Betty White, 'Golden Girls' star and comedy legend, dead at 99

·9 min read
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Betty White, in 2012, at the Betty "White Out" Tour at the Los Angeles Zoo.Brian To/Getty Images for The Lifeline Program
  • Comedic legend Betty White has died at 99 years old.

  • The "Golden Girls" star died at her home on New Year's Eve.

  • White would have turned 100 on January 17.

Actress and comedy legend Betty White has died at the age of 99.

She would have turned 100 years old on January 17.

"Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever," Jeff Witjas, White's longtime agent and friend, told People magazine of his late friend.

Witjas didn't immediately respond to Insider's request for comment. TMZ was the first to report the news on Friday.

Over a career spanning more than seven decades, White, known for roles on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Golden Girls," and "Hot in Cleveland," won eight Emmy awards and a Grammy for the spoken-word recording of her best-selling autobiography, "If You Ask Me."

Known for her sharp wit and sometimes unapologetic dirty humor, White was a firecracker and never one to mince words. Often asked what she attributed her long life to, White told Parade that, at 95, she still enjoyed vodka and hot dogs, "probably in that order."

Though known as a pioneer for women on television, White never aspired to become an actress, let alone a star, at first. The California girl, born outside of Chicago, originally wanted to be a park ranger or a zookeeper.

"Back then, girls were not allowed to become forest rangers," White told ABC News in 2010.

It wasn't until she wrote herself into the lead in a high-school graduation play that she said she was bitten by the acting bug, excited by the audience's reaction. But it wasn't easy for her to break into the business.

Paving the way for other women on television

After World War II, White got her start on a Parkay radio commercial in the 1940s. It was one word in an ad, but she hung around a producer's office until he gave her that small job, which helped her get into the union. That persistence helped White land some of her big early roles.

The margarine ad led to an appearance on the radio show "The Great Gildersleeve," which was headed up by the same producer, Fran Van Hartesveldt.

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Betty White in 1965.AP Photo

If White had not taken an unpaid gig with radio disc jockey Dick Haynes, she may have never heard from Al Jarvis, who helped her get a big break. White became his sidekick on "Hollywood on Television" in 1949, getting paid $300 to work five-and-a-half-hours a day, six days a week.

White took over hosting duties three years later when Jarvis left the show. Before launching her own series, White cofounded Bandy Productions in 1952, named after her Pekingese at the time, Bandit. The decision allowed White to control her content both onscreen and behind the scenes. At the time, she was one of the few women in Hollywood with that power.

Her subsequent series "Life With Elizabeth" (1953-1955) earned White her first Emmy. The series showcased characters from sketches that appeared on "Hollywood on Television." A variety series called "The Betty White Show" aired in 1954 on NBC. It was one of four series with the same name that White hosted throughout her life.

Beginning in 1955, White co-hosted the Rose Parade on NBC for 19 years. She then hosted the "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade" for the next decade. At the same time, White appeared on a handful of game shows including "What's My Line?," "Password," and "Pyramid." She was happy on the game shows for a bit, but her life could have taken a completely different turn.

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Betty White on "Password" in 1963 with her husband and game-show host, Allan Ludden.BuzzrPlus+

White said she once turned down an offer to be a "Today" show cohost. The actress said she didn't want to live on the East Coast. NBC wanted White so much that the network offered to give her an apartment at the St. Regis Hotel so she could fly back to California each weekend, but White said it didn't seem practical. The job went to Barbara Walters.

Instead, White wound up on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Originally, the role of Sue Ann Nivens was written for "a Betty White type." But they couldn't find anyone better. The casting folks asked White to appear on the comedy during its fourth season. Her superficial, cheery homemaker, who was secretly a judgmental minx, was quickly made a regular. White won a best supporting actress Emmy in 1976.

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Ed Asner, Betty White, Mary Tyler Moore, and Ted Knight all celebrate wins at the Emmys in 1976.TVA/PictureGroup/Invision for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences/AP Images

The only part White may be more well-known for is the "Golden Girls" role she almost didn't have. Originally, Rue McClanahan was offered the role of naive Rose Nylund. White was asked to play Blanche, but the pilot director Jay Sandrich suggested the two switch roles since they played similar ones in the past, and it was a winning combination. White won the Emmy for outstanding actress in a comedy series. She later reprised her role as Rose in the short-lived spin-off, "The Golden Palace."

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Rue McClanahan, Betty White, and Estelle Getty celebrate winning favorite new TV comedy program at The People's Choice Awards in 1986.Reed Saxon/AP

While White became a radio and TV star, she was briefly a game-show host as well. The 1983 series "Just Men!" may have been short-lived, but it made her the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy for outstanding game-show host. The show featured two contestants who had to try and predict the answers seven male celebrities would give to various questions.

The loves of her life

Over the course of her life, White was married three times. Her first two marriages, to Dick Barker and Lane Allan, were brief. Allan wanted White to focus on a traditional family life, but the actress chose her career over her second husband.

"He didn't want me to be in show business," White wrote in The Daily Beast of Allan. "When you have a calling you have to follow it, so I made the choice, blew the marriage, and I've never regretted it."

White met the love of her life, TV personality Allen Ludden, during an appearance on "Password" in 1961. She turned down multiple proposals from him for a year, feeling like a failure over her two previous marriages. One Easter, Ludden sent White a white rabbit, along with diamond and sapphire earrings and a note saying "Please say yes?" — and she accepted. The two married in 1963 and remained together until he died in 1981 of stomach cancer.

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In this photo, Betty White and Allan Ludden continue a two-year gin-rummy game in Westchester, N.Y. White was leading by 6,000 points.AP Photo/Bob Wands

White never married again. The couple never had any children, but White was a stepmother to his three children from his first marriage, David, Martha, and Sarah. In a 2011 interview with Larry King, White gave a simple response for why she never married again.

"Once you've had the best, who needs the rest?" she said. "I made two mistakes before Allen, but the love of your life doesn't come along in every life, so I am very grateful that I found him."

A life dedicated to animals

Animals were a big part of White's life from a young age, thanks to her animal-loving family. White estimated having 20 dogs at one point while growing up.

"Animals don't lie. Animals don't criticize," said White in If You Ask Me. "If animals have moody days, they handle them better than humans do."

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Betty White attends the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association's 44th Annual Beastly Ball at Los Angeles Zoo in 2014.Angela Weiss/Getty Images

White became very involved in animal charities and an advocate for animal health. She hosted the 1971 TV show "The Pet Set," in which celebrities showed off their pets. White was a member of various animal-rights organizations for decades, including Morris Animal Foundation and the Winn Feline Foundation. She was on the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association since 1974. In 2010, she was named GLAZA chairman.

A resurgence with a younger generation after going viral

Despite brief roles on "The Bold and the Beautiful" and "Boston Legal" and cameos on "Community" and "The Middle," White wasn't on the air much in the early 2000s. There was a memorable chanting scene in 2009's "The Proposal" with Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock, but it was the following year that White again became a household name and popular with a new generation.

After starring in a 2010 Snickers Super Bowl ad that went viral, White affectionately became referred to as America's Grandma and a Facebook petition started to get White to host "Saturday Night Live." It worked. At the time, the then 88-year-old became the oldest person to ever host the NBC variety series. That performance earned White her seventh Emmy, this time for outstanding guest actress in a comedy series.

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Betty White changed the way we look at muffins when she hosted "Saturday Night Live."NBC screencap

A month later, White was scheduled to appear in one episode of TV Land's "Hot in Cleveland." Producers loved her, though, and it quickly turned into a full-time role. White was part of the show for its six-season run and nominated for an Emmy for her role.

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Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick, Betty White, and Jane Leeves during a taping of "Hot in Cleveland" live in 2014.Jesse Grant/Getty Images for TV Land

White never really stopped working up until her death. She lent her voice to an episode of "SpongeBob SquarePants" and appeared on "WWE Monday Night Raw" in 2014 where she said she was "gonna kick some a--." She even gave her buddy Ryan Reynold's movie "Deadpool 2" a glowing review.

As for that dream of becoming a park ranger? White fulfilled that, too. She was named an honorary forest ranger in 2010, when she was 88. Of all her accomplishments, White said it's the one her parents would be the most delighted about.

"They would be more proud of this than of any other award I have won," said White.

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