Betty White became a fixture on sitcoms and game and variety shows so early in TV that she often jokes that she started out in “silent television.”
White is best-known for two diametrically opposed characters she played in a pair of long-running series — the conniving “happy homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the 1970s and the daffy Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls” in the 1980s and early ’90s.
Since first appearing on television in 1949, White had received multiple Emmy nominations and won for the Nivens character in 1975 and 1976 and for Rose in 1986. She also won an Emmy for a 1995 guest appearance on “The John Larroquette Show” in which she played herself.
With her bright blue eyes, dimpled cheeks and wide smile framed by her heart-shaped face, White began her acting career cast as the sweet-tempered sparring partner in many domestic comedies — a type she later slyly played against on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” on CBS.
But she is probably best remembered for her role as naive Rose Nylund, one of four divorced or widowed women who lived together in Miami in the hugely successful “Golden Girls,” which held a spot in the Nielsen Top 10 for five years.
Her professional debut was at Bliss Hayden Little Theatre in Beverly Hills and, in short order, she moved into radio and TV. In 1949, she cohosted a live television variety program with early TV personality Al Jarvis that ran more than five hours a day, six days a week. The show, “Hollywood on Television,” included songs, skits and live commercials, and she once did a record 58 commercials in a single day.
Television was so new, she said, that viewers could either watch their show or a test pattern. One of the comedy sketches White did with Jarvis about a young married couple evolved into a syndicated sitcom, “Life With Elizabeth,” which ran from 1953 to 1955. She followed that with another, shorter-lived domestic comedy, “Date With the Angels on ABC from 1957-58.
Over the years, she starred in several shows titled “The Betty White Show” — the first a variety show in 1958 and the last a sitcom in 1977-78. She also was a frequent guest on Jack Paar’s late night show on NBC — appearing more than 70 times during the 1950s and ’60s — and a regular on game shows.
In 1973, she was cast in the first of the two signature roles of her career: The host of the “Happy Homemaker Show” on WJM-TV, the hapless Minneapolis television station that was the center of life and laughs on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The series, which by then had been on the air for about four years, wanted a new character to fill the void left when Mary’s best friend, Rhoda (Valerie Harper), left the show for a spinoff.
At first, producers wouldn’t consider White for the role because White was a close friend of Moore’s. But when no other actress filled the bill, White was cast for one appearance as the predatory Sue Ann, who was sweetness and light for her TV audience and anything but off camera. She stayed until 1977, the rest of the show’s run.
After the show ended, White and another character actress from the series, Georgia Engel, starred in a short-lived CBS sitcom, “The Betty White Show,” about a 40-ish actress (White) and her roommate. In the 1980s, White was a character on “Mama’s Family” on NBC and in the 1990s joined the casts of Bob Newhart’s CBS sitcom “Bob” and ABC’s “Maybe This Time,” starring Marie Osmond. Several years later, she played Alfred Molina’s mother on the CBS sitcom “Ladies Man.”
White appeared in only a few films, among them writer David Kelley’s attempt at a monster movie, “Lake Placid” (1999), in which she played a foul-mouthed biddy, and “The Proposal,” a 2009 romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock.
Back on TV, White was cast as the nosy Catherine Piper in Kelley’s successful ABC series “The Practice.” The character also appeared in the series’ sequel, “Boston Legal,” in which Catherine murdered someone by banging him on the head with a frying pan.
Away from acting, White was deeply committed to the welfare of animals. At various times, she was president of the Morris Animal Foundation, the Englewood, Colo.-based organization that funds research and education on animal and wildlife health, and a trustee of the Los Angeles Zoo.