Betty White, whose television career spanned more than 80 years, died Dec. 31, 2021. She was 99.
Her death was confirmed by Jeff Witjas, her longtime agent and friend.
“I truly never thought she was going to pass away," Witjas told The Associated Press. “She meant the world to me as a friend. She was the most positive person I've ever known.”
Witjas said White had been staying close to her Los Angeles home during the pandemic out of caution but had no diagnosed illness.
White, who continued to act late into her life, would have turned 100 on Jan. 17.
Considered to be a trailblazer of the small screen, White’s career was longer than any other female entertainer, having worked in the industry since 1939.
Known for her iconic sitcom roles on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Golden Girls," White is considered to be the first woman to create a television sitcom and also was a staple of many popular game shows of the 1960s, all of which helped give her the title of "first lady of television."
Throughout her career, White’s work earned her eight Emmy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, three American Comedy Awards and one Grammy Award.
She was the first woman to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Game Show Host for "Just Men!" in 1983.
White was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1995 and named a Disney Legend in 2009.
In an interview with journalist Katie Couric to celebrate the actress' 95th birthday, White said she considered herself the "luckiest old broad on TV."
Off-screen, White was known for her love of animals, working with several organizations over the years whose efforts focused on animal rights and welfare.
White married three times — her first marriage lasted less than one year.
Two years later, in 1947, she married Hollywood agent Lane Allen.
It was her third marriage — to television personality and game show host Allen Ludden in 1963 – that White said she cherished the most.
"I've been married three times and I probably still would've been married three times even if I knew what I know now,” she told Couric. "Then, all of a sudden, you find the right one and it makes everything fall into place."
She met Ludden during her time on the wildly popular "Password" game show.
Ludden proposed twice before White accepted. The two married in 1963.
The couple had no children together, but she became the stepmother to his three children.
Ludden — "The love of my life," White said of him — died in 1981 of stomach cancer.
In a 2014 interview with longtime television host Larry King, White said she never considered remarrying after Ludden died.
"Once you've had the best, who needs the rest?" she told King. "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."
One of White’s secrets to life was to never look back: "One day at a time. You don't look ahead and you try not to look back, but of course, you can’t help that."
Betty White's Beginnings
Born Betty Marion White on Jan. 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, she was the only child of Christine Tess and Horace Logan White.
Less than two years after she was born, White's family moved from Illinois to Alhambra, California, due to her father’s job transfer. The family eventually moved to Los Angeles.
During the Great Depression, White said her father built radios on the side. Unable to sell radios in a depressed economy, he traded them for dogs.
"Now, the radios didn't eat, but the dogs did — which was not the best business thing in the world," White said in a 1997 interview with the Television Academy.
As a child, White's dream was to become a forest ranger, but that was short-lived as women were not permitted to be rangers at the time. In 2010, the U.S. Forest Service named White an honorary forest ranger.
Realizing that she could not become a forest ranger, White turned her career aspirations to writing. That is, "until I wrote myself into the lead in our graduation play at Horace Mann Grammar School. It was then that I contracted showbiz fever, for which there is no known cure," she wrote in her book, "Here We Go Again: My Life in Television," published in 1995.
Just three months after her 1939 graduation from Beverly Hills High School, White landed her first television gig on an experimental television show that broadcast White and others performing the "Merry Widow Waltz" from a sixth-floor makeshift studio to the building’s first floor.
White paused her acting career when World War II began and volunteered for the American Women's Voluntary Services.
After the war, she resumed looking for acting work, but was denied multiple times because she was considered "unphotogenic."
White pursued radio jobs, which was a popular medium of the time. She landed roles reading commercials and short lines, and even landed some game shows. On some shows, she performed for no money.
White landed a big break when popular disc jockey Al Jarvis asked her to be part of his "Hollywood on Television" talk show.
The pair would ad-lib for 5 ½ hours a day for six days a week.
In the early 1950s, White co-founded Bandy Productions, which led to her first national show, "Life with Elizabeth."
With that show, White became one of the few women to have complete creative control of a program at the time. She also won a regional Emmy — her first of six Emmy wins spanning her career.
A 1954 variety show — "The Betty White Show" — ran on NBC, but faced criticism from television stations in the South for having Arthur Duncan, a Black cast member, as a regular performer.
White’s response was simple: "I'm sorry. Live with it."
She then gave Duncan more air time as a result. Duncan, who was the first Black regular cast member of a television variety show, has credited White with launching his career.
In the mid-1950s, White began a nearly two-decade stint as co-host of the Rose Parade on NBC.
After a few short-lived shows on ABC, including a brief resurrection of her self-named variety show, White starred in her first live theater production — "Third Best Sport" — in 1959 at the then-Legion Star Playhouse in Ephrata, Pennsylvania.
In a signed photo of White that hangs in what’s now the Ephrata Performing Arts Center, White wrote, "To my Ephrata friends: You were my first time 'on stage,' and aren't we both thrilled to see how we can grow? So many congratulations, Love, Betty White."
'First Lady of Game Shows'
Out of work in the early 1960s, White set her sights on television game shows.
From 1961 to 1975, White appeared as a celebrity guest on "Password," where she met her eventual husband, Ludden.
It was not the only game show White appeared on. Along with updated editions of "Password," White also appeared on "What’s My Line," "To Tell the Truth," "I’ve Got a Secret," "Match Game" and "Pyramid."
Her lengthy list of game show appearances dubbed her the "first lady of game shows."
In 1983, White hosted the short-lived "Just Men!" game show on NBC. Despite its 13-week daytime run, White became the first woman to earn the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Game Show Host.
Her love of game shows, perhaps, grew as a child playing games with her parents.
"Mom and Dad and I had always played games since as far back as I can remember," White wrote. "Some we made up as we went along — at the table, in the car, wherever — so playing on TV was a bonus. Where else can you spend a couple of hours playing games with nice people and get paid for it?" she wrote in her book.
Turning Down 'Today'
In the mid-1960s, White turned down a co-host role on NBC's "Today" show.
She called the opportunity "terribly interesting and a great idea," but White, who favored living on the West Coast, was not keen on moving her life to the East Coast despite the network offering a chance to get home to California on weekends.
"That’s not a bad idea," White recalled thinking at first. But White said the eight-hour flight between New York City and Los Angeles was not appealing.
"I thought, 'That's not going to be terribly practical," White recalled thinking in a Television Academy interview.
White said her agent at the time called her "nuts" for passing over on the popular morning show.
"Poor NBC was stuck with a gal named Barbara Walters, and, you know, they somehow managed to muddle through it," White joked.
'The Happiest I've Ever Been on Television'
White continued to set her sights on other television programming, and, in 1971, blended her love of animals and television with "The Pet Set."
The show centered around White interviewing celebrities and their pets.
Though the show lasted 39 weeks, it featured many high-profile guests, including Mary Tyler Moore, Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, as well as animal experts and, of course, a variety of wild animals.
White considered the show to be "the happiest I’ve ever been on television."
The program highlighted White's love for animals, which began at an early age.
"Animals have been such a big part of my life — all my life. My folks were probably worse animal nuts than I, if possible," White said in a Television Academy interview.
White served as a trustee of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association for decades, and, in 2011, published a scrapbook noting her favorite animals and animal-related stories, titled "Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo."
"There isn’t an animal on the planet that I don’t find fascinating and want to learn more about," White said in a 2012 interview with Smithsonian magazine.
In that interview, she discussed turning down a movie role because the script called for dropping “an adorable puppy” in an apartment building laundry chute.
"I said as long as that scene was in the film, I wouldn’t do it," she said.
In addition to a love for animals, White amassed a large collection of stuffed animals, which Couric noted in her interview.
"I'm a little strange for stuffed animals," White told Couric. "I'm a little strange for all animals — except, possibly, the two-legged kind."
'Icky Sweet Betty White Type'
In 1975, White picked up a role that would again launch her career to new heights — that of "man-crazy" Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" on CBS. While the role was not specifically for White — at least initially, producers had set out for an "icky sweet Betty White type."
"Well, I guess they couldn't find anybody sickeningly sweet enough, so they finally called me," White said in a 2011 interview with NPR.
Fans of the show, of course, know that Nivens was anything but "sickeningly sweet," with White describing the character as "evil." The role landed White her second and third Emmy wins — back-to-back wins for outstanding supporting actress.
It was during Moore's show that NBC ended White's run as co-host of the Rose Parade. She soon after began a decade's run hosting the "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade" on CBS.
When "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" ended, CBS offered White her own sitcom, which would become the fourth show in her career named "The Betty White Show." It lasted for one season.
The 'Golden' Years
In the early 1980s, White landed another situational comedy, playing Ellen Harper Jackson in "Mama’s Family," alongside Vicki Lawrence, Carol Burnett and eventual "Golden Girls" co-star Rue McClanahan.
White brought the character to "Mama's Family" from an ongoing sketch on "The Carol Burnett Show" called "The Family."
The series with White lasted two seasons on NBC, though it found a resurgence in a revived version without White as she had already landed her next big role — the ditzy, overly nice Rose Nylund on "The Golden Girls."
The groundbreaking show saw four, widowed older women — Dorothy Zbornak (Beatrice Arthur), Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty), Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan) and Rose Nylund (White) — living together. The show was progressive for its time, discussing LGBTQ rights, suicide, HIV/AIDS, immigration and stigmas surrounding older people.
White had initially been cast for the role of Blanche, a sex-crazed woman from the South, which was similar to her role on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Before shooting the pilot, a director suggested White and McClanahan swap roles.
"Now, Rose isn't slow-witted; she just marches to a different drum, that's all," White said in a 1987 "Today" show interview. "Rose believes anything anybody tells her and she takes each word at its surface meaning; she never looks for the overall meaning. And sometimes she backs into unfortunate situations."
The show ran for seven seasons. White reprised her role of Rose in the short-lived spinoff "The Golden Palace," as well as in episodes of "Empty Nest" and "Nurses."
After 'Golden Girls'
After the success of "The Golden Girls," White guest-starred in several sitcoms and primetime dramas.
In 1988, she made two cameo appearances on NBC's "Days of our Lives" as part of a contest for viewers to find White in episodes of the network's then-daytime lineup that also included two other soap operas, "Another World" and "Santa Barbara."
Years later, from 2006 to 2009, she appeared in more than 20 episodes of CBS's "The Bold and the Beautiful."
White also went back to her game show days, making an appearance in a 2008 rendition of "Password."
At the age of 88, White became the oldest person to host "Saturday Night Live" on May 8, 2010, for which she won a Primetime Emmy Award.
The "SNL" appearance happened after a Facebook group of more than 500,000 users urged NBC to invite White to host the show.
"When I first heard about the campaign, I didn't know what Facebook was," White said during her "SNL" monologue. "And now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time."
From 2010 to 2015, she starred in the TV Land sitcom "Hot in Cleveland," alongside Wendie Malick, Jane Leeves and Valerie Bertinelli.
In 2012, White won a spoken word recording Grammy Award for her bestseller "If You Ask Me."
In a 2014 Harper's Bazaar personal essay, White discussed fashion, eating habits and aging.
"People take a very dim view of aging not just in show business but in almost every business. They're always looking for the young people coming up, which I understand," White wrote. "But make yourself as useful as possible so that they'll find a place for you too! And don't complain—try to accentuate the positive rather than the negative. If you're complaining, you're not fun to be around, and fun is the name of the game."
Perhaps, one of her final roles was voicing Bitey White — a tiger named for her — in Disney/Pixar’s "Toy Story 4," released in 2019.
Through all of her endeavors, White, in an interview, said she lived by a simple motto: "The life you live is always more important than the job you do."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.