Betty White’s Playful Competitive Streak Was Legendary

Betty White on stage at the 70th Annual Emmy Awards in 2018
Betty White on stage at the 70th Annual Emmy Awards in 2018. (Image credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

Betty White’s death on New Year’s Eve at age 99 is being celebrated for the comedic genius she infused in characters such as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls and The Golden Palace and, more recently, Elka Ostrovsky on Hot in Cleveland (not to mention her fine dramatic turn as Catherine Piper on Boston Legal).

But then there was Betty White as her true self, in full glory as a TV game show contestant or panelist par excellence. It was in those settings that millions of Americans got a more unvarnished glimpse of Betty doing what she liked doing best since childhood — playing games.

She could discover someone’s occupation on To Tell the Truth, penetrate a disguise on Masquerade Party, reveal long-forgotten facts on Trivia Trap or pinpoint retail value on The Price Is Right. Betty White appeared on more than 50 different game shows during her career. Need an engaging guest for You Don’t Say!, Body Language or The Magnificent Marble Machine? Betty was only a phone call away.

Also: Betty White Through the Years: Photos From 'Golden Girls' to 'Hot in Cleveland'

She always came to play, participating with energy, focus, and charm. Her uncanny ability to adapt to such a wide variety of game shows demonstrated a great comfort with competition. Betty White was the Serena Williams of game shows, for sure.

Password held a very special place in her heart, since it was where Betty flirted on-air with the host, Allen Ludden, during her first appearance. That led to an enduring marriage that began in 1963 and a lifelong love affair that continued even after Ludden died in 1981.

On that show, she was equally adept at providing clues and receiving them from a fellow contestant so she could respond with the correct password. Quite impressive. Still, I remember that even Betty could slip up on occasion, and when she did, the studio audience roared with laughter as she mugged for the camera.

So when I last saw her in 2012 at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of The Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, I stopped Betty in the lobby and blurted out the word she had inadvertently revealed on Password. She smiled and winked in response, clearly letting me know that she was in on the same joke.

And that word, which probably describes Betty White’s affectionate wit that we will remember so well? Racy — of course. ■

Stuart N. Brotman

Stuart N. Brotman is the former president and CEO of The Museum of Television and Radio in New York and Los Angeles (now the Paley Center for Media). He is the author of The First Amendment Lives On.