Monday, December 27, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 11)

 Chapter 9:  Stage Fright and Awards Shows

Betty remembers being terrified to get up in front of people when she was in grade school. By high school it was better, but she never totally outgrew that stage fright. It still happens today every time she goes onstage. Butterflies in her stomach.

“Butterflies, as beautiful as they are,” she says, “should stay in the garden where they belong.”[1]

Betty believes that all actors have stage fright of some sort and it is just part of the job. And she still feels it.

“Waiting to make an entrance onstage, your mouth dries up, you can’t get your upper lip down off your front teeth, your heart is around your knees.”[2]

“You’re taking a chance every time you step in front of an audience,” she says. You could forget your lines or make a fool of yourself. It is about fear, but it is also about embarrassment. You run that risk every time you step on stage or in front of a camera. “So is the stage fright due to fear of forgetting lines? Fear of drawing a blank on what to say? Fear of making a fool of oneself? All of the above.”[3]

Backstage before taping an episode of The Golden Girls in front of a live audience, each of the stars had their own way of dealing with their butterflies. Betty says she would get “aggressively cheerful,” trying to rouse up the spirits of the group.

“Unable to stop myself,” she says, “all I need is a letter sweater and pompoms.” But she admits she may sometimes overdo it a bit. “One night all three of those ladies are going to deck me.”[4]


And big award shows are just as bad, if not worse. She says that while you are sitting in your seat or at your table you forget about the whole big audience that is there with you. But if you win and have to go up on stage and face that audience, it is overwhelming. “When you turn around, the impact of what you see scares anything out of your head that was ever there!”[5] She does not prepare speeches, and she is always sure she will not win, even though she does quite often.


She also admits that she hates “red carpets”—the walk into the award show where stars are expected to do interviews and have their photo taken by hundreds of paparazzi. She says these events are fun to watch at home, but the reality of it is very different. It is blinding and deafening and you can be easily overwhelmed by the yelling and commotion. But she realizes that it is part of the job.

“You can’t resent it,” she admits. “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. . . . I would rather go to the dentist for a root canal.”[6]

One way that she gets through them is the sense that her beloved husband Allen is still nearby. When she wins an award, he is up there with her. “. . . he’s never very far from me. Ever,” she says.[7]

“Stage fright is uncomfortable and all that, but it’s a life saver. Because the panic that sets in you’ve gotta counter, and you’ve gotta get a handle on that in order to do what you’re doing. So the stage fright is what puts the edge on a performance.”[8]

Based on all the awards she’s won over the decades, Betty has certainly learned how to make that stage fright work in her favor. And as viewers, we are none the wiser about those butterflies in her stomach.

{Come back next week for the next chapter "Advice and Success"!}


[1] White, Betty, Betty White in Person, ibid, p. 85.

[2] White, Betty, Betty White in Person, ibid, p. 84.

[3] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 118.

[4] White, Betty, Betty White in Person, ibid, p. 85.

[5] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 53.

[6] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 71.

[7] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 66.

[8] White, Betty. Betty White: First Lady of Television, ibid.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 10)

Chapter 8: Hot and Off Her Rocker

Betty was not supposed to be a regular on the first scripted sitcom for TV Land, Hot in Cleveland. She agreed to do the pilot episode in 2010, and then she was talked into a few spots in the early episodes playing the sassy (and often downright naughty) Elka Ostrovsky. As more and more episodes were picked up, she said she couldn’t possibly do it. Her schedule was already packed with amazing things to do. She did not have the time. Shooting a TV show can mean four or five days a week and ten hour days. And, let’s face it, she was 89 years old! But Betty hated to turn down an opportunity to be on a great show.

“I have the backbone of a jellyfish,” she says of that decision.[1]


She finally agreed to all the planned episodes—twenty in all. And Betty continued as a regular on the show until its final season in 2015, with her love-life as the focus of many plot lines. Women in their 90s have a love-life? Betty was happy to portray a character who flirted and dated and behaved more like a twenty-year-old. It is hard to imagine the show without Elka. She even had the chance to reunite with her Mary Tyler Moore castmate Georgia Engel as the ditsy Mamie, Elka’s best friend, for almost twenty episodes.

As her reward, Betty won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series in 2011 and 2012. Hot in Cleveland was a huge success for the TV Land network, was rated the number-one television show on cable, and is often listed as “staring Betty White,” despite the other three veteran TV series actresses on the show as well.

“What absolutely boggles my mind,” Betty says, “is that I find myself in yet another hit series, having a ball with a wonderful cast and crew. One of those in a lifetime is a blessing, two of them is a privilege, but three out of three? I owe Someone, big time.”[2]

She also hosted the prank show Betty White’s Off Their Rockers for NBC television, where old people get the better of younger ones, often in very naughty ways. Her agent had to talk her into doing it, but it was also nominated for an Emmy Award for the first season and ran for two more.


“Oh well, that’s the silliest thing in the world,” Betty says of the show, “but we’re having a good time. . . . It makes no sense, but if we keep our sense of humor, we have fun!”[3]

Carl Reiner, who joined Betty on Hot in Cleveland for eight guest spots as her love interest, said of her, "She's one of those people who's always welcome to whatever show she's in. She just twinkles."[4]


But all that twinkling and laughter doesn’t mean Betty is free from nerves and stage fright, even after six decades in the spotlight.

{Come back next week for the chapter "Stage Fright and Award Shows"!}


[1] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p.37.

[2] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p.37.

[3] Jeffery, Morgan. September 21, 2012. “Betty White Hot in Cleveland Q&A”,

[4] Reiner, Carl. Betty White: First Lady of Television, ibid.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 9)

  Chapter 7: Facebook and Snickers

Though she had never stopped working, Betty had been on a quieter career track for many years after The Golden Girls ended. That was until two big events came her way: a now infamous Snickers candy bar commercial and a job hosting Saturday Night Live.

Betty had done commercials for decades, so she couldn’t have had any idea what excitement and attention would come from her few seconds of promotion for Snickers candy bars during the Super Bowl in 2010 as part of their “You’re not you when you’re hungry” campaign. Watching Betty get tossed in the mud during a friendly football game (though it was actually a stunt woman for that part) thrilled audiences. Her commercial beat out 60 others and won USA Today’s Ad Meter as the best liked Super Bowl Commercial.[1] The commercial even has its own Facebook page.


It might be hard to prove that this commercial re-launched Betty back into the hearts of America, but she has been as popular as she was at the height of her career ever since. It was like the world rediscovered her.

At about the same time, there was a huge fan-based campaign to have Betty host the live late-night variety show Saturday Night Live. Betty had been asked to come and host the popular skit television show three times before during her career, and she had always declined. But in January of 2010, a campaign was started on Facebook involving over 500,000 fans called “Betty White to Host SNL (Please)” to inspire the producers of SNL to bring Betty on as a host. Again, they called her. But this time she agreed and hosted the show live on May 9, 2010.

Betty says it was a “terrifying proposition” from the moment that she said yes.[2] Maybe it was Betty those hundreds of thousands of fans had to convince, more than the SNL producers. They were happy to have her host.


Her gutsy move to take on this live-TV challenge at 88 made her the oldest person to ever host the show. She says that the entire cast of SNL was wonderfully supportive, and Betty admits that, despite her fears, she enjoyed it. It was the highest rated TV show that night and the highest rated episode of SNL in 18 months. Betty was awarded another Emmy as Outstanding Guest Actress on a Comedy Series for this appearance. She had suddenly come to the attention of a new generation of TV viewers.

Lorne Michaels, long-time producer of SNL, had nothing but praise for Betty. He says that we can all learn how to be better by having good examples of greatness around us.

“I think everyone in America seems to have been watching that show,” Michaels says. “Betty White is a person that everybody always liked, but you never got to on some level thank her for that. People were moved by how crazy about her they were. She was as close to elegance as comedy ever gets, and I think for everyone working that night that was a master class.”[3]

Betty was suddenly everywhere, but she was about to get even, well . . . hotter.

{Come back next week for the chapter "Hot and Off Her Rocker"!}

[1] Horovitz, Bruce, “Betty White and Snickers score top ad honors,” USA Today, February 7, 2010.

[2] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, p. 44.

[3] Michaels, Lorne, Oprah Presents Master Class, OWN Network, air date January 30, 2011.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 8)

Chapter 6:  Sue Ann and Rose

Betty White is most famous for playing two totally opposite characters: Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rose Nyland on The Golden Girls.

Betty almost didn’t even get to read an audition for the part of Sue Ann Nivens because she and Mary Tyler Moore (the creator of the show and lead actress) were good friends in real life. The producers felt it would be awkward if it didn’t work out. But what they wanted was an “icky-sweet Betty White type,” so they finally stopped looking and let her do it. Her dear friend Mary was thrilled. It was only planned as a guest spot on the show anyhow. Betty says that playing this character was a “huge career mood change.” She had never played someone quite so mean and wicked before!


“The most episodes I ever did during one season was twelve of twenty-two—the other seasons, I did only five or six episodes. But people still remember Sue Ann. She was such a mess! And such fun to play.” [1]


The show had been on the air for three years and was already a huge success by the time Betty White first appeared as the Martha Stewart on the outside but rotten on the inside Sue Ann. Betty says that it was a tricky guest spot to do because in comedy if your character is mean to the lead character the audience will feel protective and not like you. Mary Tyler Moore chose to laugh at Sue Ann, instead of being angry or offended by her, and it worked.[2]


The audience loved Sue Ann’s conniving nastiness. She became a permanent part of the show and appeared in over twenty more episodes. Betty won Emmy awards in 1975 and 1976 for Best Supporting Actress for her first and then again for her second season on the show.


“Everybody was so surprised,” she says. “‘Why, she can act! Isn’t that amazing?’ It really did turn my career completely around.”[3]

When the series ended, several characters had spin off shows developed for them. The network wanted to do one for Sue Ann also, but thought it would be too much. One idea was thrown around to have a new character for Betty who would also work at a TV station. Betty, as a huge Star Trek fan, wanted it to have an outer space theme. That was all scrapped for a cop show format that ended up being called The Betty White Show. Only a few episodes aired, though later the president of the network admitted to Betty that he may have been too quick to cancel it.[4]

In 1985, Betty got another big break when she was cast as the completely naïve and ditsy Rose Nyland on The Golden Girls. Originally, she was supposed to play the naughty, man-loving Blanche, but the producers thought that it would be confusing for the audience if she played a character so much like Sue Ann Nivens. At first, Betty was upset by the change, but once she got started figuring out who Rose was and how to play her, Betty was thrilled.[5]


The director explained to Betty that Rose, “believes everything she is told and in her innocence always takes the first meaning of every word.” Rose isn’t stupid, she’s just overly trusting and naïve. Betty took that advice and ran with it.[6] Rose was the exact opposite of Sue Ann, and Betty says she loved playing the character because Rose “didn’t have a mean bone in her body.”[7]

Betty says that working on The Golden Girls was a wonderful treat. With three other veteran actors in the cast, there was a level of professionalism that Betty always appreciated. But she found that, as people, she liked them as well. “We hit it off from the word go,” she says.[8] They also went through many life changes together outside of the dramas on the TV screen. Both Betty and her co-star Bea Arthur lost their mothers within a month of each other and were able to be a support team in those hard times.

The Golden Girls was also a huge hit in England, and the cast was invited to take part in the annual Royal Variety Show for the Queen Mother at the Palladium Theatre during their second season. Everyone in the show was presented to the Queen Mother and Princess Anne after the performance. Betty delights in the fact that she was able to amuse the Queen Mother with a comment about the scantily clad Rockettes, who were standing next to them.[9]

The Golden Girls was one of the top ten rated programs for the first five years it was on the air. Betty was part of another hit show. In the first year, there were Emmy nominations for the show, members of the writing team and technical crew, and a Best Actress in a Leading Role nomination for every single one of the three lead cast members. Betty won, as did the show. For the first five years of the show, all three women were nominated for an Emmy every single year. In the end, everyone had won her own statue.

After seven seasons, The Golden Girls ended because Bea Arthur wanted to leave the show and do other things. A spin off, The Golden Palace, continued for one more year with the other three characters and was moderately successful, but then that chapter of Betty’s life came to an end.

Sadly, even though Betty was the oldest member of The Golden Girls cast, she is the only surviving member. Speaking to James Lipton in an Actor’s Studio interview about losing each of those co-stars over the years, one by one, Betty became emotional and had to fight back the tears. It was clear those relationships went way beyond the friendships that were scripted for the show.

The show was loved by people of all ages. Betty says: “It tickled me whenever some very small person, tugging at mother’s sleeve, would point and say ‘There’s Wose!’ Too young to pronounce it, they still knew the character—all the characters.”[10]

The one thing, after all those decades in TV, that Betty really wanted to do was a romantic love story. She finally got her wish in 1991. Lynn Roth wrote a script just for her, and NBC bought it: Chance of a Lifetime. Betty really wanted Leslie Nielsen to be her love interest, but she wasn’t sure he would want to do it after so much success in the comedy super-hit Airplane and the Police Academy movies. He said yes immediately.

Now if you ask Betty if there is anything she wishes she could still do on TV, she says, “Nope.”[11]

{Come back next week for the chapter "Facebook and Snickers"!}

[1] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, p. 126.

[2] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, p. 194.

[3] Hewitt, Bill. Betty White: An Illustrated Biography, p. 39.

[4] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, p. 206-211.

[5] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, p. 248.

[6] White, Betty, Betty White: An Illustrated Biography, p. 62.

[7] White, Betty, Betty White: First Lady of Television, ibid.

[8] White, Betty, Betty White in Person, p. 48.

[9] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, p. 257.

[10] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, p. 253.

[11] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, p. 266-268.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 7)

Chapter 5:   Beginnings of a Career

“I was there when television first started,” Betty jokes. “We grew up together.”[1]

“Television and I discovered each other together,” she says. “It was a very short window to get in, timing-wise. I was blessed with that timing, because we were inventing as we went along in those first days of television. And I joined the parade.”[2]

In 1939, just after graduation from Beverly Hills High School, Betty and the class president, Harry Bennett, did a scene from The Merry Widow for an experimental television broadcast. It was the beginning of television in Los Angeles.

“I wore my graduation dress, a fluffy white tulle number held up by a sapphire blue velvet ribbon halter, which I fervently hoped would be enchanting as we waltzed and sang,” she remembers. The lighting was not very good (but excruciatingly hot), so she and Harry had to wear deep tan makeup and super dark-brown lipstick so they wouldn’t look washed out.

Only family and a few friends actually saw the performance because the telecast signal didn’t reach beyond the building they were in. Imagine that! Television still had a long way to go. It would not be impressive to anyone today, but Betty was thrilled with it. But that was not where she caught the “acting bug.”[3]

That started in elementary school. Betty’s big ambition was to be a writer, so she wrote the graduation play at her school: Horace Mann Grammar School. She wrote herself into the lead part.

“It was then that I contracted showbiz fever,” she says, “for which there is no known cure.”[4]

After her first TV performance, World War II interrupted life for everyone. Betty eagerly took on work with the Women’s Voluntary Services. She drove a PX truck that carried toothpaste, soap, candy, and such things to various places around her home in California. She also met and married her first husband. He was a P-38 pilot.[5]


It had been a poor decision from the beginning—a rebound relationship after Betty broke up with a fiancé who was fighting in the war. Her new husband’s family ran a chicken farm. Betty was now faced with slaughtering chickens for a living. She couldn’t bear it. Betty is pretty sure this doomed marriage was her “just deserts” for dumping her fiancé. The marriage only lasted six months.[6]

In 1945, when the war and her marriage ended, Betty made her move to get back into show business. She started performing on stage at the Bliss-Hayden Little Theater (where you paid them for a chance to be on stage) and went on the rounds of open auditions for anything and everything. But this was still for radio jobs, not TV, which was still just getting started.

A producer named Van Hartesveldt gave Betty her first very important break. She was allowed one word in a commercial for the radio show Gildersleeve, which also gave her the chance to earn her American Federation of Radio Artists union card and be able to get more work. Despite having sleepless nights where she fantasized all kinds of disasters around her radio debut, Betty pulled off saying “Parkay,” just as she was supposed to, twice that day. She earned $37.50. Her union card cost $69.00, but her father loaned her the difference. Betty was now officially in show business.[7]


Her first movie role in 1945 was in a short film called Time to Kill, promoting the educational benefits of the US Armed Forces “GI Bill,” which provided for service men returning from the war.

It does not even show up in most of her professional credits, but her second movie role was in 1947 in The Daring Miss Jones. She spent six weeks on location in the High Sierras, which is an area she loves. During the filming, Betty also served as script girl and eventually, when the trainer was having trouble staying sober, Betty took over as “bear wrangler,” managing the two adorable bear cubs used in the movie.[8] She had a chance to mix her love of animals with her love of acting.

Two months after making the movie, Betty married actor-turned-agent Lane Allan. Sadly, when her career became successful and demanded most of her time, the marriage ended. He wanted a more traditional 1940’s-style wife. Betty wanted a career.

And she got one! After landing several small roles, Betty was selected to be the “Girl Friday” when Al Jarvis moved his radio show to TV in 1949. It was a marathon five-and-a-half hour a day broadcast show, Hollywood on Television. It was all live and unscripted. Total ad-lib. She was required to be sunny and charming and witty for over five hours a day, and she did it wonderfully. The show was a huge success, and Betty’s career was off and running. She even inherited the show from him when he moved on to other work.

“I had no way of knowing that my lifelong love affair with television had just begun,” Betty jokes.[9]


In 1953, after her first show ended, Betty stared on the series Life with Elizabeth (for which she won her first Emmy Award) and quickly after on Date with the Angels. Over the years, she has done guest spots on dozens of popular TV shows and been a sassy regular on game shows, famous for giving answers that were often naughty—with a sweet and innocent smile on her face.

Of all of the types of TV shows, Betty says her favorites are musical variety shows. As a triple-threat herself (singer, dancer, and actor), Betty loves the thrill of putting together numbers and trying things she had never dreamed of doing.[10] She had many chances to perform as a guest on musical shows like The Carol Burnett Show and The Sonny and Cher Show, among many others. She also continued to do live theater and musicals throughout her career, many co-starring her husband Allen.

But her real claims to stardom lay just ahead.

 {Check back next Monday for the next chapter "Sue Ann & Rose"!}

[1] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 148.

[2] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 150.

[3] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 14-16.

[4] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 13.

[5] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 18.

[6] Hewitt, Bill. 2012. Betty White: The Illustrated Biography. New York: Life Books, p. 13.

[7] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 22.

[8] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 24.

[9] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 33.

[10] White, Betty, Here We Go Again, ibid, p. 213.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 6)

Chapter 4: Marriage and Family 

When Betty first started filming the TV Land series Hot in Cleveland, her castmates had endless questions about her husband, Allen Ludden. She thought it was a little odd, he had passed on many years before, so she asked them why they were so curious about him. They said, “We love the look you get on your face when you talk about him.”[1]

They were seeing what everyone who knew Betty and her third husband, Allen, had known for years: their relationship was a very special one. She says he was the love of her life. But she didn’t agree to marry him easily.


After two short-lived and unsuccessful marriages early in her life (more on that later), Betty was not terribly interested in being married again at all. Ever. She had been single for many years when she met Allen, best known as the host of the Password game show. They met for the first time when she appeared as a panelist on the show during its third week on the air in 1960. Betty did not know it at the time, but she met Allen the same week that his much-loved wife of eighteen years died from lung cancer. In later years, she got to know Allen better when they did a summer play together on Cape Cod in 1962. “We dug each other a lot,” she says.[2]

By then, Allen was a widower with three teenage children. While she loved being a pal to them and everyone got along wonderfully, she was very hesitant to become “the stepmother.” Marrying Allen would also involve uprooting her whole life in California to move to New York. There was a lot to consider. She said no and pondered and hesitated for a year.

But Allen was determined. His first marriage was wonderful, and he knew that he and Betty could have just as wonderful a life together. So, he proposed every time he saw her. Instead of saying “Hello” when they meet, he’d say “Will you marry me?” She admits that sometimes it was funny, but often it made her angry because he wouldn’t take her “No” for an answer. He even got his children on the bandwagon to help sway her.

As she continued to resist, Allen bought a gold and diamond wedding ring and assured her that one day she would wear it. When she still said no, he wore it around his neck on a chain and refused to take it off until she would wear it. He wore it for three months.

Betty says: “What finally tipped the scale was a matter of priorities. Simple as that. I faced up to the possibility of never seeing Allen again . . . of continuing my well-adjusted single life . . . which by now, of course, he had warped out of shape altogether. I pictured what it would be like to turn on the television set, through the years, and see this man, again and again . . . realizing I had thrown something away that often doesn’t come by even once in a lifetime. Suddenly the pieces all tumbled into place . . . the obvious answer was finally the only answer.”[3]

“Easter came along. He sent me a white stuffed bunny with diamond earrings clipped to its ears and a card that said, ‘Please Say Yes?’ So when I answered the phone that night, I didn’t say hello, I just said, ‘Yes.’”[4] Allen jokes that she finally said yes because of that stuffed bunny. She has never regretted her decision.

Betty and Allen were a wonderful team. He was her best friend. She says that Allen used to leave little love notes for her around the house in unexpected places so she could find them by surprise. She still has them all.


When she married Allen she suddenly became stepmother to three teenagers, but Betty says she never wanted to have children of her own. Her career was so busy, and she didn’t want a child to “get the short end of the stick.”

“I didn’t think I could do justice to both career and motherhood,” she says. For some people, it works just fine, but she personally felt very strongly about it and has not regretted her choice. Suddenly becoming the stepmother of three teenagers was a major life-change, but she says they got along great. They even called her Dragon Lady, just to tease her. She still stays in touch with her three stepchildren. “Even after all these years, we love each other dearly, and I am most proud of the children this career girl inherited.” [5]

Betty and Allen were happily married until his death from stomach cancer in June of 1981. She is quite adamant about the fact she never considered remarrying, though there have been rumors over the years, even as recently as 2013. “Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest,” she says.[6]

{Check back next Monday for the next chapter "Beginnings of a Career"!}

[1] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 162.

[2] White, Betty, Betty White: First Lady of Television, ibid.

[3] White, Betty, Betty White in Person, ibid, p. 166-167.

[4] White, Betty. April 19, 2012. “Betty White Divorce: The First Two Marriages Were ‘Rehearsals’.”

[5] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 248.

[6] White, Betty. April 29, 2014. Daily Mail Online. “‘My Two failed marriages were my fault’: 92-year-old Betty White on her romance regrets and the one she got right.”

Monday, November 15, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 5)

Chapter 3: Animals at Home

Of course, Betty is never without an animal living in her home. She says: “Animals have always been a way of life with my family. I never thought of myself as an ‘only child’ because our pets were my playmates and confidants. I cannot remember any family high spot, or crisis, or joy, or sorrow that didn’t include whatever pets we had at the time. More than once in my life I have dried my tears on soft, silky ears!”[1]

Her last pet was a dog named Pontiac, a Golden Retriever. He came to her already named because he began life in a Guide Dogs for the Blind training program. Pontiac had a bad leg, so he could not complete the program. He was offered to Betty right after the passing of all three of her beloved pets in a two month time period. She was not sure she was ready to start over again with a new dog just yet. But once she met “Ponti,” as she calls him, she was hooked. He passed on in 2017 at 16 years old, and she decided not to adopt again. It would be too hard to leave a pet behind.


Betty grew up with lots of pets. During the Great Depression, when Betty was young, her dad made radios to sell and make extra money. But no one had any money to buy them, so he would trade them for dogs. The family had kennels in the backyard to house all of these dogs he got in trade for radios. Not exactly a big money-making scheme, but the family hated to turn any of the dogs away. At one point they had 15 and found homes for them all, except the two they kept.

“I’ll bet I was the only kid on the block whose parents would come home with a dog and say, ‘Betty, he followed us home. Please, can we keep him?’”[2]


She always had a cat too. She thinks cats get a bad reputation for being distant and uncaring, but that has not been her experience. “Cats are not remote,” Betty says. “People who think cats are that way may never have lived with a cat. My Bob, for instance. If my knee was bent, he was on my lap or on my shoulder in a flash. He followed me around the house like a dog. In bed at night, I’d reach over to turn the light out and he’d be there. For eleven years I fell asleep with that purr on my shoulder. Cats love you very much—they are just more subtle about it.”[3]

Betty is confident you can have excellent communication with the pets in your life—better than anything you have with people. A dog will notice your every mood and react to the slightest change in body language.

She says the best example of this was a stray golden retriever named Sooner they took in and lived with for 15 years. “Talk about being on the same wavelength!” she says. “It got so that if I simply smiled at him across the room, he would wag his tail...but if I frowned, his ears would go down, and his eyebrows (trust me) became question marks! He didn’t always do exactly as I wanted, but it wasn’t ever because he didn’t understand...and he knew I outranked him. Once I realized that he was a smart as I was, we got along fine.”[4]

“Cats are every bit as sensitive,” she assures us, “but much more sophisticated. They are willing to pretend to cool it until there is some reason to get involved.”[5]

In 1987, she wrote about her current cat, T.K., saying, “She thinks she won’t give me the satisfaction of letting me know she is listening, but again, it is her ears that are the dead giveaway. When I speak to her she can look the other way in an elaborate show of inattention, but those black ears are turning like radar scopes, taking in everything.”[6]

Betty and her husband Allen Ludden,
on set with a feline friend.

Maybe stuffed animals don’t count as pets, but Betty loves stuffed animals and has a room devoted to them in each of her two homes. She really loves the exotic ones.

“Where it begins to get a little weird is that to me, these stuffed animals are almost real. They have their individual personalities—some are looking right into my eyes—and when a new member joins the group, I introduce him to the others.”

She goes in and out of the room often because her fax machine is in there, but she always says hello and goodbye to the stuffed animals when she comes and goes. “I never leave it without saying, ‘See you later. I love you.’ Out loud!”

She seems to understand this is a little bit odd, but she doesn’t care. When writing about her stuffed animal obsession, Betty says, “It shouldn’t surprise you that I don’t often tell anyone what I have just revealed. Let’s keep it between us.”[7]

Okay, Betty. It will be our secret.

In an article for Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul, Betty says: “I suppose, in the final analysis, I have invested a lot of time and love in animals over the years. But I have reaped such a great return on each investment. For through the many stages of my life, my feeling for animals has been an unwavering constant…a dependable reservoir of comfort and love.”[8]

{Come back next Monday for the chapter "Marriage and Family"!}

[1] White, Betty. 1998. “Pet Love,” Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul (large print edition). Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., p. 104.

[2] White, Betty. 1995. Here We Go Again. New York: Scribner, p. 13.

[3] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 217.

[4] White, Betty, Betty White in Person, ibid, p. 19.

[5] White, Betty, Betty White in Person, ibid, p. 18.

[6] White, Betty, Betty White in Person, ibid, p. 19.

[7] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 196.

[8] White, Betty, Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul, ibid, p. 107.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Betty White: More Fabulous Than She Seems (Part 4)

Chapter 2: Animal Friends

It is impossible to write any biography of Betty White without talking about her hundreds of experiences with animals of every shape, size, and species.

When the infamous interviewer Barbara Walters asked Betty, point-blank, if she likes animals more than people, Betty had to admit that she does. “Can you blame me? Animals don’t lie. Animals don’t criticize.”[1]

A “confirmed zoophile” and “life-long card-carrying zoo groupie,” Betty claims that her love for animals began in the womb.[2] She says her parents took her to zoos often and taught her how to tell the ones that cared for the animals from the bad zoos she should avoid. Being a zookeeper may have been a career that society in the 1930s would not allow, but that has not stopped Betty from devoting huge amounts of time and money to the welfare and care of animals, both in zoos and out.

Her animal activity work took full swing in the early 1970s when she produced and hosted a show called The Pet Set, which featured celebrities with their pets. 

Betty says, “The reason I work, the reason I do anything, is because of my love of animals.”[3] Her acting funds her ability to be an animal activist.

Since 1974, Betty has been a trustee of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA), the non-profit support organization of the LA Zoo. She also served as commissioner for eight years. And the zoo honors Betty right back. In 1981, when her beloved husband passed on, the Koala Pavilion at the LA Zoo was dedicated to him: The Allen Ludden Plaza.

Betty devoted an entire book, Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo, to her favorite animal experiences and in defense of zoos as a necessary tool for education and animal care. On the inside cover of the book jacket she says: This book is “a very personal love letter to zoos and to the animals in them, and to the workers who conserve the animal kingdom and educate the public about it.”

“Good zoos are critical to conservation,” she adds. “The information we have gained regarding disease, breeding, and health issues from our captive animals we can apply toward helping those in their natural habitats . . . . If it weren’t for zoos, there are many animal species that would be extinct today.”[4]

All her hard work and the love she has poured on the LA Zoo has been rewarded with experiences that give her the opportunity to pretend to be a zookeeper, like she dreamed about. Betty has had the chance to give a bottle to a newborn tiger cub, take morning strolls with Gita the Indian elephant, witness the births of a Bactrian camel and a hippopotamus, be kissed by a beluga whale, and give kisses to giraffes and gorillas. She even calls herself “close friends” with Jacob the boa constrictor.

Another of Betty’s favorites is Bruno, an orangutan. Once when she visited and was allowed to stand near some behind-the-scenes fences, she called out to Bruno in his enclosure to say hello. He got up, came over to her, and pushed his lips through the fence so she could rub his nose.

In February of 2006, Betty was presented with an honor by the Mayor of LA and the LA City Council as an Ambassador to the Animals of the City of Los Angeles. The bronze plaque, placed near the Gorilla Exhibit, reads: “In recognition of her tireless work and years of passionate dedication to promote the welfare and humane care of animals throughout the City of Los Angeles.”

Betty is a sponsor for the Farm Animal Reform Movement, Actors & Others For Animals, and Friends of Animals. She personally donates hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to help protect animals around the world. She jokes that she has to keep acting so she can afford her charitable work.

While Betty respects living creatures of all kinds, she admits that spiders give her the shudders. But after reading the book Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, Betty gained the courage to catch spiders from her house in a jar and put them outside. Then she shudders. But that’s only one creature out of the thousands that fascinate her.

And some of those animal/Betty relationships are amazing. Through her long-time friend Penny Patterson, Betty had the chance to meet the legendary gorilla Koko. Penny is Koko’s trainer and has taught the gorilla to successfully use sign language to communicate.

When Betty visited Koko, the ape asked to have the doors opened so she could bring Betty into her own room. A huge honor, indeed. The visit lasted about 20 minutes. Near the end, Koko went and got a toy alligator that was about a foot long and handed it to Betty.

“As she handed the toy to me,” Betty says, “she frowned and shivered her shoulders. I really didn’t need Penny’s explanation that I was being told that the alligator was ‘scary.’ Koko made it very clear.”[5]

Betty has visited several times since. After a couple of visits, Koko greeted her by rubbing her fingers across her own lips. Penny explained that Koko recognized Betty and had named her “Lipstick.” Not many of the gorilla’s visitors wear any lipstick, but Betty always does.

Gorillas only bother to give a name to very special humans. Clearly, Betty is one.

{Come back next Monday for the chapter "Animals at Home"!}


[1] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 14.

[2] White, Betty. 2011. Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo. New York: Penguin Group. Inside cover.

[3] White, Betty. 2018. Betty White: First Lady of Television. TV movie from PBS.

[4] White, Betty, Betty and Friends, ibid, p. 13.

[5] White, Betty, If You Ask Me, ibid, p. 192.