Betty White, who held the Guinness World record as the female entertainer with the longest television career, has died at age 99.
“Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever,” her agent and close friend Jeff Witjas told People in a statement after TMZ first reported White’s death on Friday. “I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don’t think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again.”
White would have turned 100 on Jan. 17.
The popular actress made audiences laugh for over 60 years on television and film. She was best known for roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls. She was the last surviving cast member of the latter sitcom.
White wasn’t just a pretty face who could crack jokes, though. She was the first woman to produce a sitcom (Life With Elizabeth) and she was given lifetime achievement awards by the Screen Actors Guild, the Television Critics Association and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. She was nominated 23 times for an Emmy, winning six trophies.
And though many actresses find work harder to come by as they age, White’s career never flagged. In the past five years, she became the oldest person ever to host Saturday Night Live; she starred in TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland; hosted and produced Betty White’s Off Their Rockers; and won a Grammy award for a spoken word recording of her book, If You Ask Me.
White was born January 17, 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois, as an only child of English, Welsh, Danish, and Greek ancestry. During the Great Depression, her family moved to Los Angeles, where she attended the Horace Mann School in Beverly Hills. There, she discovered her love of performing.
After graduating from high school, White embarked on an acting career, though it was interrupted by World War II. After the war, White (who’d been considered “unphotogenic”) worked in radio until 1949, when she began appearing on Hollywood on Television with Al Jarvis. From there, she founded a production company, and created and starred in the nationally-syndicated sitcom Life With Elizabeth.
For nearly two decades, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, she hosted the Tournament of Roses parade broadcast on NBC. White also appeared in numerous game shows, notably Password. She ended up marrying Password’s host, Allen Ludden, in 1963.
But White’s career really took off when she began playing man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She won back-to-back Emmys for the role, and when Mary Tyler Moore ended, got her own sitcom, The Betty White Show. It only lasted one season, however, and White made do with appearances in TV movies and miniseries
Then, in 1985, White struck gold again, with Golden Girls. The comedy about four senior citizens living together in Florida was a huge hit. White initially was offered the role of Blanche (played by Rue McClanahan), but director Jay Sandrich suggested that the actresses switch, as White had already played one lusty character in Sue Ann. Because of that genius idea, White earned a place in America’s heart as the sweet, naive, slightly dim Rose.
After Golden Girls, White worked steadily in guest gigs on shows including Ally McBeal, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Practice. But her career experienced a major resurgence in 2009, after White starred alongside Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal.
The next year, a campaign for White to host Saturday Night Live was successful, and she became the oldest person ever to headline the show. A few months later, White booked another sitcom, Hot in Cleveland, on TV Land.
In 2011, White published the book If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t), and she received a Grammy for the audio recording. That same year, NBC created Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, in which seniors play pranks on young people. The network also televised two star-studded birthday extravaganzas for White.
Reynolds, who maintained a close friendship with White after The Proposal, was among many celebrities to pay tribute to White Friday on social media:
White passed away as the last remaining Golden Girl and working until the very end. She leaves behind three stepchildren with Allen Ludden, who passed away from stomach cancer in 1981.