January 17, 1922 – Betty White:
“Get at Least Eight Hours of Beauty Sleep; Nine If You’re Ugly.”
I am so old that I remember Betty White from her guest appearances on the hit game show Password (1961-1976) when I was a kid. White has been with me for most of my life. Her television career is even older than I am. Starting in 1949, she was host of Make-Believe Ballroom a local Los Angeles show spanning five and a half hours of live ad-libbed television, six days per week for four years.
In 1951, she was nominated for her first Emmy Award. In 1952, White co-founded Bandy Productions, creating a sitcom Life With Elizabeth (1953-55) with White in the title role, followed by another sitcom titled Date With The Angels (1957-58).
In a career that has spanned more than 75 years, she has received eight Emmy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild awards, and a Grammy Award. White is the only woman to have received an Emmy in all performing comedy categories, and also holds the record for longest span between Emmy nominations, her first was in 1951 and her most recent was in 2011; that is 60 years! She remains the oldest nominee of a performing Emmy. White was inducted into the Television Hall Of Fame in 1995.
Before her television career, White worked in theatre, on radio, and as a model. During World War II, she joined the American Women’s VoluntaryServices, delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, while at night she danced with sailors and soldiers at the Hollywood Canteen.
In 1963, she fell for the handsome host of the game show Password, Allen Ludden. They were a couple until his death in 1981. Their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame are side-by-side.
White’s status as a Gay Icon solidified in mid-1980s with the LGBTQ community’s total embrace of popular The Golden Girls (1985-1992). White:
“Gays love old ladies!”
Inexplicably, LGBTQ fans from West Hollywood to Provincetown stayed home on Saturday nights between 9 and 9:30 to watch White as Rose Nyland, with Beatrice Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak, Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux, and Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo, four older women who share a home in Miami. There were even The Golden Girls nights at gay bars. The show was a real gift to the gays. The characters were iconic, the jokes were sharp, and the performances were furiously funny and focused, with the most progressive look at LGBTQ issues in network television. For a show focusing on life after 50, The Golden Girls went where few sitcoms dared.
The Golden Girls aired many LGBTQ-themed episodes. The show introduced a trans man as a Miami politician in season three, showed Sophia come to terms with her son’s cross-dressing in a heartbreaking funeral episode in season six, and went zany with people mistaking Blanche and Dorothy as a lesbian couple in season seven. The show even tackled issues that faced the LGBTQ community, like HIV/AIDS and hospital visitation rights. Truly landmark stuff for the 1980s.
There were fully drawn gay characters on The Golden Girls too, such as the memorable Lois Nettelton as Jean, Dorothy’s lesbian college friend, portrayed as warm and intelligent, and Monte Markham‘s Clayton Hollingsworth, Blanche’s younger brother, who is introduced as “just as great looking, charming and irresistible to men” as his sister.
Producers of the series thought of White for the role of promiscuous Blanche because she was such a hit as horny Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77). Meanwhile, they wanted McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose because of her work as the sweet, dopey Vivian on Maude (1972-79). Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked them to switch roles in the audition.
We think of those Golden Girls as Gay Icons, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s sardonic man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens, “The Happy Homemaker”, now there is a true Gay Icon.
Mary Tyler Moore, and her then-husband Grant Tinker were close friends with White and Ludden. When the late Valerie Harper left The Mary Tyler MooreShow producers felt the show needed another female character and created Sue Ann Nivens. The running gag was that Sue Ann’s hard-edged private personality was the complete opposite of how she presented herself on her show. Moore suggested at a casting meeting: “We need somebody who can play sickeningly sweet, like Betty White…”
“Throughout my career, I’ve always portrayed characters that were humorous, but also weren’t afraid to speak their minds, especially when it came to racy or controversial topics. I think this struck a chord with the LGBTQ community. We both also share a very strong love for animals. When you combine the two, it’s a very strong match.”
In a 2011 interview, White said that she always knew her very close friend Liberace was gay and that she enjoyed being his beard at parties and premieres. A longtime supporter of LGBTQ rights, White said:
“If a couple has been together all that time and there are gay relationships that are more solid than some straight ones, I think it’s fine if they want to get married. I don’t know how people can get so anti-something. Mind your own business, take care of your affairs, and don’t worry about other people so much.”
White is still working. She is the voice of “Bitey White:, a toy tiger in Pixar’s Toy Story 4 (2019). The other toys she shares a scene with are played by Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.