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.