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.” 
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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. 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.”
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. 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.
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.”
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.”
 White, Betty, If You Ask Me, p. 126.
 White, Betty, Here We Go Again, p. 194.
 Hewitt, Bill. Betty White: An Illustrated Biography, p. 39.
 White, Betty, Here We Go Again, p. 206-211.
 White, Betty, Here We Go Again, p. 248.
 White, Betty, Betty White: An Illustrated Biography, p. 62.
 White, Betty, Betty White: First Lady of Television, ibid.
 White, Betty, Betty White in Person, p. 48.
 White, Betty, Here We Go Again, p. 257.
 White, Betty, Here We Go Again, p. 253.
 White, Betty, Here We Go Again, p. 266-268.