Betty Marion White was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on January 17, 1922. She has stated that Betty is her legal name and not a shortened version of Elizabeth. She is the only child of Christine Tess (née Cachikis; July 25, 1899 – November 11, 1985), a homemaker, and Horace Logan White (May 30, 1899 – November 16, 1963), a lighting company executive. Her paternal grandfather was Danish and her maternal grandfather was Greek, with her other roots being English and Welsh (both of her grandmothers were Canadian). White's family moved to Alhambra, California and later to Los Angeles, during the Great Depression. To make extra money, her father would build radios and sell them wherever he could. Since it was the height of the Depression, and hardly anyone had a sizable income, he would trade the radios in exchange for dogs.
She attended Horace Mann School Beverly Hills and Beverly Hills High School and aspired to become a forest ranger. However, during this time women were not allowed to become rangers. Instead, White pursued an interest in writing. She wrote and played the lead in a graduation play at Horace Mann School and discovered her interest in performing. This is where she decided to become an actress.
White made rounds to movie studios looking for work, but was always turned down because she was "unphotogenic". So then she started to look for radio jobs where being photogenic did not matter. Her first radio jobs included reading commercials and playing bit parts, and sometimes even doing crowd noises. She made about five dollars a show. She would do just about anything, like singing on a show for no money, or making an appearance on the local game show.
White began her television career in 1939, three months after high school graduation, when she and a classmate sang songs from The Merry Widow on an experimental Los Angeles channel. White found work modeling, and her first professional acting job was at the Bliss Hayden Little Theatre. White's career was disrupted immediately, as World War II broke out, causing her to join the American Women's Voluntary Services.
In the 1940s, she worked in radio, appearing on shows such as Blondie, The Great Gildersleeve, and This is Your FBI. She then got her own radio show, called The Betty White Show. In 1949, she began appearing as co-host with Al Jarvis on his daily live television variety show Hollywood on Television, originally called Al Jarvis' Make-Believe Ballroom on KFWB radio and on KLAC-TV in Los Angeles.
White began hosting the show by herself in 1952 after Jarvis' departure, spanning five and a half hours of live ad-lib television six days per week over a contiguous four-year span altogether. In all of her various variety series over the years, White would sing at least a couple of songs during each broadcast. In 1951, she was nominated for her first Emmy Award as "Best Actress" on television, competing with such legendary stars as Judith Anderson, Helen Hayes, and Imogene Coca (the award went to Gertrude Berg). This was the very first award and category in the new Emmy history designated for women on television.
In 1952, the same year that she began hosting Hollywood on Television, White co-founded Bandy Productions with writer George Tibbles and Don Fedderson, a producer. The trio worked to create new shows using existing characters from sketches shown on Hollywood on Television. White, Fedderson, and Tibbles created the television comedy Life with Elizabeth, with White portraying the title role. The show was originally a live production on KLAC-TV in 1951, and won White a Regional Los Angeles Emmy in 1952.
Life with Elizabeth was nationally syndicated from 1952 to 1955, allowing White to become one of the few women in television with full creative control in front of and behind the camera. The show was unusual for a sitcom in the 1950s because it was co-produced and owned by a twenty-eight-year-old woman who still lived with her parents. White said they didn't worry about relevance in those days, and that usually the incidents were based on real life situations that happened to her, the actor who played Alvin, and the writer.
In 1954, she briefly hosted and produced her own daily talk show, The Betty White Show, on NBC (not to be confused with her 1970s sitcom of the same name). Following Life with Elizabeth, she appeared as Vicki Angel on the sitcom Date with the Angels from 1957 to 1958. The show later became another variety series before going off the air. White performed in commercials seen on live television in Los Angeles, including a rendition of the "Dr. Ross Dog Food" advertisement at KTLA during the 1950s.
She made her feature film debut as Kansas Senator Elizabeth Ames Adams in the 1962 drama, Advise & Consent. Although her performance was well received, it would be her only big-screen appearance for decades.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, White began a nineteen-year run as hostess and commentator on the annual Tournament of Roses Parade broadcast on NBC (often co-hosting with Lorne Greene), and appeared on a number of late night talk shows and daytime game shows. White made many appearances on the hit game show Password as a celebrity guest from 1961 through 1975. She married the show's host, Allen Ludden, in 1963. She subsequently appeared on the show's three updated versions Password Plus, Super Password, and Million Dollar Password, having been on versions of the game with five different hosts (Allen Ludden, Bill Cullen, Tom Kennedy, Bert Convy, and Regis Philbin). White made frequent game show appearances on What's My Line? (starting in 1955), To Tell the Truth (in 1961, 1990, and 2015), I've Got a Secret (in 1972–73), Match Game (1973–1982), and Pyramid (starting in 1982). Both Password and Pyramid were created by White's friend, Bob Stewart.
In 1973, White made several guest appearances in the fourth season of the CBS sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. As a result of this appearance, she landed the regular role of the sardonic, man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens, "The Happy Homemaker", on the show. White would receive her second and third Emmys from her part on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. White considers her part as Sue Ann in the show one of the highlights of her professional career, but she describes her television image as "icky sweet." She felt that she was the very definition of feminine passivity, owing to the fact that White always seemed willing to satirize her own unique persona on screen in just such a way.
A running gag was that Sue Ann's hard-edged private personality was the complete opposite of how she presented herself on her show. "We need somebody who can play sickeningly sweet, like Betty White," Moore herself suggested at a production meeting, which resulted in casting White herself. White won two Emmy Awards back-to-back for her role in the hugely popular series.
In 1975, NBC replaced her as hostess and commentator on the Tournament of Roses Parade broadcast feeling she was too identified with rival network CBS due to her new found success on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. White admitted to People magazine it was difficult "watching someone else do my parade", although she soon would start a ten-year run as hostess of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for CBS.
Following the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1977, White got her own sitcom on CBS, her second series entitled The Betty White Show (the first having been broadcast a quarter century earlier), during the 1977–78 season, in which she co-starred with John Hillerman and former Mary Tyler Moore co-star Georgia Engel. It was canceled after one season.
White appeared several times on The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson appearing in many sketches, and began guest-starring in a number of television movies and television miniseries, including With This Ring, The Best Place to Be, Before and After, and The Gossip Columnist.
In 1983, she became the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Game Show Host, for the NBC entry Just Men!. Due to the amount of work she has done on them, she has been deemed the "First Lady of Game Shows".
From 1983 through 1985, she had a recurring role playing Ellen Harper Jackson on the series Mama's Family, along with future Golden Girls co-star Rue McClanahan. White had originated this character in a series of sketches on The Carol Burnett Show in the 1970s. When Mama's Family was picked up in syndication after being canceled by NBC in 1985, White left the show (with the exception of one final appearance in the show's syndicated version in 1986).
In 1985, White scored her second signature role and the biggest hit of her career as the St. Olaf, Minnesota-native Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. The series chronicled the lives of four widowed or divorced women in their "golden years" who shared a home in Miami. The Golden Girls, which also starred Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan, was immensely successful and ran from 1985 through 1992. White won one Emmy Award, for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series, for the first season of The Golden Girls and was nominated in that category every year of the show's run (the only cast member to receive that distinction – Getty was also nominated every year, but in the supporting actress category).
White was originally offered the role of Blanche in The Golden Girls, and Rue McClanahan was offered the role of Rose (the two characters being similar to roles they had played in Mary Tyler Moore and Maude, respectively). Jay Sandrich, the director of the pilot, suggested that since they had played similar roles in the past, they should switch roles, Rue McClanahan later said in a documentary on the series. White originally had doubts about her ability to play Rose, until the show's creator took her aside and told her not to play Rose as stupid but as someone "terminally naive, a person who always believed the first explanation of something."
The show ended in 1992 after Arthur announced her decision to depart the series. White, McClanahan, and Getty reprised their roles Rose, Blanche, and Sophia in the spin-off The Golden Palace. The series was short-lived, lasting only one season. In addition, White reprised her Rose Nylund character in guest appearances on the NBC shows Empty Nest and Nurses, both set in Miami.
After The Golden Palace ended, White guest-starred on a number of television programs including Suddenly Susan, The Practice, and Yes, Dear where she received Emmy nominations for her individual appearances. She won an Emmy in 1996 for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, appearing as herself on an episode of The John Larroquette Show. In that episode, titled "Here We Go Again", a spoof on Sunset Boulevard, a diva-like White convinces Larroquette to help write her memoirs. At one point Golden Girls co-stars McClanahan and Getty appear as themselves. Larroquette is forced to dress in drag as Beatrice Arthur, when all four appear in public as the "original" cast members. White comically envisions her Rose as the central character with the others as mere supporting players.
In December 2006, White joined the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful in the role of Ann Douglas (where she would make 22 appearances), the long-lost mother of the show's matriarch, Stephanie Forrester, played by Susan Flannery. She also began a recurring role in ABC's Boston Legal from 2005 to 2008 as the calculating, blackmailing gossip-monger Catherine Piper, a role she originally played as a guest star on The Practice in 2004.
White appeared several times on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson appearing in many sketches and returned to Password in its latest incarnation, Million Dollar Password, on June 12, 2008, (episode #3), participating in the Million Dollar challenge at the end of the show. On May 19, 2008, she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, taking part in the host's Mary Tyler Moore Show reunion special alongside every surviving cast member of the series.
Beginning in 2007, White was featured in television commercials for PetMeds, highlighting her interest in animal rights and welfare.
White appeared alongside Abe Vigoda in an advertisement for Snickers during the 2010 Super Bowl XLIV. The ad won the top spot on the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter. The slogan was, "You're not you when you're hungry".
A grassroots campaign on Facebook called "Betty White to Host SNL (Please)" began in January 2010. The group was approaching 500,000 members when NBC confirmed on March 11, 2010 that White would in fact host Saturday Night Live on May 8. The appearance made her, at age 88, the oldest person to host the show, beating Miskel Spillman, the winner of SNL's "Anybody Can Host" contest, who was 80 when she hosted in 1977. In her opening monologue, White thanked Facebook and joked that she "didn't know what Facebook was, and now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time." The appearance earned her a 2010 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series, her seventh Emmy win overall.
In June 2010, White took on the role of Elka Ostrovsky the house caretaker on TV Land's original sitcom Hot in Cleveland along with Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick. Hot in Cleveland was TV Land's first attempt at a first-run scripted comedy (the channel has rerun other sitcoms since its debut). White was only meant to appear in the pilot of the show but was asked to stay on for the entire series. In 2011, she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Elka, but lost to Julie Bowen for Modern Family.
A Betty White calendar for 2011 was published in late 2010. The calendar features photos from White's career and with various animals. She also launched her own clothing line on July 22, 2010, which features shirts with her face on them. All proceeds go to various animal charities she supports.
White also starred in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of The Lost Valentine on January 30, 2011. This presentation garnered the highest rating for a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation in the last four years and according to the Nielsen Media Research TV rating service won first place in the prime time slot for that date.
From 2012 to 2014, White hosted and executive produced Betty White's Off Their Rockers, in which senior citizens play practical jokes on the younger generation. For this show, she received three Emmy nominations.
A special Betty White's 90th Birthday Party aired on NBC a day before her birthday on January 16, 2012. The show featured appearances of many stars with whom White has worked over the years. Betty White's Off Their Rockers aired following the celebratory event, and returned in April 2012 as a recurring show which resulted in an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program.
White's success continued in 2012 with her first Grammy Award for a spoken word recording for her best seller If You Ask Me. She also won the UCLA Jack Benny Award for Comedy, recognizing her significant contribution to comedy in television, and was roasted at the New York Friars' Club. In January 2013, NBC once again celebrated Betty White's birthday with a TV special featuring celebrity friends, including former president Bill Clinton; the special aired on February 5.
In 1945, White married Dick Barker, a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot. The marriage was short-lived. In 1947, she married Lane Allen, a Hollywood agent. This marriage ended in divorce in 1949.
On June 14, 1963, White married television host and personality Allen Ludden, whom she had met on his game show Password as a celebrity guest in 1961, and her legal name was changed to Betty White Ludden. He proposed to White at least twice before she accepted. The couple appeared together in an episode of The Odd Couple featuring Felix's and Oscar's appearance on Password. Ludden appeared as a guest panelist on Match Game, with White sitting in the audience. (She was prompted to criticize one of Ludden's wrong answers on camera during an episode of Match Game '74.) The two appeared together on the Match Game panel in 1974, 1975 and 1980.
Allen Ludden died from stomach cancer on June 9, 1981, in Los Angeles. They had no children together, though she is stepmother to his three children from his first marriage, with his late wife. White has not remarried since Ludden's death. In an interview with Larry King, when asked whether she would remarry, she replied by saying "Once you've had the best, who needs the rest?"
White had a strained relationship with her Golden Girls co-star Bea Arthur on and off the set of their television show, commenting that Arthur "was not fond of her" and that "she found me a pain in the neck sometimes. It was my positive attitude and that made Bea mad sometimes. Sometimes if I was happy, she'd be furious." After Arthur's death in 2009, White said, "I knew it would hurt, I just didn't know it would hurt this much."
In a 2011 interview, White said that she always knew her close friend Liberace was gay and that she sometimes accompanied him to premieres. A supporter of gay rights, White said that "If a couple has been together all that time – and there are gay relationships that are more solid than some heterosexual ones – I think it's fine if they want to get married. I don't know how people can get so anti-something. Mind your own business, take care of your affairs, and don't worry about other people so much".
Mary Tyler Moore, and her then-husband Grant Tinker were close friends with White and Ludden. When Valerie Harper left The Mary Tyler Moore Show producers felt the show needed another female character and created Sue Ann Nivens in the process. Nivens was described as an "icky sweet Betty White type", but they went against asking White to audition. In a 2010 Archive of American Television interview, Moore explained that producers, aware of Moore and White's friendship, were initially hesitant to audition White for the role, the fear being that if she hadn't been right, that it would create awkwardness between the two.
White is a pet enthusiast and an animal health advocate who works with animal organizations, including the Los Angeles Zoo Commission, the Morris Animal Foundation, African Wildlife Foundation, and Actors & Others for Animals. Her interest in animal rights and welfare began in the early 1970s while she was both producing and hosting the syndicated series, The Pet Set, which spotlighted celebrities and their pets.
As of 2009, White is the president emerita of the Morris Animal Foundation, where she has served as a trustee of the organization since 1971. She has been a member of the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association since 1974. Additionally, White served the association as a Zoo Commissioner for eight years.
According to the Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Garden's ZooScape Member Newsletter, White hosted "History on Film" from 2000 to 2002. White donated nearly $100,000 to the zoo in the month of April 2008 alone.
Betty White served as a presenter at the 2011 American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards ceremony at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 1, 2011, in Los Angeles.
In September 2011, she teamed up with English singer Luciana to produce a remix of her song "I'm Still Hot". The song was released digitally on September 22 and the video later premiered on October 6. It was made for a campaign for a life settlement program, The Lifeline. White served as a judge alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Wendy Diamond for the American Humane Association's Hero Dog Awards airing on The Hallmark Channel on November 8, 2011.
The American Veterinary Medical Association awarded White with its Humane Award in 1987 for her charitable work with animals. The City of Los Angeles further honored her for her philanthropic work with animals in 2006 with a bronze plaque near the Gorilla Exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. The City of Los Angeles named her "Ambassador to the Animals" at the dedication ceremony.
She was formally inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in 1995. In 2009, White received the TCA Career Achievement Award from the Television Critics Association.
In September 2009, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) announced plans to honor White with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award at the 16th Screen Actors Guild Awards. Actress Sandra Bullock presented White with the award on January 23, 2010, at the ceremony, which took place at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. She is a Kentucky Colonel. In 2009, White and her now-deceased Golden Girls cast mates Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty were awarded honorary Disney Legend awards. Betty was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in December 2010. In 2010, she was chosen as the Associated Press's Entertainer of the Year.
On November 9, 2010, the USDA Forest Service, along with Smokey Bear, made Betty White an honorary forest ranger, fulfilling her lifelong dream. White said in previous interviews that she wanted to be a forest ranger as a little girl but that women were not allowed to do that then. When White received the honor, more than one-third of Forest Service employees were women.
In October 2011, White was awarded an honorary degree and white doctors coat by Washington State University at the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association's centennial gala in Yakima, Washington.
A 2011 poll conducted by Reuters and Ipsos revealed that White was considered the most popular and most trusted celebrity among Americans, beating the likes of Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock, and Tom Hanks.
White is the only woman to have received an Emmy in all performing comedic categories, and also holds the record for longest span between Emmy nominations for performances—her first was in 1951 and her most recent was in 2011, a span of 60 years. She is the fourth oldest winner of a competitive Grammy Award and the oldest nominee of a performing Emmy.
White has won five Primetime Emmy Awards, two Daytime Emmy Awards (including the 2015 Daytime Emmy for Lifetime Achievement), and received a Regional (LA) Emmy in 1952. She has also won three American Comedy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990), and two Viewers for Quality Television Awards. She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1995 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6747 Hollywood Boulevard alongside the star of her late husband Allen Ludden.
White was the recipient of the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters Golden Ike Award and the Genii Award from the American Women in Radio and Television in 1976. The American Comedy Awards awarded her the award for Funniest Female in 1987 as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990.
In January 2011, White received a SAG Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series for her role as Elka Ostrovsky in Hot in Cleveland. The show itself was also nominated for an award as Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series, but lost to the cast of Modern Family. She won the same award again in 2012, and has received a third nomination.
White has published several books during her career. In August 2010, she entered a deal with G.P. Putnam's Sons to produce two more books, the first of which, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), was released in 2011. In February 2012, White received her first Grammy Award ("Best Spoken Word Recording") for the audio recording of the book.2011: If You Ask Me: (And of Course You Won't) (read by the author), Penguin Audio, ISBN 978-0-1424-2936-5