a lot of them — we do interviews all through the year. So as you're stumbling around, you're trying to talk to all sorts of different people. Usually a representative from the project (whatever project it may be) guides you to various reporters along the way — likely, they mix and match us along the way, to be fair to all the outlets. But you can't really hear what they're saying, given all the noise, so you just keep talking and hope you're making some kind of sense. It's all seat-of-the-pants.

You can't resent it — it's a necessary evil to promote a project. It's a hazard one just has to get over. It's not my favorite part of my job. Have you noticed? I would rather go to the dentist for a root canal.

The neighborhood nymphomaniac on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a surprise to everyone (including me)! The character was written as "an icky-sweet Betty White type."

The casting director, Ethel Winant, said, "Why not get Betty White?" But the executives said they couldn't have me read for the role because Mary and I were best friends, and it might make it awkward for Mary if it didn't work out.

As an actor, you don't get every role you try out for, so it wouldn't have bothered our friendship at all, but they didn't know that.

Well, I guess they couldn't find anybody sickeningly sweet enough, so they finally called me one Saturday morning and explained the part of the Happy Homemaker and asked, "Would you do it?"

Of course I said I'd be thrilled!

So I called Mary and said, "Guess who's doing your show next week?"

She said, "Who?"

I said, "Me."

She said, "Oh, no, you're not! I have veto power!"

She was kidding, of course.

From If You Ask Me by Betty White. Copyright 2011 by Betty White. Reprinted by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

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