Betty White, Actress/Comedian, Lifetime Achievement Award
Betty White's HOF Speech
Years before creating Desperate Housewives, Marc Cherry was a young Hollywood scribe, and he recalls a day when he was cutting up with then-writing partner Jamie Wooten at the craft-services table on the set of The Golden Girls. By Cherry's recollection, he zinged Wooten pretty good with a put-down; in mock-angry response, Wooten tossed a piece of bologna at Cherry...who moved out of the way. And in a moment of pure slapstick, the offending slice of meat sailed through the air and landed smack in the face of the person behind Cherry: Emmy-winning series star Betty White.
Cherry froze; writing for Golden Girls was the pair's second job in the business and he suddenly envisioned it being their last. But Betty White-as only Betty White can-peeled the meat off her face, waited a beat and said, "Don't you know I'm a star? I'm a goddamn star!" Then she shook it at them and laughed.
"She was doing shtick," Cherry says now. "And that's Betty: She's in for the joke. And she's one of those people in show business who really is that nice."
Betty White has been in for the joke, and the laughs, for better than 60 years, and the laughter's grown louder and more appreciative over time. Her recipe for success- remarkable comic timing, an uncanny sense of character and a humbling respect for craft, all mixed with transparent joy in every single thing she does-always leads to something delightful...and often a bit saucy. When asked to assess the incredible rise in demand to match her prodigious talent, White can only think of her gratitude.
"Let's say that I'm the luckiest old broad on two feet," she says. "It's wonderful I'm still being dealt in."
White has owned signature roles on some of the industry's most beloved series, from her Betty White Show (which began on radio in the 1940s before it hit TV) to The Mary Tyler Moore Show to The Golden Girls. Her rÃ©sumÃ© plays like a survey of TV history: variety and game shows (she's the first woman to win an Outstanding Game Show Host Emmy), sitcoms and dramas, sketch comedy with Johnny Carson and Macy's Thanksgiving Day parades. At a life stage when folks tend to plan their days around the early-bird special, White is TV's great night owl, a perennially welcome guest on all the late-night talk shows. You don't often see the words "senior" and "cred" used together, but a spontaneously launched Facebook campaign led to White hosting Saturday Night Live last year-another of her many Emmy-winning performances. And she's just getting warmed up. In January-when she turns 90-the Hot in Cleveland SAG Award winner is set to host a new reality show, Betty White's Off Their Rockers.
"You can't actually believe the statistic of her age because she is so incredibly present and her spirit is so young," says Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of SNL. "I'd have her every week if I could."
When White got started in TV in 1949-literally, the year the Los Angeles arm of the business began-it was about working pretty much every day, honing her skills on Al Jarvis' famed Hollywood on Television, which was on for five-plus hours, six days a week.
"When you're on that much, you're on camera practically more than anyplace else, and that camera becomes your friend," White says. "What I love about television is you're never talking to more than three people at a time. It's really an intimate conversation."
She'd developed that warm sensibility at home, as the only child of parents who moved from Oak Park, Ill., to Los Angeles when White was 2. ("I don't think California was a state yet; it was still a territory with Indians," she jokes.) Her upbringing was, in her own words, "heaven," and her parents "had the most delightful sense of humor. We would kid each other, always coming back with a silly answer, using puns, and that was such fun, and you get into that habit and that's the way you are."
White also inherited a Midwestern work ethic she shared with her good friend Carson, and in the 1950s, she and legendary producer Don Fedderson formed a production company, making White one of the few female success stories of that era, both behind and in front of the camera.
"At the time, there wasn't a women's movement," White recalls. "Whomever was doing the work, that's the title they had. Then, the women's movement came along, and people said, a woman producer-back then?"
Her TV ubiquity continued into the 1960s, especially on game shows, and it was while guesting on Password that she won her life's great prize: the love of its host, Allen Ludden, who became her third husband. He passed away in 1981 and White still carries a torch.
"I can't even describe it. How lucky could I be?" she says of their time together. "I had made two mistakes, and by the time we got together, you don't realize what it means when you find the right one. I love [my co-stars on] Hot in Cleveland and they keep asking me about Allen and I say why, and they say because we love the look on your face when you talk about him."
Her good fortunes-and gratitude-continued into the 1970s when, during season four of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a one-episode shot to play always-on-the-make "Happy Homemaker" Sue Ann Nivens struck comic gold.
"They wanted somebody who was an icky-sweet Betty White type," she recalls. Because White and Moore were best friends, nobody wanted to chance that it wouldn't work out. But they used White anyway, and work out it did. "The big thrill was that after the episode, [series creator] Jim Brooks said, â€˜Don't make too many plans.'"
On that show and while playing sweetly naive Rose Nylund on Golden Girls in the 1980s, White established a boundless comic range. And Sue Ann's talent for innuendo ("I was lying in bed last night and I couldn't sleep, and I came up with an idea. So I went right home and wrote it down," was one of the character's many comic gems) has continued to give White legs as a twinkle-eyed late-night quip master. (Need a good laugh? Put "Betty White vodka Letterman" into YouTube; trust us.)
But it took her being slammed hard to the ground on a hilarious Snickers Super Bowl ad to foster the latest renaissance in White's career. "The muddy water was very cold, but it was great fun," she says. "And it really made a difference; you don't expect all this at this late date."
Given her appearances and series, her books, films (The Proposal) and well-known advocacy for animal health and welfare, White shows no signs of slowing. And no one wants her to: In an August Ipsos poll, she was chosen as America's favorite and most trusted personality. "Her schedule would wear me out," says John Schaffner, ATAS CEO, who was an early set designer on Golden Girls. "But she finds so much joy in the doing of the work and you can't help but be attracted to that."
White, meanwhile, can only shrug in amazement at her career. "That's the problem-you can't get rid of me," she deadpans. We're gonna hold her to that. --Rob Edelstein