Betty White: An Enduring Sitcom Icon

The story goes that NBC programming wunderkind Brandon Tartikoff, on a visit to his elderly aunt, noticed how she and her best friend and neighbor bickered humorously, and interacted with love and the more-than-occasional zinger. That was one of several observations by the network’s brass that helped give birth to a 1985 sitcom about a group of older women called The Golden Girls.

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The high anticipation for the series was such that co-star Betty White, by then already one of the most lauded performers in TV history, quipped: “In all the hundred years I’ve been in this business, I’ve never seen this kind of pre-hype … At least they can’t miss the fact that we’re on. We will not go down by default.”

It did not go down at all, and White won a Best Actress Emmy for playing sweetly naïve Rose Nylund on the incredibly beloved series. In all, White has won seven Emmys. And a People’s Choice Award for “favorite TV icon.” And a Guinness World Record distinction for “Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female).” And the crown for America’s Most Appealing Celebrity from Reuters.

You’d think that at 97, White would be used to all these accolades, including, now, a Tartikoff honor. Instead, she remains humble and grateful — befitting her other seemingly acknowledged title as Nicest Performer on Earth (and Everybody’s Favorite Animal Rights Activist). As she told B&C in 2011, when she was inducted into its Hall of Fame: “I’m the luckiest old broad on two feet. It’s wonderful I’m still being dealt in.”

And no wonder: She’s been an ace forever. Her TV career began in 1949 — the same year the Los Angeles arm of the business started — and she scored two Emmy nominations in the 1950s. She hit a different gear in what was going to be a one-off guest role as always-on-the-make “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. After that one episode, series creator Jim Brooks said, “Don’t make too many plans.” Two Emmys came to her for the role in the quintessential 1970s sitcom, and The Golden Girls followed several years later. And while she remained a much-in-demand actress in the years that followed, it took the image of her being smashed into the mud and talking trash in a 2010 Snickers commercial to make everyone, including Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels, take notice again.

White would win an Emmy for hosting SNL and, as Michaels would later say of her performance, “As is her way, she completely over-delivered. She finds the way to get the laugh, quite often when there is no laugh there.” To which Michaels added, in words that sum up White’s entire career, “You just completely trust it when she’s in charge.”

Robert Edelstein

Rob has written for Broadcasting+Cable since 2006, starting with his work on the magazine’s award-winning 75th-anniversary issue. He was born a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium … so of course he’s published three books on NASCAR, most notably, Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner. He’s currently the special projects editor at TV Guide Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and his origami art has been in The Wall Street Journal. He lives with his family in New Jersey and is writing a novel about the Wild West.