A few weeks shy of her 100th birthday, Betty White, the beloved actress and comedian whose career in Hollywood spanned nearly eight decades and included stints on hit shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls, has died. She was 99.
White died at her home in California on Friday, Dec. 31. A representative for the Los Angeles Fire Department told Rolling Stone: “We responded to a medical aid request. The call was received at 9:33 a.m. We have determined death of an approximately 99-year-old female.”
White’s agent and friend, Jeff Witjas, told People, “Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever. I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don’t think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again.”
White was set to turn 100 years old on Jan. 17, and the actress was going to celebrate the milestone with a special movie event, Betty White: 100 Years Young, which was to feature White sharing stories from throughout her career, plus classic clips from her filmography and a lost episode from her first sitcom. Plenty of celebrity guests had been tapped to appear as well, including Ryan Reynolds, Tina Fey, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Morgan Freeman, Jay Leno, Carol Burnett, and others.
In an interview with People, published on Dec. 28, White said, “I’m so lucky to be in such good health and feel so good at this age.” She added that she was “born a cockeyed optimist.… I got it from my mom, and that never changed. I always find the positive.”
White’s remarkable résumé included work in radio, television, and film, while she also penned several books — both fiction and nonfiction — and worked tirelessly as an activist for animal rights. She was nominated for 21 prime-time Emmys and won five, her first for Supporting Actress on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1976, her last for guest-hosting Saturday Night Live in 2010. A tireless worker, White joked during an interview with CNN in February 2017, “I’m still able to get a job, at this age. I will go to my grave saying, ‘Can I come in and read for that tomorrow?’ “
While White’s myriad roles included TV commentator, soap-opera star, and regular host and guest on various game shows and talk shows, she was best known for her work in comedy. Early on in her career, White said, she was regularly typecast as “icky sweet,” but her turn as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show allowed her to embrace such cloying characteristics while subverting them with a ribald edge that became her trademark for decades to come.
Born outside Chicago in 1922, White’s family moved to Los Angeles during the Great Depression. She discovered acting in high school, and in the Forties scored her first jobs on radio, eventually garnering her own program, The Betty White Show. In 1949, she landed her first major television role as the co-host of Hollywood on Television, a live, local variety show that ran for a whopping five and a half hours, six days a week. White outlasted her co-host, Al Jarvis, and helmed the show solo for several years, honing her comedic craft.
“When you’re on that many hours with no script, you know, you get very comfortable — maybe overly comfortable — with that small audience,” she told NPR in 2011. “As I say, you hit and run. If there’s a double meaning, you drop it, and then you try to get away as fast as you can.… You can go past that magic moment to comment on something, and the laugh is killed.”
In the early Fifties, White co-founded her own production company and retooled one of her Hollywood on Television skits into her first sitcom, The Life of Elizabeth. Not only did White play the title role, but she was also a producer on the nationally syndicated show, making her one of the few women in Hollywood with creative control both on- and off-camera. White garnered her first Emmy nomination for the series in 1951.
In 1962, White appeared in her first movie, the drama Advise and Consent, but over the next two decades, she cemented her place as a television staple. White starred in several sitcoms and variety programs and became a staple on the game-show circuit, most famously as a contestant on Password (she married host Allen Ludden in 1963; he died from stomach cancer in 1981). White was also a favorite Tonight Show guest and hosted the Rose Parade for NBC for 19 years. In 1973, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, looking for an “icky sweet Betty White type” to play Sue Ann Nivens, cast the actual actress. But what was supposed to be a guest appearance swiftly became a recurring gig that relaunched White’s acting career and won her two Emmys.
After The Mary Tyler Moore Show wrapped in 1977, she continued to work regularly. Most notably, she starred on her own program, The Betty White Show, and in 1983 began hosting the game show Just Men!, for which she became the first woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host. White scored her second-most iconic role, as the lovably dim Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. The show was a ratings smash, ran for seven seasons, and helped win White her third Emmy, although in that CNN interview she remembered it for its groundbreaking premise.
“Golden Girls was a big breakthrough. A situation comedy about old women? What is that? I think it changed a lot of the thinking and opened the way for a lot of older women.”
After The Golden Girls, again White’s career continued with few bumps or interruptions. Along with her regular acting work, she published her memoir, Here We Go Again: My Life in Television, in 1995, and continued to serve as a trustee and a member of the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (she called the L.A. Zoo her “home away from home” in a New York Times interview).
While White remained a constant presence in the pop consciousness, she experienced yet another monumental moment, in 2010, when she starred alongside Abe Vigoda in a Snickers Super Bowl commercial. The spot kick-started a fan campaign for her to host Saturday Night Live, and in May 2010 she did, pairing with beloved alums such as Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Rachel Dratch. In the following months, White’s latest sitcom, Hot in Cleveland, premiered on TV Land. The show became a surprise hit and ran for six seasons.
Even after Hot in Cleveland wrapped, and well into her nineties, White kept busy with the occasional guest appearance and small role. She popped up on an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants in 2016, and in 2019 lent her voice to two animated films, Trouble, and Toy Story 4 (in the latter, she played a chew toy aptly named “Bitey White”). White was also the subject of a PBS documentary, Betty White: First Lady of Television.
In January 2017, White spoke with Katie Couric, on her 95th birthday. When Couric asked White what she hoped people would think when they heard her name, she quickly quipped, “Oh, she’s so gorgeous and sexy!” White then added, “I just appreciate the fact that people have been so kind to me all these years. The fact that I’m still working, that’s the thing I’m most grateful for.”