On the last day of 2021, we lost not just a great woman, but one of the all-time greats in Betty White. Betty White was remarkable, an entertainer who reinvented herself again and again throughout her more than 80 years in entertainment–more, arguably, than almost any other actor in Hollywood’s long history, if not absolutely. Most actors are lucky if they get one career resurgence, if they’re beloved by one generation; Betty White reinvented herself countless times and had the love of so many different generations, they spanned over a century of life.
It wasn’t just audiences that loved Betty, either. It’s hard to find anyone in Hollywood who had a bad word to say about her and the reverence shown by all when she made an appearance for an awards show was palpable. Her fellow entertainers revered her for her indefatigable optimism and the fact her wit was still sharp as a butcher’s knife at age 99. Her uncontested improv skills that were a byproduct of her eclectic variety show background never flagged, even well into her 90s, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see her like again.
Luckily, the much-publicized, one-night-only event celebrating her life is soon hitting theaters. Betty White: A Celebration will be in theaters on Monday, January 17. Even just two weeks shy of her 100th birthday felt too soon to lose Betty Marion White. Still, you can’t deny that dying on the last day of the year just before starting the big publicity push for her 100th birthday documentary is impeccable comedic timing. Ever the showwoman was Betty White. To jumpstart her celebration, let’s take a look at some of the coolest things the inimitable cool Betty White did over her long life.
Volunteering During WWII
In 1941, the United States officially entered World War II. Just 19 at the time, Betty White signed up for the American Women’s Voluntary Services to help with the war effort. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, California was a major economic contributor and strategic location for the American war effort. Betty was given a uniform and assigned the job of driving a PX truck of supplies back and forth to the bivouacs, the temporary camps stationed in the Hollywood Hills. At night, her job fell more into line with the entertainer she ultimately became. Dances were regularly held for the troops before they shipped overseas and Betty helped organize and participated in those events, as well as her supply run duties. “It was a strange time and out of balance with everything,” White told Cleveland Magazine in 2010, “which I’m sure the young people are going through now.”
Breaking Barriers For Women In & On TV
Most people know Betty White for the longevity of her career. However, with a career so long, not as many people know just how trailblazing it was. Betty was the first or one of the first women to do so many things in television, breaking ground for the women who came after her. Among her many firsts were
- 1939 – Arguably the first woman to ever appear on television when she and a classmate sang songs from The Merry Widow in an experimental show in the medium of television, which was still in development at the time.
- 1951 – She was the first woman to ever be nominated for an Emmy for her work on the variety talk show Hollywood on Television.
- 1952 – One of the first women to solo host her own television show. White took over the role of sole host on Hollywood on Television when Jarvis left. She did five and a half hours of completely ad-libbed TV, all live, six days a week.
- 1952 – That same year, she became one of the first women to co-own her own TV production company, co-founding Bandy Productions with writer George Tibbles and producer Don Fedderson.
- 1952 – One of the shows Bandy created in which Betty White starred, Life with Elizabeth, became nationally syndicated in 1953. The show ticked off a lot of firsts: It made Betty White the first woman to star in a sitcom, one of the first women to have full creative control both in front of and behind the camera. It also made her the first female producer to have a nationally televised TV show.
- 1952 – With her next variety talk show, The Betty White Show, White became the first producer ever to hire a female director, Betty Turbiville.
- 1983 – Betty White became the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host, earning her the title of the First Lady of Game Shows and later the First Lady of Television.
- 1996 – Became the only woman to win an Emmy in every comedic performance category.
- 2010 – In a testament to her career longevity, Betty White became the oldest person ever to host SNL at age 88.
- 2014 – Set the record for longest period of time between first and last Emmy nominations: her first one was in 1951 and her last was in 2014.
- 2015 – Became the oldest person to ever perform on an episode of SNL, period, when she appeared in a “The Californians” sketch for the 40th anniversary special.
- 2017 – Became the oldest person to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a new member at age 95.
The Arthur Duncan Incident Cemented Who She Was
Betty White didn’t just open the door for women in television, no. She also fought just as hard to give Black men and women opportunities, as well. In 1954, The Betty White Show became the first national variety television show to feature a Black performer when Betty made African-American tap dancer Arthur Duncan a regular cast member and performer on her show.
Remember, this was only just the same year as the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education that led to the desegregation of schools. The decision may have been passed but it doesn’t mean hearts and minds were miraculously changed overnight. At the time, the Jim Crow era was still alive and kicking in the South. When NBC wanted to expand The Betty White Show, dozens of TV stations in the South threatened to boycott the show unless Duncan was removed from the broadcast. In response to their threats, Betty White famously responded, “I’m sorry. Live with it.” She then gave Arthur Duncan even more airtime, an act of defiance that was rare from anyone in the 1950s, much less a woman. A shocking decision then, it cemented Betty White’s character and today it speaks to her kindness and long history of championing the underdog.
A Friend To The Animals
Though Betty White was a long outspoken champion of racial equity and LGBTQ+ rights, it was her animal welfare advocacy that defined her life outside of entertainment. Growing up in Southern California, her lifelong interest in animals started from a young age during family trips to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. “It is so embedded in me,” she told Smithsonian magazine in 2012. “Both my mother and father were tremendous animal lovers. They imbued in me the fact that, to me, there isn’t an animal on the planet that I don’t find fascinating and want to learn more about.” In fact, Betty was so enamored with the outdoors that the initially wanted to be a forest ranger, but was barred from her first dream due to women being unable to serve as rangers at the time.
Still, her desire to work with and help animals never diminished, and she worked with half a dozen different charitable organizations devoted to animal welfare and environmentalism. Some of those organizations included the Los Angeles Zoo Commission, where she’d been a member of the board since 1974, The Morris Animal Foundation, where she served as trustee since 1971 and was made president emerita in 2009, the African Wildlife Foundation, the SPCALA, and Actors and Others for Animals. She wasn’t just a figurehead in those roles, either; White tirelessly worked to improve the conditions of animals in zoos across the country and advocated for animal welfare. In the 1960s, for example, when she saw the poor conditions of the enclosures at the then-lackluster Los Angeles Zoo, she made it her mission to join the board and make improvements, leading to state-of-the-art enclosures for the zoo’s animals. Later, she served as president emeritus at the Morris Animal Foundation, the research organization dedicated to advancing animal health. During that time, the foundation made a number of groundbreaking discoveries, including developing the feline leukemia vaccine and the Potomac horse fever vaccine.
Betty White didn’t just donate her time, but also her money. She donated millions of dollars over the years to the causes of animal welfare and environmental work. In 2010, for example, Morris created the Betty White Wildlife Rapid Response Fund with a gift from Betty following the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The fund was decidated to studying the impact of the oil spill on bottlenose dolphins and other marine life. A year earlier in 2009, she became that year’s recipient of the Jane Goodall Institute Global Leadership Award for Lifetime Achievement, and was regularly known to show up at the L.A. Zoo with a trunk full of empty toilet paper tubes, knowing the zoo used them to stuff full of food and snacks for enrichment games for the animals. In 2010, the USDA Forest Service made her an honorary forest ranger, fulfilling her lifelong dream. And in 2011, she published her book Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo, a love letter to the zoos and animal sanctuaries she’d helped and the animals in them.
“I often wonder about people who don’t have some kind of passion, something that they care so deeply about that it never fails to fascinate them. How lucky can I be to have two such passions: showbusiness, and animals,” said Betty White during her acceptance speech for the 2010 SAG Lifetime Achievement award. In truth, it was the world that was lucky to have her.
Betty White: A Celebration is in theaters on January 17th.