Among the many highlights of a career that began in 1949 were star turns on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the 1970s and “Saturday Night Live” in 2010.
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[crowd cheering] You know, the only thing that hurts me, why did they wait to do this till I was 90? [laughter] I mean, a few decades ago would have been swell. [laughter] Well, honey, just snap out of it. [laughter] [crowd cheering] Years and years, decades ago, when they were just trying to fill up the spaces, I got a star because I was on television five and half hours a day, six days a week, and they thought I should have something, so they put a star down. But at that point, it was free. [laughter] I’m the oldest woman in Hollywood, but not the hottest. I think honesty. I’ve never tried to pretend to be somebody I’m not. You play roles, of course, as an actress. But as far as with the game shows or the talk shows, if you try to be somebody you’re not, the audience will pick up on you like that. You can’t fool them.
Richard Severo and
Betty White, who created two of the most memorable characters in sitcom history, the nymphomaniacal Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the sweet but dim Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls” — and who capped her long career with a comeback that included a triumphant appearance as the host of “Saturday Night Live” at the age of 88 — died on Friday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 99.
Her death, less than three weeks before her 100th birthday, was confirmed by Jeff Witjas, her longtime friend and agent.
Ms. White won five Primetime Emmys and one competitive Daytime Emmy — as well as a lifetime achievement Daytime Emmy in 2015 and a Los Angeles regional Emmy in 1952 — in a television career that spanned seven decades and that the 2014 edition of “Guinness World Records” certified as the longest ever for a female entertainer.
But her breakthrough came relatively late in life, with her work on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” from 1973 to 1977, for which she won two of her Emmys.
As Sue Ann, the host of a household-hints show on the television station where Ms. Moore’s character worked, the bedimpled Ms. White was annoyingly positive and upbeat, but also manipulative and bawdy — the sexpot next door, who would have you believe she slept with entire Army brigades during World War II.
Once, when someone asked her how she was feeling, Sue Ann replied cheerfully: “I didn’t sleep a wink all night. I feel wonderful.”
She won another Emmy in 1986 for an entirely different kind of character: the naïve, scatterbrained Rose on “The Golden Girls,” which revolved around the lives of four older women sharing a house in Miami. Whereas Sue Ann knew everything there was to know about getting a man into bed, Rose got to the same place innocently, and by being just a wee bit off center.
Ms. White was the last surviving member of the show’s four stars. Estelle Getty died in 2008, Bea Arthur in 2009 and Rue McClanahan in 2010.
Ms. White won her final Emmy in 2010 as outstanding guest actress in a comedy series for hosting the Mother’s Day episode of “S.N.L.” She followed that appearance with a regular role on yet another sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland,” and then with a book contract and her own reality show. She was bigger than she had been in decades. But she didn’t see her resurgence as a comeback.
“I’ve been working steady for 63 years,” she said in an interview for the ABC News program “Nightline” in 2010. “But everybody says, ‘Oh, it’s such a renaissance.’ Maybe I went away and didn’t know it.”
Ms. White was over 50 and already a television veteran when she first appeared on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” but her work there elevated her career to a new level.
A comedy about a young, single television news producer in Minneapolis, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was one of the most popular sitcoms of its day or any other, thanks to smart writing, Ms. Moore’s charismatic presence and a high-caliber supporting cast. Even in the company of scene-stealing actors like Ms. Moore, Ed Asner and Valerie Harper, Ms. White’s Sue Ann stood out.
The character, introduced in the show’s fourth season, was conceived as cloying, calculating and predatory, her deviousness always accompanied by a charming smile. The producers wanted a “Betty White type” to play the role, but they did not immediately ask Ms. White because she and Ms. Moore were close friends and the producers were afraid that there would be damage to the friendship if she didn’t get the role, or didn’t want it.
“They went through about 12 people and couldn’t find anybody sickening enough,” Ms. White told Modern Maturity magazine in 1998, “so they called me.”
Betty Marion White was born on Jan. 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Ill., the only child of Horace and Tess (Cachikis) White. Her father was an electrical engineer, her mother a homemaker. When Betty was a toddler, the family moved to Los Angeles, where she grew up.
At Beverly Hills High School, from which she graduated in 1939, she appeared in several student productions and even wrote her class’s graduation play, in which she had the lead role. During World War II she served in the American Women’s Voluntary Services and drove a “PX truck” delivering soap, toothpaste and candy to soldiers manning the gun emplacements the government had established in the hills of Santa Monica and Hollywood.
She also met and married a P-38 pilot, Dick Barker. That marriage lasted less than a year; when Ms. White wrote an autobiography, “Here We Go Again,” in 1995, she mentioned the marriage but did not mention his name.
Toward the end of the war she became involved in the Bliss-Hayden Little Theater, which was run by two Hollywood character actors, Lela Bliss and Harry Hayden, and designed to give young people a chance to perform in front of an audience. Her first performance there was in “Dear Ruth,” a comedy about a girl who pretends to be her older sister. It was seen by Lane Allen, an actor turned agent, who encouraged Ms. White to pursue an acting career. She and Mr. Allen were later married, but that union also ended in divorce.
Ms. White began her radio career by saying one word on the popular comedy “The Great Gildersleeve.” The word was “Parkay,” the name of the margarine sponsoring the show. That led to bit parts in 1940s radio staples like “Blondie” and “This Is Your F.B.I.”
She broke into television in 1949 on a local talk show called “Al Jarvis’s Hollywood on Television.” When Mr. Jarvis left the show, she succeeded him as host.
She had a few television shows of her own in the 1950s, including two sitcoms and a variety show (which she produced herself, and on which she drew both praise and criticism for featuring a Black tap dancer, Arthur Duncan, as a regular, a highly unusual move for the time). But none of those shows stayed on the air for long, and by the early 1960s she was best known as a very busy freelance guest. Game shows were her specialty: She appeared on “To Tell the Truth,” “I’ve Got a Secret,” “The Match Game,” “What’s My Line?” and, most notably, “Password,” whose host, Allen Ludden, she married in 1963.
Ms. White and Mr. Ludden remained married until his death in 1981. They had no children together, but she helped him raise his three children by a previous marriage, David, Martha and Sarah. (Information on her survivors was not immediately available.)
After “The Golden Girls” ended its seven-year run in 1992, Ms. White remained a familiar and welcome presence on television. She reprised the role of Rose Nylund on a short-lived spinoff, “The Golden Palace,” and made guest appearances on “Ally McBeal,” “That ’70s Show,” “Boston Legal,” “Community” and many other series. From 2006 to 2009 she had a recurring role on the daytime soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful.” Ms. White, who was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1995, continued acting on television well into her 90s.
She occasionally showed up on the big screen as well, most recently in “The Proposal” (2009) and “You Again” (2010). She was given a lifetime achievement award by the Screen Actors Guild in 2010.
In 2018 she was the subject of a PBS documentary, “Betty White: First Lady of Television.” The title, she joked, might have meant that she was the first woman ever on television.
But the most surprising, and high-profile, role she played in her later years was host of “Saturday Night Live” in May 2010, a booking that came about largely because of a spirited social-media campaign. Ms. White’s appearance — in which she gleefully participated in sketches suffused with the show’s trademark irreverent, often off-color humor — gave “S.N.L.” its highest ratings in a year and a half.
That same year she also returned to prime-time series television as one of the stars of the TV Land sitcom “Hot in Cleveland.” Her performance on that show as a feisty caretaker earned her yet another Emmy nomination. (She lost to Julie Bowen of “Modern Family.”) “Hot in Cleveland” ran for five seasons.
In 2012 “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers,” a hidden-camera show in which older people play pranks on younger people, made its debut on NBC. In addition to being the host, Ms. White was an executive producer.
In 2011, she published two books. The first, “If You Ask Me (and of Course You Won’t),” was a collection of essays and anecdotes about her life and career. The second, “Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo,” was about her love of animals and her long association with the Los Angeles Zoo.
Ms. White had a longstanding interest in animal welfare. In the early 1970s she produced and starred in a syndicated talk show, “The Pet Set,” in which celebrities talked about their pets. She also devoted time and money to organizations like the American Humane Association and the Fund for Animals. In 2006 she was honored by the Los Angeles Zoo, which named her “ambassador to the animals” and unveiled a plaque in her honor.
“Being remembered for Rose and Sue Ann and the others would be wonderful,” Ms. White told The Chicago Sun-Times in 1990. “But I also want to be remembered as a lady who helped the animals.”
As late as 2019, Ms. White was still doing voice-over work, most notably as a toy tiger named Bitey White in the animated film “Toy Story 4.” She had been planning to celebrate her 100th birthday with a one-night-only film to be shown in select movie theaters. And she had just given an interview to People magazine in which she talked about her life as she turned 100.
One of her last in-person appearances was on the 2018 Emmy Awards telecast.
“It’s incredible that you can stay in a career this long and still have people put up with you,” she told the assembled TV luminaries, who gave her a prolonged standing ovation. “I wish they did that at home.”
Isabella Grullón Paz contributed reporting.