Betty White: A look at the 'Golden Girls' star's life, career on what would have been her 100th birthday

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No doubt about it, Betty White is an icon, even from beyond the grave.

The comedy legend died on Dec. 31, 2021, just a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday – which she would have celebrated on Monday.

In fact, the star had big plans to mark the occasion. A one-day-only theatrical event distributed by Fathom Events – originally called “Betty White: 100 Years Young — A Birthday Celebration” – would have allowed fans a glimpse into White’s life and work.

Retitled simply to “Betty White: A Celebration,” the flick will still be screened on Jan. 17 in memory of the star’s centenary.

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On what would have been her 100th’s birthday, here’s a look at the star’s life and career.

Betty White, famed comedic actress, would have turned 100 on Monday. She died at the age of 99 just weeks ago on Dec. 31.

Betty White, famed comedic actress, would have turned 100 on Monday. She died at the age of 99 just weeks ago on Dec. 31.
(AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

Early days

White was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on Jan. 17, 1922, but her family moved to California shortly after. 

Shortly after graduating from high school, White and a friend were asked to participate in “an experimental television show,” she told the Archive of American Television, which was her debut on the small screen.

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When World War II broke out, White joined the American Women’s Voluntary Services, which provided support services to aid the nation during wartime.

For the organization, the future actress drove a PX truck of supplies in California.

During her service, White met Dick Barker, a member of the Air Force. They married and divorced within a year. She’d also have a brief marriage to talent agent Lane Allen from 1947-1949.

White's career as a performer began in radio before she successfully parlayed her talents into television with various sitcoms and variety shows.

White’s career as a performer began in radio before she successfully parlayed her talents into television with various sitcoms and variety shows.
(Getty Images)

After that, she took small roles on stage and in radio to break into showbiz before eventually landing a gig as a host of “Hollywood on Television.”

It was around this time that White’s work as an advocate began as well, as she, famously an animal lover, started working with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles.

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In 1951, she was nominated for her first Emmy Award for best actress – though back then, performers were not recognized for specific programs.

In the following years, White would land her own sitcom.

Rise to television prominence

White’s first sitcom was “Life with Elizabeth,” which saw her star as the titular newlywed. The show was based on sketches she’d played as the character during “Hollywood on Television.”

The show only ran from 1953-1955, but it put White on the map and helped lead to future roles that would one day put her on top of the television food chain.

She’d next move on to host “The Betty White Show” (the first of a few shows with that name), a variety/talk show that made history as the first variety show to have a Black cast member in tap dancer and singer Arthur Duncan, per the Los Angeles Times.

White and NBC caught backlash for what was considered radical casting for the time, and faced threats of potential boycott from television stations in the South, who requested Duncan be removed from the cast.

In a PBS documentary, White said she told her opposition to “live with it,” and kept him in the cast and offered him more airtime, per USA Today.

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In the 1960s, White became a popular personality on talk shows and game shows, including “Password,” where she’d meet host Allen Ludden, who she’d later marry.

In fact, her on-air personality was so widely loved that she was offered a gig as a host of the “Today” show in the mid-’60s, though she turned it down because she didn’t want to move to New York. According to the Television Academy, the role was filled by Barbara Walters.

Betty White was married to "Password" host Allen Ludden from 1963 until his death in 1981. She never remarried.

Betty White was married to “Password” host Allen Ludden from 1963 until his death in 1981. She never remarried.
(Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

She’d also make her feature film debut in 1962, playing the fictional Sen. Bessie Adams in “Advise & Consent.”

Beginning in 1963, White and Ludden, who died of cancer in 1981, enjoyed a storybook marriage. The two shared no children, but Ludden had three from his previous marriage.

White never remarried, famously telling Larry King in 2014, “Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?” when asked about whether she would ever romantically pursue anyone again.

Becoming a superstar

With loads of comedic television experience under her belt, White joined the cast of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1973 for a handful of episodes of its fourth season.

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She played Sue Ann Nivens, the hostess of a television show for housewives, known for being perky on camera but considerably less so off. 

White and her character were such hits that upon Valerie Harper’s departure from the program, White was invited to join the cast as a regular. She remained on the show until its 1977 finale and won two Emmys for her work.

In 1973, White joined the cast of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," a role that brought her back-to-back Emmys.

In 1973, White joined the cast of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a role that brought her back-to-back Emmys.
(Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

She continued her animal welfare work during this time period, becoming a trustee of the Morris Animal Foundation and joining the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association.

White starred in another program called “The Betty White Show,” though it was canceled after just one season. She’d regularly appear in sketches on “The Tonight Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” and would appear in several television movies and series over the next several years, including “Fame” and “St. Elsewhere.”

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In 1983, White won a Daytime Emmy Award for hosting the game show “Just Men!,” making her the first woman to win an award in that category.

Just two years later, White again found herself on an extremely popular sitcom in the form of “Golden Girls.” The show followed the comical trials and tribulations of four older women that had been divorced and now lived together.

On the show, White played Rose Nylund, a native of St. Olaf, Minnesota, known for telling long-winded stories, but also for being not very sharp. The actress won an Emmy for her work in 1986 and would be nominated for six others for “Golden Girls” alone.

White (far right) would then go on to star in "The Golden Girls" alongside (from left to right) Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan.

White (far right) would then go on to star in “The Golden Girls” alongside (from left to right) Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan.
(Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank)

A certified icon

By the time “Golden Girls” ended in 1992, White was known as a national treasure and she found herself guest-starring on many popular shows including “Ally McBeal” and “The Ellen Show.”

She’d also nab Emmy wins and nominations for appearing in comedies like “The John Larroquette Show,” “Suddenly Susan” and “Yes, Dear” before earning a win for her appearance in “The Practice” in 2004.

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All the while, White was maintaining a career in film as well, appearing in “Bringing Down the House,” “Holy Man” and “The Story of Us.”

She’d hit another hot streak in 2009 with a popular appearance on “My Name is Earl” and a beloved role in “The Proposal” as the kooky grandmother to an overworked assistant forced into a fraudulent marriage.

The movie boasted a star-studded cast led by Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock, including Craig T. Nelson and Mary Steenburgen.

That same year, White took another big step in her animal welfare work, becoming the president emerita of the Morris Animal Foundation, after being named a trustee back in 1971.

In 2010, fans started a grassroots campaign requesting that “Saturday Night Live” invite White to host, which was successful. Better yet, White won yet another Emmy for her appearance on the long-running sketch comedy series.

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Also in 2010, the sitcom “Hot in Cleveland” teed off with White in a supporting role. The show ran on TV Land until 2015.

In 2012, White won a Grammy Award for best spoken word album for her bestselling book “If You Ask Me (and of Course You Won’t).”

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2019 brought with it her final role, the cheekily named toy tiger Bitey White in Disney+’s “Forky Asks a Question,” a role that she originated in “Toy Story 4” that same year.

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