AFI Catalog Spotlight: Betty White – American Film Institute

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AFI Catalog Spotlight: Betty White

Paying tribute to Betty White, who would have celebrated her centennial birthday this month, the AFI Catalog takes a look back at her first role in a feature film, THE DARING MISS JONES (1951), and celebrates her vast career in front of and behind the camera as one of America’s most beloved and versatile performers.

Born January 17, 1922, Betty White worked as an entertainer for over ninety years with the longest television career of anyone in history, as confirmed by a Guinness World Record in 2018. White charmed audiences young and old in her familiar television roles on shows including THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE GOLDEN GIRLS and HOT IN CLEVELAND among many others and became a spokesperson for those who cannot speak for themselves as a champion of animal rights. With an extensive number of television parts and gameshow appearances in her wide-ranging filmography, Betty White never ceased to shine as a committed and inspiring performer who wasn’t afraid to counter her wholesome image with irreverent humor and comedic spark. With fans from every generation, White became an American icon who embodies the nation’s spirit of determination, compassion and eternal optimism.

Growing up in Los Angeles, White’s first foray into performing came when she was only eight years old, on a radio program broadcast in 1930. Nine years later, just after graduating from Beverly Hills High School, White made her television debut on an experimental show. She pursued her career until the U.S. entered World War II. Committed to the war effort, White joined the American Women’s Voluntary Services, driving a truck to military camps in the Hollywood Hills and attending dances for troops before they were transported overseas. When the war ended, White was initially unable to secure work at Hollywood studios, but she did find a supporting role in her first feature film, THE DARING MISS JONES, which showcased two bear cubs in the Alaskan wilderness. According to White’s autobiography, she was also asked to take on the role of “script girl,” keeping track of the film’s continuity and to be the bears’ unofficial wrangler. This proved challenging as the bears doubled in size during the shoot and became rambunctious, leaving White with animals that were suddenly too large to match their previously filmed parts and scratches that she had to be covered with make-up.

Back in Los Angeles, White found work in radio before landing a co-host position on HOLLYWOOD ON TELEVISION in 1949. The show was broadcast live Monday through Saturday from 12:30 to 6:00 p.m., giving White airtime 33 hours a week. Within several years, White was nominated for a Best Actress Emmy Award®—the first of its kind that honored women in television—and took over as the show’s primary host. In 1952, White formed her own production company to create a spinoff sitcom called LIFE WITH ELIZABETH for which she won her first Emmy®. When the show became nationally syndicated, White was one of the only women in Hollywood to retain creative control over her work as a producer as well as an entertainer, and she hired another woman, Betty Turbiville, to direct. Around the same time, White initiated THE BETTY WHITE SHOW, a daytime talk show that often featured Black tap dancer Arthur Duncan at a time in which people of color were rarely seen on television. When Southern stations objected to on-air integration and demanded that Duncan be removed from the show, White wielded her authority to insist on using him more often, and she was backed by NBC. However, the series was cancelled later that year.

During the 1950s and 1960s, White was a regular on television talk shows and game shows including PASSWORD, which introduced her to her third husband, host Allen Ludden. Always seeking new opportunities, White made several guest appearances on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW in a role that would become a regular part of the series and would win White two Emmy® Awards. When the show ended, White began a fourth rendition of THE BETTY WHITE SHOW on CBS, but it did not last more than a single season. White also performed in a variety of guest-starring roles in television films and miniseries, as well as a recurring part on MAMA’S FAMILY. In 1985, White joined the cast of THE GOLDEN GIRLS which brought her another Emmy® and cemented her legacy in American popular culture. Over the years, White continued to perform in television series, voiced animated characters and landed roles on the big screen in films such as HARD RAIN (1998), BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE (2003) and THE PROPOSAL (2009). At age 88, White became the oldest person in history to host SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and the appearance garnered her a seventh Emmy®. Most recently, White performed the voice of a toy tiger in Pixar’s TOY STORY 4 (2019).

Among her many honors, including multiple Emmys®, an induction into the Television Hall of Fame and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, White received a Humane Award from the American Veterinary Medical Association and a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. At the Los Angeles Zoo, a bronze plaque at the gorilla exhibit commemorates White’s philanthropic work, naming her “Ambassador to the Animals.” Throughout the years, White has brought laughter and joy into the homes of millions of Americans, providing a safe and comforting touchstone of boundless compassion that resonates across all generations. Remembering Betty White on what would have been her 100th birthday, AFI is honored to celebrate the unique contributions of one of our nation’s most treasured performers.

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