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'Fresh Air' celebrates legendary TV actor Betty White

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Betty White died on December 31, a few weeks shy of what would have been her 100th birthday. Her television career spanned the history of TV itself, and that's no exaggeration. Betty White first appeared on television straight out of high school on an experimental Los Angeles station in 1939. Her first regular co-starring TV role came a decade later on the long-running local variety show called "Hollywood On Television." It was long running not only because it ran for years - Betty White took over as host in 1952 - but because it ran for more than five hours a day, six days a week.

Betty White was starring on TV locally and nationally, the same time Lucille Ball was starring on "I Love Lucy." And in that period, Betty White took a recurring sketch from her variety show and turned it into its own network sitcom called "Life With Elizabeth." It's the same trick Jackie Gleason would do a few years later with "The Honeymooners." And she co-produced her sitcom, making her one of TV's first female producers.

In the '60s, Betty White kept busy with TV game shows, especially as a frequent guest on "Password," where she met and eventually married that show's host, Allen Ludden. On TV, unscripted, she was very warm and friendly, which is why it was such a surprise in such a smart bit of reverse casting when she was asked to join "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in the role of Sue Ann Nivens, the TV station's happy homemaker. Sue Ann was like Julia Child, talking to viewers at home from her kitchen and cheerfully guiding them through recipes - well, cheerfully as long as the TV camera was on.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

BETTY WHITE: (As Sue Ann Nivens) Somebody forgot to plug in the oven.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: (As Sue Ann Nivens) Well, I guess that just goes to show that anybody can make a mistake, even your happy homemaker. No, don't you go away. We'll be right back after this commercial message.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) All clear.

WHITE: (As Sue Ann Nivens) All right. Who the hell is...

BIANCULLI: Betty White won Emmys for that role in the 1970s. She also won an Emmy for her role as Rose in the 1980s sitcom "The Golden Girls," holding her own opposite Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty, and in this scene, Bea Arthur.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOLDEN GIRLS")

BEA ARTHUR: (As character) Rose, is this another one of those Scandinavian Viking concoctions?

WHITE: (As Rose) Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: (As Rose) It's called ganufhergerkin (ph) cake. It's an ancient recipe, but I Americanized it.

ARTHUR: (As character) So one might say you brought geflurkenurkin (ph) into the '80s.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: (As Rose) Yes, but I'm not one to blow my own vertubenflugen (ph).

BIANCULLI: Betty White won Emmys in two other decades, one in the '90s as a guest actor on "The John Larroquette Show" and another in 2010 for guest hosting "Saturday Night Live." It was a gig she had turned down repeatedly but reconsidered after a grassroots campaign surfaced on social media, something she acknowledged in her opening monologue.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

WHITE: I heard about the campaign to get me to host "Saturday Night Live." I didn't know what Facebook was. And now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: As she was guest hosting "SNL," Betty White also was co-starring in a new sitcom called "Hot In Cleveland," which ran for five years. In that series, her character got a marriage proposal very late in life, courtesy of guest star Carl Reiner, who popped the question while they were eating at a restaurant. Those two old pros were TV stars in the 1950s. He was part of the classic variety series "Your Show Of Shows," and they worked great together.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS")

CARL REINER: I think we should get married.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: Me, too. Pass the salt.

(LAUGHTER)

REINER: You'd marry me?

WHITE: Yeah, I would. One dance around, we're perfect for each other.

(LAUGHTER)

REINER: I'm glad to hear that. Oh, here's your salt. Hammer press? You can still use that.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: Oh, and I know how to shape what I've got.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: And now we'll end this tribute by revisiting a FRESH AIR interview with Betty White. Terry Gross spoke with her in 1987, when the actress was co-starring on "The Golden Girls."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: I think the first series that you had was called "Life With Elizabeth." Would you describe the character that you played?

WHITE: She - they were young marrieds with no children. And she was not too bright. And he was maybe one shade brighter than she was. Neither one of them were nuclear physicists.

GROSS: TV Guide in 1953 or '54 wondered if you'd become the TV version of America's sweetheart because of your role in that series. Did you ever feel stuck with that kind of image?

WHITE: Nope, because I was doing a lot of other things along with it, and everybody thought of me as very sweet and yucky and all that stuff and - but then at the same - when Jack Paar started, I did about 75 of his shows. And when you're on a talk show, you're yourself, so people could realize that you're not that ditzy character that they saw on the screen.

GROSS: It was, I think, with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" that you really started to get a different kind of image on TV. You played Sue Ann Nevins, the happy homemaker who was the happy homemaker on television, but off-screen, she was very catty, conniving. How did you get cast in that image? It really seemed to be casting against type at the time.

WHITE: Well, it was great fun. Mary and I were great and good friends. And the fourth year that her show was on, I had sweated out - Allen and I - my husband, Allen Ludden, and I had sweated out her pilot and the whole show. So we had a rooting interest in the show. So the writers came up with an idea. They wanted a yucky, icky, sweet Betty White-type for a happy homemaker for a one-shot on the show. So I guess they tried a lot of other people and couldn't find anybody yucky enough. And so they called me and asked me if I'd like to do the show. And it was a thrill because, as I say, it was a one-shot. But that night, they said that they were going home and starting another script. And two weeks later, I was back with another script. And that was exciting.

GROSS: Were you insulted at all that they were looking for this, you know, bland, sweet, Betty White-type?

WHITE: Insulted? Of course not. They wouldn't say those things if they didn't know better about the lady herself. So it's - I mean, that's the fun of it. That's the humor of it. And you can be that type to some people in the audience who are looking for that. And some of the other people in the audience will see through that and see the rotten person underneath.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: One of the things I really liked about the role was that it proved that you really had a sense of humor about the image that you had.

WHITE: Well, I don't think anybody who knew me could've missed the fact that I had a sense of humor about that because I never was being the sweet type. I had - I've always had a rather bawdy sense of humor. And my mother and dad before me, we - there wasn't a straight man in the family. And so a lot of people, you'd meet them at a party. And they'd say, oh, gee, I didn't realize - I never liked you until I realized that you weren't that person.

GROSS: Now you're in a series in which you've become better known and more popular, I think, than you've ever been in your career. Did you expect that as you got older, you'd get more visible, more popular?

WHITE: Who would ever dream of such a thing? The four of us, Estelle and Bea and Rue and I, continually congratulate ourselves on the fact that this took off from nowhere. We had no idea we'd be getting into something like this. And it's a joy to work together. And we respect each other so professionally. But we didn't expect to also adore each other the way we do. It's a - we can't wait to go to work in the morning.

GROSS: In a way, I think the characters on "The Golden Girls" have become role models of sorts for older women. Have you found that women have been inspired to live in small groups because they've seen it on television?

WHITE: I don't know about living in small groups. All that I think we have accomplished is to show that there is an alternative lifestyle for the lonely ladies out there. If you notice, "The Golden Girls" are not together for economic reasons. They're together for sociological reasons. It combats the loneliness.

GROSS: You've lived alone since the death of your husband, Allen Ludden. I guess that kind of lifestyle wouldn't be for you?

WHITE: No, nor for Bea, nor for Rue, nor for Estelle, oddly enough, because we - well, Estelle, maybe. Estelle might be able to do that. But we're all, basically, people who enjoy being alone. But that's only because we've worked in this business all our lives where we're with people all the time. So being alone is a boon. And I'm sure that drives everybody crazy who is lonely and wishes they had more to do. And I appreciate that. I appreciate the fact that I am in that position more than I can tell you.

GROSS: Now that you're in "The Golden Girls," do fans relate to you differently than they did, say, when you were in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" or even before that when you were in your early sitcoms?

WHITE: Not really. It's the same one-on-one. Remember, I've always been just a television child, not films, not stage. Not - there's not that guard-all wall out there that keeps you kind of remote from your people. You've been in their home. They haven't gone to some place in a big audience to see you. So you feel like you're a friend of somebody under those circumstances. The only change is that with the popularity of Mary and then the popularity of "The Golden Girls," the numbers of the people who stop you increase. But the relationship is, really, the same.

GROSS: Why haven't you done films? Was that intentional?

WHITE: That was by choice. I've done a couple cameo appearances. But that doesn't appeal to me. Television, you're working all the time. I mean, you're - you get into it. You're busy. With films, many times, you have to go on location. You're away from home. You're not in every scene. So you do a scene. And then you sit and wait forever. And when you've been used to television, that's a grueling experience. And I don't feel any ego need to be on the big screen because I reach a lot of people on the little screen. I've turned down several Broadway shows because, again, I love my home. And I want to live in it.

BIANCULLI: Betty White speaking with Terry Gross in 1987. She died December 31, a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday. On Monday's show, actor Kal Penn, who is known for his roles in the "Harold & Kumar" films and the TV series "House" and "Designated Survivor." He also served in the Obama administration. And he's written a new memoir. His parents immigrated from India. His grandparents marched with Gandhi in the Indian Independence Movement. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "BELLE FEMME DE VOODOO")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "BELLE FEMME DE VOODOO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.