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The two actresses met when they co-starred on The Carol Burnett Show (1967-78), where Lawrence originated the character of Thelma Harper while White played one of Thelma’s daughters, Ellen. They went on to reprise their roles in the series spinoff, Mama’s Family, in the ’80s, and would appear on several other shows together, including game shows like Super Password, and remained close.
“I was sending somebody an email the other day and notification popped up on my phone and I went, ‘No!’ This is like the period at the end of a fucking year,” Lawrence says of how she learned of White’s death.
Below, she remembers White, shares sweet stories of their friendship and reminisces about White’s marriage to the late Allen Ludden, who died in 1981.
Do you remember the first time you met Betty?
We met on the set of The Carol Burnett Show, when she was a guest on the show. I don’t remember the first meeting. But I remember how she would talk about starting out in television. I remember talking to her one time and saying, “When I was a little girl, I used to watch Al Jarvis [one of the hosts of Hollywood on Television] all the time. And she said, “That was me. And I went, ‘Oh, my God, that was my childhood, and I wasn’t aware of it.'” [White co-hosted the show with Jarvis and later Eddie Albert; after they left, she hosted it alone and is credited with being the first solo female talk show host on TV.] In the early days of television, hardly anybody had TVs, and she was already working in television. Our No. 1 television historian just left us. She was the No. 1 person who could tell you all about how it was.
What was it like working with her?
My recollections of Betty are nothing but sweet and happy and fun and raunchy and bawdy. But she was so professional in the middle of all that. I don’t remember Betty ever missing a line. It was so rare. She was so prepared. The only outtake I can remember ever was on Mama’s Family. [Her character] was having an affair with Mayor Tutweiler. We got to the taping and she said “Mayor Tit-willow.” And it got stuck in her brain, and she couldn’t get it out, and it just digressed into a laughing mess. She was the consummate professional — Carol used to call it “playing in the sandbox.” She never called it working. And Betty is the best playmate in the world. On game shows, and playing games with her, she was smart and clever. She was on it. She was so good at that stuff. If you were playing against Betty, you better bring your A-game because she was there to beat your ass.
To what do you attribute her long career?
I feel like every role Betty has done has been an incarnation of Betty, the whole way through. She was supposed to have Rue [McClanahan]’s part on Golden Girls, but she switched it up. She was always playing oversexed maniacs, but still in there was something innocent and lovely. She’s always been playing Betty for us, so we feel like we know her. Every role has been one side of Betty. She has been such a teacher to me. I always said when I was younger, “I hope I grow up to be just like Betty White,” and as I get older, I wonder, who the hell can keep up with Betty? She didn’t want to take a vacation. Until the bitter end. Obviously, she loved her work and making people laugh. She loved what she did, clearly. I posted on Instagram that I was “Sad, not sad,” because she would not want us to be crying for her. She would say, “Oh, my God. I had such a good time. Don’t cry.”
What are some stories you can share of what she was like?
On Mama’s Family, one day she was late for rehearsal. This was in the ’80s, and I don’t think we had cellphones then. Nobody could reach her. But to be an hour late was unlike her. We were worried to death. She was always on time and prepared. When she finally walked in, she said she was sorry, but she was driving down Sunset Boulevard, and there were two golden retrievers in the middle of the road. And of course, she had to stop — and stop traffic — right in the middle of Sunset Boulevard and get the dogs into her car and get them home. She had to. That’s who she was. [White was an avid animal lover and donated to various organizations that helped animals.]
When my kids were little, we got a cat and named her Sophie. When we moved down to the beach, a kid on a bike literally ran over her and broke her front legs and left her in the bushes to die. … The vet splinted its legs, and when it got in and out of its litter box, it looked like Frankenstein. After eight weeks, the vet told us that the bones were not touching, so it would be best to put the cat down. The kids were so upset their fingernails were digging into my arms. We asked if there were any other options, and the vet said we could do orthopedic surgery, but that it was incredibly expensive, and the cat had already been through a lot. We went home, had a family meeting — everyone was hysterical. Al [Schultz, Lawrence’s husband] said, “Hold it. If Betty White tells you to put the cat down, would you do it?” I said, “Yes, if Betty says yes, I can.” So Al said, “Go call Betty.” We hadn’t talked for a while, but she listened to the whole story and said, “Well, you know what I would do. I have an excellent orthopedic surgeon,” and of course that’s what Betty would do. I grabbed Al’s credit card, and thanks to Betty, that cat lived a very long life. She was just all about those animals.
When was the last time you spoke with her?
I hadn’t been able to reach her lately. I wrote her a long letter a while back but she did not answer, which was unlike her. I knew she was not well, and this was coming, but it was still sad not to hear from her. I talked to Carol yesterday, and we agreed it is so fucking hard to watch the people you love go away. She said she spoke to Betty’s assistant, who was with her when she passed, and she said the last word out of her mouth was “Allen.” That’s so lovingly sweet. I hope that is true.
It’s rare you hear about a marriage like that in Hollywood.
I remember a Christmas party of ours, shortly before Allen passed away. It was the biggest Christmas party we’ve ever thrown — with the valet parking, bartenders, caterers — in our house in the Valley. [Betty and Allen] asked us, “Where can we sit that would be quiet?” I remember Allen taking her into our bedroom because we had a little table and two chairs right in a bay window that overlooked the whole city, and they sat there and had a quiet, lovely romantic dinner in the middle of this huge party. They were a lovely couple, and they were adorable together. She drove the car he gave her for as long as I can remember. She wore the same ring he gave her as long as I’ve known her. That was her love story.
Right after Mama’s Family started, Betty invited us over for dinner. I don’t remember any other celebrities there, so it must have just been close friends. It was a lovely dinner, game night, and lots of fun, lots of laughter. Al and I were really young then, in our 30s. We were driving home, and we hadn’t been married that long. We were very quiet, and we’re just thinking about how fun it was, and Al says to me, “I’m going to tell you something, and don’t get mad at me, but I swear to God if something ever happened to you, I could date Betty White.” I was very quiet, and I said, “If something happens to you, I could date Betty White!” We were both so in love with her.
It’s nice to know that someone who appears to be such a good person really was that way in real life.
I was fortunate to work with the most spectacular ladies in the world. Betty was a very special lady. Somebody sent me a clip last night saying, “The Golden Girls had a better sex life than any of us” and it’s the funniest conglomeration of clips from that show. Al and I were watching them and laughing out loud, and thought, “This is exactly what she would want us to do.” She would want us to laugh and remember and love and enjoy and believe that she’s in heaven with Allen.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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