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In 1951, a newspaper hailed Betty White as “TV’s Busiest Gal” in a headline that merits recycling.
Consider her latest itinerary: The actress flew from Los Angeles to Washington to attend the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner Saturday, traveled to New York to host this weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” and will return home to tape the new sitcom “Hot in Cleveland” starting Monday.
Her age — she turned 88 in January — seems as irrelevant to her as it does to the fans and colleagues she continues to beguile, although White modestly downplays her appeal.
“I’ve been around so long — everyone grew up with me. I’m sort of a fixture. I’m not somebody they have to get to know; it’s just old Betty,” she says, interviewed at her home before heading to the East Coast.
It takes all of a moment to be charmed by White. When a visitor says it’s a pleasure to meet her, White’s reply comes with precision timing.
“We’ll soon fix that,” she warns, her bright blue eyes and dimpled smile an impish counterpoint.
What’s not to love?
“You can tell that Betty has always had a giggle in her heart,” says Wendie Malick, a star of TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland,” which debuts June 16 with White as a sassy housekeeper. “You can just tell she’s approached her life with gratitude and joy.”
“She’s so incredibly charming and, no matter what, she just shows up and you like her,” says “SNL” star Bill Hader. “There’s something very kind of amiable and charming, which can afford her to be very edgy in a way.”
White relishes pushing the limits, whether playing the lustful Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or an uber-cougar in a “SNL” promo, in which she denies preying on young men — while a stud obediently dusts furniture in the background.
In lesser hands, the scene would be nothing more than hackneyed mockery of an oldster who is the object of ridicule for daring to be sexual. But White’s adroit bravado goes beyond sex; this woman knows how to live.
Her appearance on the NBC comedy show resulted from a campaign on Facebook that drew more than a half-million pleas for her to get the gig. That followed her killer Super Bowl ad with Abe Vigoda for Snickers, which followed her lively appearance with Sandra Bullock at the Screen Actors Guild awards at which White received a lifetime achievement honor.
It’s obvious White just can’t stop and smell the residuals.
She teasingly refers to herself as a “round-heeled woman” after giving in to entreaties to appear in nine episodes of “Hot in Cleveland” after she intended to make only the pilot.
She also is guest-starring on the May 19 finale of ABC’s “The Middle” as a mad librarian and is a welcome visitor on late-night TV shows, especially that of CBS’ Craig Ferguson. (“We don’t dare make eye contact. The minute we make eye contact, we’re gone,” she says, happily.)
“I’ll retire when they stop asking me,” White says. “I love what I do. I’m grateful for what I do.”
Acting wasn’t the dream of the Illinois native who grew up in Los Angeles. White aspired to sing opera, changing course only when she realized her voice, while good, wasn’t up to the task.
Instead, she became a TV pioneer in 1949 as co-host of a Los Angeles talk show, learning on the job. In 1953, White wielded power both in front of and behind the camera as producer and star of the comedy “Life With Elizabeth,” which brought the first of four prime-time Emmy Awards, including trophies for her naive Rose in “The Golden Girls” and for “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann.
“We never thought of gender in those days. If the job was to be done, you did it, whether you were female or male,” White said.
Her wit — the product, she says, of growing up an only child with two fun-loving parents — was frequently put to use on game shows including “To Tell the Truth” and “Password.” She can pull off gravitas when it’s needed, as a doomed woman in the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” or a U.S senator in the 1962 film “Advise and Consent.”
White conspired in mischief even around the film’s famously tough director, Otto Preminger. She recalled cast mate Lew Ayres slyly passing her notes with sketches of a baldheaded man — obviously Preminger — being subjected to hanging, stabbing and other cruel fates.
“I do love to laugh. It sure beats the alternative,” she said. She prefers like-minded co-workers and abhors whiners, especially those who start conversations with, “You know what I hate?”
Her reaction, thought if not uttered: “No, I really don’t know what you hate, and I really don’t care,” she says, giggling, then adds, “You concentrate on those things and you miss a lot of the good stuff that goes by.”
For her, animals are foremost among life’s best things.
“I have to stay in show business to pay for my animal business,” White says, making clear she’s a supporter of “animal health and welfare, not animal rights or the political end of it.”
She’s active with groups including the Morris Animal Foundation, which has taken the lead on issues including protection of mountain gorillas in Uganda and development of the feline leukemia vaccine. Among her friends is Jane Goodall, who recently gave White an achievement award that carries the famed primate expert’s name.
White’s house, a modest one in a posh section of Los Angeles, includes evidence of her animal adoration in the form of Pontiac, a friendly golden retriever who is a former guide dog. Books by Goodall sit on the coffee table, along with an award inscribed for “Password” host Allen Ludden, White’s late husband.
She didn’t remarry after his 1981 death from cancer; he was her great romance after two short-lived marriages. White’s parents, who she said were in love their entire lives, taught her that “in love is a big difference from loving somebody.”
And there’s another key bit of White wisdom about life, this a gift from her mother, Tess.
“She said, ‘Don’t look back and think that was so great. Realize it at the time.’ And it’s true.”
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