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July 31, 2014

Betty White Talks About 'Golden Girls' and SAG Lifetime Achievement Award

by Leonard Jacobs, posted Jan 20th 2010 3:00PM
Veterans of early TV are scarce these days, most being retired or, well, really retired. But after 61 years in the business, the legendary Betty White is enjoying her third or fourth career resurgence -- and told AOL TV she's thrilled to be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from Sandra Bullock at the SAG Awards on Jan. 23.

After doing radio and summer stock back in the 1940s, White's big break came as the "telephone girl" on a live, local Los Angeles show, 'Hollywood on Television,' hosted by popular DJ Al Jarvis. With all honors to Lucille Ball and 'I Love Lucy,' that gig led to the creation of one of the first female-driven sitcoms, 'Life with Elizabeth.' The TV skies were the limit from there.Veterans of early TV are scarce these days, most being retired or, well, really retired. But after 61 years in the business, the legendary Betty White is enjoying her third or fourth career resurgence -- and told AOL TV she's thrilled to be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from Sandra Bullock at the SAG Awards on Jan. 23.

After doing radio and summer stock back in the 1940s, White's big break came as the "telephone girl" on a live, local Los Angeles show, 'Hollywood on Television,' hosted by popular DJ Al Jarvis. With all honors to Lucille Ball and 'I Love Lucy,' that gig led to the creation of one of the first female-driven sitcoms, 'Life with Elizabeth.' The TV skies were the limit from there.

Throughout six decades, White's presence on game shows, talk shows, TV shows and movies made her an indelible part of the show business landscape. Yet, more than anything else in her career, roles on two landmark sitcoms -- man-hungry, cloying Sue Ann Nivens on 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' and the delightfully daffy Rose Nylund on 'The Golden Girls' -- cemented the American public's adoration for White's seemingly limitless talent.

Betty WhiteAnd that's just half or a third of the full White story. She's appeared in 'That '70s Show,' 'Boston Legal' and on still-beloved oldies like 'Mama's Family' or 'The Carol Burnett Show.' Now 88, White's still in her prime, playing Grandma Annie opposite Sandra Bullock in 'The Proposal' and gearing up to do a guest shot on a new TV Land sitcom called 'Hot in Cleveland.' And let's not forget 19 episodes of 'The Bold and the Beautiful.' Or writing: Her fifth book, which she's still writing, covers her 43-year relationship with the Los Angeles Zoo. Or her rep for off-color humor.

The six-time Emmy winner long ago set the standard for TV excellence. This Saturday, when Bullock presents White with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the SAG Awards, the moment will be live -- bringing her remarkable career full circle.

It's hard to believe you did live television five-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week.
I was fascinated with TV when it first started, and everybody who came through town came through our show. It was like TV college. Talk about on-the-job training -- it was fight for your life! Our skeleton was commercials in those days, and as there were no tapes, you did the commercials -- nothing was 30 seconds or a minute. The most we did was 54 live commercials. Somebody would come in and hand me a paper. I'd glance at it and try to get as much information as I could, then ad lib.

Lucky you!
Oh, I thought I was the luckiest human being on two feet! Before that, I did a little silly comedy show with three comedians. Al Jarvis, who was a big DJ on radio, was starting on live TV. He called and said said he needed a girl Friday. When I came in to meet him, I discovered I wasn't just his girl Friday, but his girl Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, too.

Out of that came 'Life With Elizabeth.' What are the differences in sitcom scripts then and now?
What scripts? We ad libbed! Five-and-a-half hours a day on live TV wasn't enough for Al, so we did an hour variety show at night. We'd have amateur singers come on and the winner would be the singer the next week. I'd do three songs sometime during the hour, and Al and I did skits -- the payoff line was always the title of a song. One day [TV pioneer] Don Fedderson asked me, "Can you make that husband-and-wife skit into a half-hour situation comedy?" In my wisdom, I said, "It just won't work." That's how smart I was.



The chemistry on 'Life With Elizabeth' -- I love the YouTube clips -- is great, like on 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show.'
Well, Mary's husband, Grant Tinker, and my husband, Allen Ludden, were best friends. Together, we four really sweated out that show. We went to the first show as audience members, and we all sweated out the reviews. The first year was kind of a struggle. It didn't hit the ground running, and we sweated out the ratings. I didn't come into the show until the fourth season.

How did that happen?
They wrote a script introducing a happy, icky, sickeningly sweet Betty White-type character. Oh, they couldn't cast Betty White -- Betty and Mary are such close friends! If it didn't work, it would be awkward for Mary! Well, I guess they couldn't find anyone sickeningly sweet enough, so they called me. I was completely amazed and said sure. I hung up and called Mary and said, "Guess who's doing your show next week?" My biggest thrill was the night after the taping when they said they had another script idea, another episode for my character. That was a lovely thing to hear.

Was it hard to integrate into a company of sitcom actors in their fourth season?
It was a very smooth transition. Of course, Sue Ann was such a ridiculous character that we could all make fun of her. She was the butt of the joke.

A little like Rose Nylund on 'The Golden Girls'?
I give Jay Sandrich -- who directed much of 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' and the pilot of 'The Golden Girls' -- so much credit for what he said about Rose: she believes every word for the literal meaning of that word. She never sees another meaning, always takes everything literally, and never with sarcasm, like a total innocent, like a musical comedy with a happy ending. He gave me such a pattern for the character. If somebody said "I could eat a horse," Rose called the SPCA.

Did all the golden girls -- you, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty -- have input into the writing?
They were always rewriting -- we got new pages every day. That goes with the territory. We were a very happy set because we not only loved one another but respected each other's talent and each other's characters. To get that kind of writing, you just don't get it that often. There were four of us, and we were absolute equals, with plenty to do on every show. The writers would take a situation knowing the audience knew the characters to be well defined, and they'd put a situation on the table, knowing how each character would react to it. That was the heart of the show.



How would you make suggestions for Rose's character?
Well, we could always say, "I think I can say it better this way." But comedy is a fragile child: add a syllable, ruin the rhythm of the joke. We trusted the writers implicitly on 'The Golden Girls.' I even tried to read the commas. I remember the first time we read the pilot. We sat around a table -- well, all of a sudden, you say your line and somebody else says their line, and all of us sat up. We knew we'd better be ready to hit the line back over the net because, look out, it's coming at you!

You're the only woman to win a Daytime Emmy for emceeing a game show. Why aren't there more women emcees?
I can only speak personally about this and I know I'll offend a lot of people, but women's voices get a little monotonous. A deeper voice in the middle is much more enjoyable, I feel.

What's the key to doing well on a game show?
The secret ingredient is you have to listen. You can't just be involved in your own thing. That's why 'Password' and 'Match Game' were such fun.

Rumor is there was some serious drinking on 'Match Game.'
That's the legend everybody pushes forward, but there was never a drop of liquor on that set. We just had a wonderful time and when something got laughs, you'd get carried away. I'd hold [host] Gene Rayburn's pants up.

Now you're taping a pilot for a new sitcom, 'Hot in Cleveland'?
It's a guest shot. Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick -- I mean, it doesn't get better than that, does it?

If it's picked up and they ask you to be a regular, what would be your answer?
Oh, right now it's tough to say. It would be a tough turndown because I love doing a series. It just depends on so many variables. I'm in the middle of a book about my work at the Los Angeles Zoo, in which I tell anecdotes about the animals.

And before I forget to ask, why did you do 19 episodes of 'The Bold and the Beautiful'?
Because they asked! I'm easy. I'd never done a soap. And they killed me off -- it took me four days of overacting to die.

What will you say when you accept your SAG Lifetime Achievement Award?
I'm going to try to keep from fainting!

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