Remembering Betty White : Pop Culture Happy Hour Actress and icon Betty White died Friday at the age of 99. Her career as a comic actress – on TV, on radio, in movies, and more – lasted more than 80 years. She was probably best known for her work on The Golden Girls and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But White was a trailblazer, a record-setter, and one of the most venerated figures in the history of television.

Remembering Betty White

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Actress and icon Betty White died Friday at the age of 99. Her career as a comic actress on TV, on radio, in movies and more lasted more than 80 years.


Among many other things, Betty White was a trailblazer, a record-setter and one of the most venerated figures in the history of television.

I'm Linda Holmes.

THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson.

Today, we are remembering Betty White on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


THOMPSON: It's just us today.

Betty White died Friday, just 18 days shy of her 100th birthday. Her career on television dates back to 1939, before most households even had a TV. And she was a constant presence on television dating back to the early '50s.


BETTY WHITE: (Singing) It's a good year for singing a song. And it's a good day for moving along.

THOMPSON: She hosted variety and talk shows. She appeared on three different TV projects called "The Betty White Show." And she earned eight Emmy Awards for a wide range of work. She was probably best known for two major TV roles. In the '70s, she played the lusty sexpot Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." And in the '80s and '90s, she played sweet but confused Rose Nylund on "The Golden Girls."


WHITE: (As Rose Nylund) Never fear. Dr. Rose is here. I made you both an old-fashioned St. Olaf tonic - guaranteed to get you back on your feet and put hair on your chest. That's the one nasty side effect they could never figure out.

THOMPSON: Betty White popped up everywhere. She did comedies, dramas, soap operas, talk shows and many, many game shows, which we will talk about. She wrote books. She hosted the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. She raised a lot of money for animal welfare charities and much more. In 2010, when she was 88, she became the oldest person ever to host "Saturday Night Live."

Linda, after all that, I still don't know where to begin on Betty White's legacy.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, it's funny. As I listened to you do that intro, it was like, yeah, I forgot some of the stuff. I had forgotten that she hosted the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I knew about her animal welfare activism. But I think that's another huge part of her life that is less famous than some parts of her life. I have sort of been known to say that this, like, kind of last phase of the public adoration of her really began with that SNL appearance, I feel like.

THOMPSON: Well, and there was a campaign to put her on SNL.

HOLMES: Exactly. Yes. When I was a much younger NPR blogger, I remember writing about that at the time - and that it was such a charming, you know, proposal. And eventually they did it. And it was like, oh, it worked. And it was good. And she was good.


WHITE: When I first heard about the campaign to get me to host Saturday Night Live, I didn't know what Facebook was.


WHITE: And now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I mean, there was this phase, as you said, late in her career, where she became this, like, person everyone can agree on, right? And there was this whole campaign that was kind of like, oh, we must protect Betty White at all costs. And as you wrote in your remembrance for NPR's website, that created a little bit of a flattening of her persona a little bit, where she became, like, adorable old-lady Betty White instead of this really funny, whip-smart, constantly surprising figure that she was, like, throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

HOLMES: Yeah. Somebody on Twitter last night described this to me as, you know, that this was her phase of, what did Grandma just say? And that is...

THOMPSON: Exactly, gosh. Yeah.

HOLMES: ...I think, very well-said. And I think that's exactly what we're talking about - is this feeling that it was about, like - she's so spicy for an old lady was kind of the vibe of some of it. And I just think of her as really, really smart, you know? And you and I are both old game-show...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...Aficionados and people who really appreciated, you know, the work that people like Betty White did on shows like "Password," "Match Game"...

THOMPSON: "Pyramid."

HOLMES: ..."Pyramid." Like, I just remember her on "Match Game" being so good at it. It's such a funny show.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: And she's so funny. But also, if you really wanted to win and you had to match an individual person, pick Betty White 'cause she's really smart, and she'll read your mind and pick the thing that you're thinking of.


GENE RAYBURN: Penny ante - didn't cross my mind at all. That was kind of a hard one, I thought. Betty, for $5000, may we see your answer?

WHITE: With things like penny candy and penny arcade, I had penny ante.



HOLMES: Yeah - I mean, great on game shows. But also - I mean, you go back to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and her work as Sue Ann Nivens on "Mary Tyler Moore." I mean, it's funny. Like, on Golden Girls, she was cast as Rose. She was originally supposed to play Blanche. They were originally considering her to play the character played by Rue McClanahan, who is this lusty sexpot. And they decided they couldn't possibly cast Betty White to play Blanche because she was so known for playing lusty sexpot Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."


THOMPSON: Like, in the '80s, she had a reputation for playing these saltier, wiser characters. And so they decided to zig instead of zagging and make her this dotty, Midwestern, naive lady.


THOMPSON: Her persona went through so many different phases that it's easy to forget that she used to be known for something entirely different.

HOLMES: Yeah. There's also a legend that when "Mary Tyler Moore" was trying to cast Sue Ann in the first place - the whole idea of Sue Ann was that she played, on television, the happy homemaker. This, like...


HOLMES: ...Syrupy sweet woman on television who in private was, like, sharp-tongued and sexy. And it was that contrast. The legend is that "Mary Tyler Moore," in coming up with that character, said, you know, Sue Ann is going to be, like - on television, she's, like, that super sweet - like Betty White...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...And that that was the idea of it. Certainly, the execution of Sue Ann was always about that contrast between the sweet and the very acidic. I want to play a clip of her. This is Sue Ann auditioning for a new segment on the news station that was supposed to be, like, news from a woman's point of view.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: And Sue Ann does the audition. And you can kind of hear how she's going back and forth between these various elements of her personality and Betty White's tremendous acting chops.


WHITE: (As Sue) Apple-cheeked housewives, bustling down the cobbled streets...


WHITE: (As Sue) ...Were swept away by slithering mounds of mud.


WHITE: (As Sue) Let's all hope that survivors remembered that stubborn grime can be removed with a blend of...


WHITE: (As Sue) ...Warm water and cornstarch.

HOLMES: She's so funny.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) She is.

HOLMES: Like, she - and if you actually watch the clip - like, only part of it comes through in the audio. She also has that, like, toothy, television smile...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...Of the lady who's doing that kind of bit. And the thing I love about that piece, too, is that without really being too overt about it, it turns into talking about, like - and the mudslide, now the women all have to figure out how to get the mud out of the clothes, because it's, like, from a woman's point of view.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: So it's sending up all these different things. And I think, between the vision of Rose as kind of this Midwestern innocent, Sue Ann, who is this kind of, like, sweet but salty person, you get such a mix of playing in such interesting ways with stereotypes of how women were supposed to be on television.

THOMPSON: Even when you look at the part of her career when she was playing sweet little old ladies who turned out to be lusty or mean or, (laughter) you know, whatever...


THOMPSON: Her comedic instinct, I think, was always to upend. Her comedic instinct was always to surprise. And so throughout her life and career, she was just always playing with that, and just such a naturally, incredibly, deeply funny person. You mentioned Rose. And when Betty White died, immediately, a lot of us, as, you know, people who came of age loving "The Golden Girls," you know, went and, like, dug up these old Rose Nylund clips. And it was fascinating. I loved "The Golden Girls" when it was on TV and in the late '80s and early '90s, but hadn't really spent a lot of time revisiting it. One, that's a really funny show.

HOLMES: It is.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) But, like, two, she is just so, so funny. I mean, there are all these clips that people have been surfacing where she's cracking up her co-stars. And you can feel her delighting them.

HOLMES: Oh, for sure.


BEA ARTHUR: (As Dorothy) Tell me, Rose...


ARTHUR: (As Dorothy) Did they ever shoot a herring out of a cannon?


WHITE: (As Rose) Only once.


WHITE: (As Rose) But they shot him into a tree.


HOLMES: I mean, I think everybody associates that role with kind of Rose sitting around and telling these long and endless stories about St. Olaf, Minn., her hometown. And the thing that I love about it, the stories may be meandering. That's kind of their charm. Betty White is so in control of the storytelling and of how you can stay on Rose's side. And Rose is innocent and a little clueless about certain things. But Betty White is so in control of that performance. And she has so mastered how to hold the screen with these really brilliant actresses that she was working with. And, you know, between "The Golden Girls" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," you're talking about a couple of really - not just really popular comedy shows, but, like, legendary casts of people...


HOLMES: ...You know, most of whom, in both cases, are gone now.


HOLMES: You know, she was the last of the Golden Girls still standing. But the thing that I love about kind of looking at her career is - look, it's always sad when someone passes away. I would have loved to see her live to be 100, right?


HOLMES: But at the same time, you look at that and it's like, boy, this is how you want to go, you know? She did so many things so well. You got such a sense of her just sharp, sharp wit. I want to play a little clip, actually, of her on "Password" when she was on with Lucille Ball, and you get the sense of, like, how she kind of knew how to be almost like a great party guest.





WHITE: You don't buzz a legend.

HOLMES: That's Betty White right on it, you know? She comes up immediately with you don't buzz a legend when they buzz Lucille Ball. Like I said, it's like a great party guest.

THOMPSON: I think it's fascinating that she had the kind of career where she lived to be 99 - very much almost 100 years old. And, like, my first reaction when I saw that she died was, oh, man, there was this project just coming out.

HOLMES: I know.


THOMPSON: You know?

HOLMES: I know. I know.

THOMPSON: Like, oh, man, she fell short.

HOLMES: Yeah, it's...

THOMPSON: She somehow wasn't able to do everything she wanted to do. Like, talk about leaving them wanting more. And when you leave them wanting more at 99 years old...


THOMPSON: ...There was going to be this centennial celebration.

HOLMES: Yeah. And there may still be some version of it. They may still hold it. I think - we don't know yet exactly what form it might take, but it's been in the works. And the other thing that I was thinking about that I mentioned in my remembrance of her is, like, how many people work as sitcom regulars into their 90s? She was a regular on "Hot In Cleveland," into her 90s.

THOMPSON: In the teens.

HOLMES: That's amazing. Like, lady, take 20 bows, you know?


HOLMES: The other thing that I wanted to mention is that she is also somebody who people will talk about as - in the 1950s when she had her own show - was - like Lucille Ball, was - had a lot more creative control and a lot more sort of directing of her own show and career at that time than a lot of women had. And I think her whole career, she really built it how she wanted.

And when I say that I think the whole, like, spicy grandma phase of her career was - sometimes made me uncomfortable, I also think she found ways to make the best of that so that she was still working and working and working and working. I mean, look, people know this. We're here on a public radio podcast. We love a little Delicious Dish. And she went, of course, on Delicious Dish.


ANA GASTEYER: (As Margaret Jo McCullen) Florence, there's a tangy taste in this muffin. Is that a cherry?


WHITE: (As Florence Dusty) Oh, no. No, my muffin hasn't had a cherry since 1939.

HOLMES: It's funny because on the one hand, that is still, like, spicy grandma kind of stuff. But on the other hand, if you watch that "Saturday Night Live" clip, she is completely playing that absolutely straight-ish (ph) in the same way that the rest of them do - right? - the same way that Alec Baldwin came on and did the schweddy (ph) balls kind of bit. She comes on and does this dusty muffin bit. She's completely in control of it in a way that I think made that much more charming than it could have been. And she's not playing it to the back row. Like, she's not giving it the sort of (singing) da, da, da, da, da, da (ph) energy. Even though the jokes have that energy, she is really just, like - I'm just going to very pleasantly put on my pleasant face, my pleasant public radio face, and make jokes about my dusty muffin that hasn't had a cherry since 1939. Love it.

THOMPSON: Oh, Betty White.

HOLMES: Adore her.

THOMPSON: Well, we want to know your thoughts on Betty White. Find us at and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much for being here, Holmes-y (ph).

HOLMES: (Singing) Thank you for being a friend.

THOMPSON: Oh, buddy. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you all tomorrow.


HOLMES: (Singing) Duh, nuh, nuh, nuh (ph). Traveled down the road and back again. Your heart is true. You're a pal and a confidante.

THOMPSON: (Singing) Confidante.

HOLMES: (Singing) Buh, duh, nuh, duh, duh (ph).

THOMPSON: (Singing) And if you threw a party...

STEPHEN THOMPSON AND LINDA HOLMES: (Singing) And invited everyone you knew, you would see the biggest gift would be from me and that card attached would say thank you for being a friend.

HOLMES: (Singing) Dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, bum (ph).

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