The untold truth of Betty White

Is there a TV star more universally beloved than Betty White? Born in Oak Park, Ill. in 1922, White was just two years old when her parents moved to Los Angeles, per Biography. After attending Beverly Hills High, the future comedy starlet originally aspired to be a park ranger, but changed course when she learned only men were hired for those positions at the time. Instead, White eyed a career in Tinseltown.

As a young actress in the 1940s, White found work performing on radio, but segued into the booming new medium of television just as it was getting off the ground. Since then, this Hollywood icon has been a ubiquitous presence on TV screens, including playing integral roles on groundbreaking series likes The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls. "I'd like to be remembered as Betty," White once told The Television Academy of her pioneering role in pop culture. "Their good friend that they invite into their home."

Even though White's showbiz career has spanned eight decades, there's still a lot to discover about this national treasure of an actress. Let's dig into the untold truth of Betty White.

Betty White was on TV before there really WAS TV

During her 1994 interview with the The Television Academy, Betty White recalled how she and another Beverly Hills High graduate were asked to perform for an early television broadcast in 1939. "I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles," White later said while speaking with the Guinness Book of World Records. Donning the same dress she wore to her high school graduation, she and her former classmate "danced the Merry Widow Waltz." 

A decade later, after White had established herself as a radio performer, Los Angeles DJ Al Jarvis asked her "to sit in as his girl Friday" on a televised talk show he was launching, Hollywood on Television. It aired live six days a week for five-and-a-half hours each day. For White, the experience proved to be an invaluable training ground in the emerging medium of live television. "Whatever happened, you had to handle it," White told NPR in 2014. "There was never any rehearsal or script or anything. Whoever came in that door was on, and you were interviewing them."

Betty White starred in one of TV's first sitcoms

Betty White had a lot of time to fill on Hollywood on Television, but that responsibility grew when she "inherited the show" after four years following Al Jarvis' exit. As White told PBS' Pioneers of Television, she also hosted an amateur-hour show in the evenings, inviting contestants onstage to demonstrate their talents. The winner's prize: a chance to perform on the daytime show. 

During that evening show, White would also perform in brief comedy sketches that, instead of ending with a punchline, "paid off with a song as the tag line." One day, White recalled, the station manager asked if she could stretch out one of those sketches, which featured a husband and wife, into a half-hour show. "In my wisdom," White said with a laugh, "I said, 'It won't work ... the jokes won't hold up that long, you can't do a half-hour.' That's how much I knew."

The result was Life with Elizabeth, which debuted in 1953 as an early TV sitcom. "Nobody remembers Life with Elizabeth," White, who also co-produced the series, quipped. "They weren't born when Life with Elizabeth was on."

There were three different TV series called The Betty White Show

Betty White went on to star in The Betty White Show — three times! That's because there have been three distinct versions of The Betty White Show. According to White's IMDb profile, the first iteration debuted in 1954, amid Life with Elizabeth's two-season run, as a talk show she produced herself — solidifying her role as one of the first female producers and performers with full creative control on-and-off screen in the male-dominated Hollywood. 

White later hosted another version of The Betty White Show, which premiered in 1958 as a primetime variety series for NBC. As a rare recording of an episode demonstrates, it didn't stray far from her previous effort, with White introducing the setup for a sketch and then acting in it. However, the third variation of The Betty White Show came nearly 20 years later. Arriving shortly after her popular role of Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show came to an end, this show was a straight-up sitcom, according to Start TV. White plays TV actress Joyce Whitman in the series, who stars in the fictional crime drama, Undercover Woman, which happens to be directed by her ex-husband. Unfortunately, it was cancelled after just one season.

Betty White's first marriage lasted less than a year

When it comes to marriage, the "third time's a charm" saying rang true for Betty White, who got it right when she married game show host Allen Ludden in 1963. The couple lit up each other's lives and remained happily married until his 1981 death of stomach cancer, days before the couple's 18th wedding anniversary (via The New York Times).

White's first marriage, however, was unfortunately nowhere near as successful. In his biography of White, "The First Lady" in the Show Business, Relationships, Career and More, author Chris Dicker wrote that she met chicken farmer Dick Barker during World War II, when he served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. After a whirlwind romance, she accepted his proposal in 1942, shortly before he left for overseas. They wed in 1945 and moved to his farm in rural Ohio, which proved to be a "big adjustment" for the Los Angeles-raised White. After just five months, per Closer Weekly, White and Barker split, and she moved back to California. According to Dicker's biography, White later got hitched to Lane Allen in 1949, whom she divorced two years later when his desire to start a family clashed with her showbiz ambitions. 

While discussing her earlier marriages on CNN's Piers Morgan Live in 2012, White joked, "The first two were rehearsals."

Betty White met husband Allen Ludden when she was a guest star on his game show

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Betty White was a staple on the game show circuit. She made her first appearance on Password in 1961, marking the first time she met the show's host — and her future husband — Allen Ludden. 

During the 2018 PBS special, Betty White: First Lady of Television, the actress recalled falling in love with the show and Ludden. "The host was very nice and very attractive," White cooed with a laugh, "and I thought, 'Ooh!'" A clip shown on the special featured White and Ludden flirting on Password. "What are your plans for the summer, Betty?" he asked. To which she nervously laughed, before joking, "What did you have in mind, Allen?" 

However, they didn't rush into marriage. In a 2015 interview on Oprah Winfrey's Where Are They Now?, White revealed that the one regret she had was that she didn't wed Ludden sooner. The reason, she explained, was her reluctance to move from Los Angeles to New York, where Password was shot. "I spent a whole year, wasted a whole year, that Allen and I could have had together," she said. "... But we made it! We finally did."

Betty White was originally supposed to play a different Golden Girl

Nobody could have predicted that a sitcom about a quartet of 60-plus-year-old women would become one of the most successful TV series of the 1980s. The Golden Girls teamed up Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty, and Betty White, with the latter portraying Minnesota native Rose Nylund. Rose was the polar opposite of her Mary Tyler Moore Show character, boy-crazy Happy Homemaker host Sue Ann Nivens. Unlike Sue Ann, Rose was naive bordering on daffy, yet had an uncanny ability to outsmart those who underestimated her. 

However, producers originally saw McClanahan as Rose, she told Entertainment Weekly, and envisioned White in McClanahan's role, the libidinous Blanche Devereaux. In fact, as McClanahan said during a 2006 panel interview at the Paley Center for Media, she actually auditioned for both parts. After all those years playing the "neighborhood nymphomanicac" on Mary Tyler Moore, White revealed that she met with a producer who shared concerns that viewers would think she'd be repeating herself if she rehashed her earlier role. As a result, the actresses switched characters, and the rest is history.

Betty White made her SNL hosting debut thanks to Facebook

In her long and illustrious television career, Betty White had appeared on a multitude of TV shows — but not Saturday Night Live. In 2010, one of her fans embarked on a quixotic effort to change that. As The Christian Science Monitor reported, San Antonio fan Dave Matthews (not the jam-band musician) created a Facebook page devoted to encouraging SNL to bring White on as host.

After a few hundred thousand people chimed in and multiple headlines were made, the longtime sketch comedy series finally got on board and invited White to host the Mother's Day edition of the show. She agreed, and the result was pure comedy gold. White, who began her career on live television, was no neophyte, and decades of performing before live studio audiences on TV sitcoms had honed her comic timing and performance instincts to a sharp edge. So naturally, she killed it on her SNL debut. 

However, White admitted to WXII 12 News that she was a bundle of nerves before she took to the stage for her opening monologue. "The nerves are running rampant tonight," White confessed before the taping, "because I'm scared to death, if you really want to know the truth."

Her Hot in Cleveland role was intended to be a one-time thing

The same year Betty White made her SNL debut in 2010 also saw the TV veteran join the cast of Hot in Cleveland, a TV Land sitcom about three "women of a certain age" who move from Los Angeles to Cleveland. The women live together in a house owned by White's character, a hard-drinking senior citizen named Elka. The show became an out-of-the-box hit, running for six successful seasons. 

White, however, wasn't originally intended to be a permanent part of the show — by her choice. As the comedy legend, who was 88 at the time of the pilot's filming, later told Closer Weekly, she didn't want to commit to a TV series that could potentially tie her up for several years. "I agreed to do a guest stint on a pilot," White said. "I said 'yes' provided it would be only a one-shot deal." After shooting the pilot, however, producers were blown away by White's chemistry with co-stars Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick, and Jane Leeves, all of whom joined producers in imploring White to sign on full-time. "Strong character that I am," White quipped, "I wound up doing [it]."

Betty White loves hot dogs and vodka

In 2011, Betty White's Hot in Cleveland co-stars dished about her dietary tastes to Us Weekly, revealing that the then-octogenarian wasn't exactly a health nut. "She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries and Diet Coke," Jane Leeves said. "If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." Wendie Malick shared a similar observation, quipping that "she seems to exist" on this junk food diet.

While it's unlikely any doctor would recommend White's fave foods as the recipe for a long life, it's apparently worked for her. In a 2018 interview with Parade, White admitted she particularly enjoys vodka and hot dogs, "probably in that order." She previously stated her appreciation for that libation during an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, when the titular host asked how she likes to spend her free time. "I like to do most anything, play with animals mostly," she shared, before quipping, "And vodka's kind of a hobby." Letterman responded by whipping out two ice-filled glasses and filling each with Grey Goose while White collapsed in laughter.

Betty White once performed for the queen

During a 2014 "Ask Me Anything" session on Reddit, Betty White was asked to name some of the most famous luminaries she'd had the opportunity to meet throughout her impressive career. She replied by naming three presidents — Clinton, Obama, and Bush Sr. — and the Queen of England. Um, no big deal.

It was actually Queen Elizabeth II's mother who was responsible for White meeting the monarch. According to CBS News, the Queen Mother was a huge fan of The Golden Girls, and put in a special request for White and co-stars Beatrice Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty to perform at the 1988 Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. As Arthur told the Orlando Sentinel at the time, the stars planned to act out a scene from the show live onstage. "We'll do about seven minutes from the show," she said, "but we'll have to censor a few things for the Queen."

In her Reddit AMA, White briefly described meeting Her Majesty. "It was very exciting," she wrote. "The Queen was lovely. We were told not to address her unless we were addressed. She was up in a box and she came down on stage after with Princess Anne."

If not for acting, Betty White would have become a zookeeper

If Betty White hadn't embarked on a career in television all those years ago, what other profession would she have chosen? The actress was asked that very question in an interview with the Guinness Book of World Records, during which she offered a surprising answer: "Hands down, a zookeeper."

While the entire zoo concept has grown controversial (PETA, for example, decried zoos as "an idea whose time has come and gone"), White believes they serve an important purpose. A longtime animal lover and trustee for the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, White told Smithsonian Magazine that she views PETA's position as the result of a "closed" mind. "They think no animal should be in captivity, they should all be in the wild in their own habitat," she claimed. "Well, of course, that is a myth. Humans have already taken their habitat; many species have no wild habitat anymore."

The role of zoos, White alleged, wasn't to keep animals in captivity but to help sustain endangered animals' "dwindling populations in the wild." She added, "What they learn from the captive animals they can apply to the populations in the wild. In many cases, species are still around that would not be without zoos."

Betty White turned down an Oscar-winning movie because of an animal cruelty scene

Betty White's love of animals has been well documented — she even wrote a book about it, 1983's Betty White's Pet Love: How Pets Take Care of Us. As she told Smithsonian Magazine in 2012, her affection for animals goes back to her childhood, saying it is "so embedded in me."

In fact, her affinity for animals led her to pass on a role in a critically-acclaimed film that was nominated for seven Academy Awards. The 1997 comedy As Good As It Gets features Oscar-winning performances from Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, but as White told the magazine, in one scene, "They had ... this adorable puppy, that at one point they dropped down a laundry chute. It landed on a pile of laundry in the story line, and I turned down the role." Thinking that people would see and imitate that scene, she added, "So I said as long as that scene was in the film, I wouldn't do it."

Betty White holds a Guinness World Record

No big deal, but in 2014, a 92-year-old Betty White was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records after setting the record for the longest TV career for a female entertainer. At that point, her television work spanned an impressive 74 years. When asked how it felt to become a record holder, she responded, "I was astounded when they called to tell me. 'Who? Me!?!' It's such an honor." In fact, White admitted that the Guinness Book of World Records "has always been fascinating to [her]." She added, "I can't believe I'm now associated with it. I am amazed at some of the records they keep. The longest fingernails?!?"

During the interview, White also shared some advice for aspiring actors hoping to enjoy the kind of career longevity she has. "I would advise actors to do their homework and take the time to appreciate their profession," she explained, demonstrating that after all those those years in showbiz, she had yet to become jaded. "It is a privilege to do what we do."

Betty White celebrated her 90th birthday with a star-studded TV special — twice!

In late 2011, NBC announced plans to celebrate Betty White's 90th birthday the following January with a TV special. As TV Guide reported, guests initially announced for the special were her Hot in Cleveland cast mates and former co-star Mary Tyler Moore. According to Entertainment Weekly's recap of the special, the guest list wound up being far longer and even more impressive. Also joining White to celebrate her milestone birthday were the likes of Tina Fey, Carol Burnett, Amy Poehler, Ellen DeGeneres, Hugh Jackman, Morgan Freeman, then-President Barack Obama, and many more.

The show was such a hit with viewers that NBC aired another birthday special the following year, with the hilariously-titled Betty White's 2nd Annual 90th Birthday Special debuting in February 2013 (a few weeks after White's actual birthday on January 17). For the second special, HuffPost reported, guests included Whoopi Goldberg, Katie Couric, Lily Tomlin, Sean Hayes, Sarah Silverman, Larry King, and former President Bill Clinton. With countless other celebs and fans alike continuing to celebrate the Hollywood icon's birthday on social media throughout the years, the Los Angeles Times noted in January 2020 that "forever golden girl Betty White's birthday is practically a national holiday." As well it should be!