Betty White’s fans love giving out facts related to her age. It’s true that there are many, and they’re certainly noteworthy: she’s the oldest Emmy nominee ever, she’s the oldest winner of a competitive Grammy Award, she’s the oldest person to host Saturday Night Live and she holds the record for the longest span between Emmy nominations for performances, having received her first in 1951 and her most recent in 2014.
But there’s depth to White’s longevity. She’s not just a show host and an actress: she’s a producer, a writer, a singer and was one of the very first women to get full creative control both in front of and behind the camera back in the 1950s when such a thing was almost unheard of.
There’s more to this woman than modern day audiences are aware of, even those who are hooked on reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls. Here are six fun facts about the TV star.
She’s devoted her life to animals
White has been on the board of directors of the Los Angeles Zoo since 1974 and has helped raise millions of dollars for them. Her rapport with its residents is so well-known by the staff that she is allowed to drop by outside regular hours and mingle with the animals. She counts dogs, cats, horses, whales and gorillas among her friends, and when her old friend James L. Brooks offered her the role of Helen Hunt’s mom in the movie As Good As It Gets, she turned it down because of the scene where a dog gets tossed down a laundry chute. She just couldn’t condone it, no matter how much she liked the Oscar-nominated script.
When she met President Barack Obama at the White House in 2012, she spent half an hour with the presidential dog, Bo, on her lap. And when asked what her profession would be if show business was off the table, she didn’t hesitate: she would’ve been a zookeeper, a job unavailable to women when she was growing up. For decades, she has used her money, fame and famous friends to fundraise for multiple animal-related charities, and has been known to step in and adopt animals herself when they needed a good home. She says that one of the greatest moments in her entire life was when she was made an Honorary Forest Ranger.
She’s famous for her “firsts”
White was one of the women nominated in the first Emmy category for female performers in 1950. She was one of the first women to have full creative control of her own TV show both in front of and behind the camera, co-creating, co-producing and starring in the Life With Elizabeth when she was still living at home with her parents. Being the first woman to produce a sitcom led to her becoming the honorary mayor of Hollywood in 1955, and she was the first woman to host her own talk show. She was also the first woman to win an Emmy for game show hosting.
She’s known for being raunchy but is actually a romantic
White has been married three times. The first was to U.S. Army pilot Dick Barker in 1945, and her second marriage was to agent Lane Allen, but it was the third one that was the real thing.
In the early 60s, White was doing a lot of game shows. This was the heyday of What’s My Line, To Tell The Truth and Password. Alan Ludden was hosting Password, and when they met on set, he fell in love. She spent a year turning down his marriage proposals, but he finally succeeded one Easter, when he sent her a fluffy white bunny with diamond earrings and a note that said, ‘Please say yes.” When he called her that night, she answered the phone with one word: yes. They were married in 1963, and stayed together until his death from stomach cancer in 1981.
She has a regular poker game with a group of friends
They play dealer’s choice, and White’s favorite is called Screw Thy Neighbor, where you get a chance to keep a card or pass it to another player. The group has a brass cup engraved with the words ‘Pico Poker Club” and it gets taken home by whoever comes out ahead at the end of the night. If the winner forgets to bring it back the next time there’s a game, they owe “$2,000 or death, whichever is more appropriate.”
She was close friends with a famous author
She and Ludden were good friends with writer John Steinbeck. One of her most prized possessions is a signed copy of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which he was in the throes of writing the day they met. Another: a black chiffon skirt that she refuses to have cleaned, because Steinbeck’s famous poodle Charley, of his 1962 travelogue/memoir Travels With Charley, muddied and slimed it.
She was one of David Letterman’s first fans
White was an early fan of David Letterman. His first TV appearance in Hollywood was on a game show she co-hosted with Ludden, and the couple is often credited with “discovering” him. (He got another career boost from her friend and co-star, Mary Tyler Moore, on her variety show.) The day after White turned 89, she celebrated with him on The Late Show with David Letterman with a couple of glasses of vodka.
By Laurie Ulster