Betty White shaped the rise of television. It’s a legacy that lives on today

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The television is Betty White and Betty White is the television.

Known for decades as a brave and funny TV star, White’s rise to a medium that did not exist at the time of her birth parallels the role the small screen would eventually have in the world.

Guinness World Record holder for longest television career for an artist (female), White, who died late last month shortly before turning 100, dominated television in a way that showed the impact it could have, while also exhibiting its own dynamic range.


Betty White was on track to make her mark in 1954 when this photo was taken.CNB

“You can almost say that she and television matured together at the same time,” said President and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Frank Scherma TODAY before his death. “And this medium was so new, the television medium was so new, she was able to do a lot of different things, a little of everything. She was just a natural performer. She was just great at it.

“I think when you watch it, and you watch TV, you realize that they’ve grown up together and the history of TV has been very close to growing in our business, which I think , is extraordinary, ”he added.

Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Bea Arthur in a scene from “The Golden Girls”.CNB

In 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind” appeared on movie screens, but the year marked the beginning of White’s foray into television, when she appeared in an experimental TV show in Los Angeles, the start of a journey that would continue to touch so many forms of entertainment on the small screen.

“As a TV performer she was in every genre you can imagine, and she won it over and she was fabulous there,” Scherma said. “She was in talks, variety, sitcoms, soap operas, game shows. It made drama, it was late at night.

It was this versatility that proved to be essential for her and for television, especially in its early days.

White, right, in one of his early television efforts, “Life With Elizabeth.”Alamy

“When people started watching TV I think they were going to have a box in their room, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, that’s another passing fad,'” said Scherma.

“I don’t think it’s been given the gravity, and actually the ability to change the perceptions and thoughts of people and things about it. So I think the fact that there weren’t any rules back then, the fact that you could experiment with things and stuff like that, I think that was fabulous, not just for TV, but I think that was also a big part of who she became. Because she wasn’t in front of her mirror, testing different things. She was actually testing them with the audience and testing them with people watching. I think that combination of that early TV time was a big part of her success, and I think she helped TV succeed.


Betty White has a long history with game shows, most notably with Allen Ludden, right, on “Password.” She and Ludden married in 1963 and remained husband and wife until his death in 1981.CBS via Getty Images

White and television didn’t necessarily have to reinvent themselves, as much as they had to try new things. She cut her teeth by appearing for four years with Los Angeles disc jockey Al Jarvis on his TV show, five and a half hours a day, six days a week.

“It was like going to college for television,” she said of her time on the show. This experience may have set the stage for the versatility that would have served him so well for decades.

She hosted variety shows, performed on a booming new format known as game shows, hosted parades and, of course, cemented her legacy with two very different characters, Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore. Show “and Rose Nylund on” The Golden Girls. ” Both shows are important to the history of television.

Betty White, center, was part of a star cast on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”.CBS via Getty Images

It would be easy to make the general statement that White is a legend. It is true, of course, but it is Why this makes her unique in television history because, while it may not be obvious, White was also an innovator in feminism, her work on “The Mary Tyler Moore” echoing who she was. .

“There were things that happened on ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ about Mary becoming a single woman working in a man’s world,” Scherma noted. “It was completely Betty White at the start of the day, and even until recently.”

She produced her 1950s sitcom “Life With Elizabeth” at a time when it was not common for a woman to do so.


Having long established himself as a trustworthy and trustworthy television star, White brought his acting skills to “Hot in Cleveland,” alongside Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves, from 2010 to 2015.Everett Collection

“It was so much before the women’s movement that I don’t think we even thought about it,” White said in the 2018 documentary “Betty White: First Lady of Television”. “I never even thought it was a different sex. You did any job and any job you could get.

Television as a reflection or engine of societal change is something we can take for granted today, but White provided an early example. She took a stand when she chose black dancer Arthur Duncan in her 1950s series “The Betty White Show”. The movement met a lot of resistance, but White did not budge.

“In 1954, #BettyWhite was criticized after having Arthur Duncan, a black tap dancer, on her show,” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center tweeted after his death. “His response: ‘I’m sorry. To live with.’ She then gave Duncan even more airtime. The show was canceled shortly after. Rest well, Betty.


A versatile performer, White teamed up with Lorne Graham to host Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1968.CNB

The late Carl Reiner, another comedy titan, had also recognized White’s impact.

“She’s one of the pioneers,” he said on “Betty White: First Lady of Television”. “A lot of us are here because she was there at the start. She set the standard. She paved the way for many people.

White also shattered a glass ceiling when, in 1983, she became the first woman to win an Emmy for hosting a game show, for “Just Men!” White has appeared on dozens of game shows over the years as a famous panelist, helping to popularize this form of escape entertainment that has morphed, much like White did.

White hosted the game show “Just Men!” She made history by becoming the first woman to win an Emmy for hosting a game show.Everett Collection

“I think somebody who was, you know, seen as an actor, doing these game shows, I think that automatically made them more relevant,” Scherma said. “But also what it did was these people that were there, they had to be fast, they had to be smart, they had to be very smart.”

“I think she gave this new medium relevance by appearing in it. And people like her, so people wanted to see it, people wanted to watch it. And then people liked the show.

Her relationship with game shows continued into the 2010s with “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers,” which earned her a trio of Emmy nominations. She did not stay away from sitcoms, however, after “The Golden Girls”, the arrival of a memorable guest on “The John Laroquette Show”, “Suddenly Susan” and “Yes Dear” before playing. in “Hot in Cleveland”.


Betty White, seen here with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” in 1986, has always been a delight on the late night circuit.CNB

His work on comedies can stand out for a lot and for good reason. While “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” portrays a new modern woman, “The Golden Girls” portrays the elderly in a way that has proven to be so successful that the series continues to be strong in syndication and streaming.

The power of television also extends beyond the shows we watch and White would prove it in a memorable 2010 Snickers commercial as well.

Is it a coincidence, then, that that same year White enjoyed a celebrated moment on repeat? After starting out in live television, she would earn accolades – and an Emmy Award – when hosting “Saturday Night Live,” thanks to a fan campaign pleading to include her on the show.


Betty White triumphantly hosted “Saturday Night Live” in 2010, after fans campaigned to include her on the show.CNB

Her episode “SNL” is still in discussion today and really focuses on the idea of ​​what makes a TV star, crystallizing the idea that White and TV grew up together when you consider the fact that this phrase did not necessarily exist when White broke into television.

“I think seeing her on ‘Saturday Night Live’ was just beautiful for someone with the longevity that she’s had, that she still has that stamina with such a young audience, that she still is relevant to a. older generation and younger generation, I think, just to get back to that star power, “Scherma said.” That’s a lot of what gives you that star power. She’s so relevant to so many generations. different.

And the same can be said for television.



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