I’ve always loved Betty White. From watching reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show to the Golden Girls, she’s always been someone I’ve completely adored.
Betty, who turned 90 in January, started her comedy career with, Life with Elizabeth which gave her the first of many Emmy Awards. That was followed by a daily NBC talk/variety show called The Betty White Show. She was a recurring regular with over 70 appearances on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar and appeared on The Merv Griffin Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She also subbed as host on all three talk shows.
Her recurring role as Sue Ann Nivens in the classic The Mary Tyler Moore Show earned her two Emmys for Best Supporting Actress in 1974-75 and 1975-76. She received her fourth Emmy for Best Daytime Game Show Host for Just Men. Nominated seven times for Best Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls, White won the Emmy the first season in 1985, and she later appeared in the spin-off The Golden Palace for one season. She earned her next Emmy Award as Best Guest Actress in a Comedy Series on The John Larroquette Show.
Currently starring in two shows, TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland and NBC’s Off Their Rockers, Betty has no plans for retiring, saying that “I’m just happy as a lark. People say are you thinking about retiring, I don’t have time to think about retiring.”
I recently did a conference call with Betty and Off Their Rockers Executive Producer Chris Coelen where they chatted about the show, Hot in Cleveland and Betty’s long and wonderful career.
Off Their Rockers airs on Wednesdays at 8/7c on NBC
You’re so busy these days why did you want to do a prank show? What appealed to you most about it?
Betty White: It was a very popular show in Europe. As a matter of fact it won several awards and stuff. And when they brought it to me it sounded like something that might be popular here so we thought we’d try it. We did a couple of them to see how it would (sing) and somehow it seemed to catch on.
So I, you know, I haven’t the power to say no if – I like what I do for a living too much.
Chris, what was the key about getting Betty involved?
Chris Coelen: Well as Betty said the format had a tremendous amount of success around the world both commercially and critically as Betty said, won the International Emmy Award for best comedy around the world as well as the Rose d’Or for Best Comedy and Best Overall Format.
And it has, you know, it’s a very progressive show with a very particular and mischievous sense of humor. And it really felt like what Betty has been able to do so well for, you know, so long really fit nicely in with the format and made a lot of sense.
Betty White: And what’s fun about it I think is the fact that the older people get the jump on the younger ones for a change.
What do you know now that you didn’t know when you were very young – 18, 19 when you were first graduating from High School?
Betty White: I don’t think I knew much at that point. And I don’t know a heck of a lot now. But I think we learn through the years that you appreciate the good stuff when it happens. You don’t look back on it and think oh, that was so great then and I didn’t appreciate it.
I was blessed with a mother and father who said taste the good stuff now and realize how fortunate and how wonderful things are this minute because enough minutes are not wonderful that you have to save up all the good ones to make it balance out.
Betty, I wanted to ask you what do you think your success at this stage of your life? You have so many different TV shows, so many different things that you’re successful at. How do you think that’s changed people’s opinions in general of what senior citizens are capable of?
Betty White: Well my mail reflects the fact that they kind of get a kick out of the fact that I’m 90 years old and I just don’t go away. I happen to be blessed with loving what I do for a living. I love this business and I’m so fortunate to be able to still work in this business.
And I get these marvelous letters about how encouraging it is to see someone making the most of their time and still enjoying it instead of oh, I can’t wait to stop working or oh, I can’t wait to retire or oh, I hate my job.
And I think it goes back to the old basic of accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
Betty, if you could both talk a little bit about the actors that are actually pulling the pranks and have you worked with any of them over the years before this show?
Betty White: I have not but I’ve met a couple of them years ago in other context but I haven’t actually worked with them so this is kind of an all new experience for me. How about you Chris?
Chris Coelen: Yes. They’re terrific. We did a casting session, a group of us, Betty and myself and some other of the executive producers did a casting.
And we looked for a very special group of people who had comedy chops but also who were really fearless and were willing and able to go out into the public and just have a great time with, you know, it takes a very special person to be able to pull the kind of stunts that we’re pulling off in this show.
Betty, you’re obviously too famous a face to go out and do it but do you wish that you were able to go out and do some of these pranks yourself?
Betty White: No. In a word, no. I’m delighted that they do them and do them so well. But I’m not good at that.
Why do you think you and older actors like Ed Asner, Chloris Leachman, etc, keep getting so much work. Do you think it’s nostalgia or do you think all of these people are pros and people just want pros to do this work?
Betty White: Well I don’t think so. I started when television first started. I did the first broadcast that was ever done in Los Angeles. And television at that point was such a novelty. Well it’s become such a way of life now that I think over that time some of the same people are still around.
And maybe it’s nostalgia but I think it’s just that they’ve become like personal friends that you’ve gotten to know. When television came along it – the big novelty was the fact that these people were in your room with you.
And the thing that I love about television there are no more than two or three people watching you at a time. If there are more than two or three people in a room they’re talking to each other, they’re not listening to you.
So I think that’s what people get more personally associated with that guy over there in the corner in the box.
What’s your secret is to staying active and healthy all the way into your 90s.
Betty White: I’m blessed with good health. I just turned 90 in January and I inherited some wonderful good genes from my mother and dad. So being blessed with good health gives you the strength and loving what you do and – is a privilege that keeps you going.
So I’m just happy as a lark. People say are you thinking about retiring, I don’t have time to think about retiring.
Regarding Hot in Cleveland, when you signed on to do that show did you have any gut feeling that it would be the sensation that it is?
Betty White: Oh, anything but. As a matter of fact when they came to me and offered me the part on the pilot I – my schedule as always is a pretty busy one. And I had them include in my contract that should it go to pilot – I mean to series, not many pilots are picked up for series with all the pilots that are done.
But should it go to series I would not be involved or obligated to continue with the show because of my busy schedule. So I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t automatically tied into it. Well sometimes you do a show in February and they don’t pick it up until May.
We were picked up in three weeks and they came and asked if I would do some more. I said no, that was in my contract that I was not obligated to do that. Well I have the strength of a jellyfish. I had done one show with these wonderful girls, Wendy Malick and Jane Leeves and Valerie Bertinelli.
And I had such a wonderful time with them that sure I signed up and said I’d do some more. And then they picked us up for 24 more shows and I said sure and I’ve done them all. I’m just having the time of my life.
We actors can’t take the credit. We love to try to claim the credit. Yes, I did this and yes, I did that. If it isn’t on that page, if those writers haven’t come through you can’t save a bad show. You can help a good show but you can’t save a bad show.
I’ve read some of your memoirs and I know that you’ve done a lot of hosting shows in your time and especially that first show that you did when you started. You were on the air for hours a day and you’ve done game shows…
Betty White: Five and a half hours.
What keeps bringing you back to hosting or being the center of a show and what do you like about that?
Betty White: I just like television. I just love the rapport with the audience. Because I said a little while ago, there are only two or three people in a room watching you. If there are more than that they’re talking to each other. They’re not listening. And so you’re really addressing a very personal conversation.
Sure there are a lot of television sets around but only two or three people to a room who are paying attention and I just find that a very intimate, lovely way of performing.
Do you feel that there’s a formula for good comedic TV?
Betty White: I don’t think – I think when you start explaining why something’s funny or finding a formula for it I think it loses some of its funniness. I think the best kind of comedy is the least self conscious.
I think if you just sort of let the comedy happen without the elbow nudge, did you get it, did you get it. I love straight face comedy or subtle – relatively subtle comedy.
And then I turn around and I find myself doing very broad comedy but it’s all fun and you have to keep your sense of humor and not take yourself seriously.
How often do you ad-lib?
Betty White: Well I always – I read the commas and the punctuation and all that because those writers have spent hours laboring over writing that stuff. And a lot of actors come in and they start to paraphrase but I think what some of them don’t realize, humor is like a rhythm, it’s like music.
And you throw a couple of extra syllables in, you wreck the beat and you kill the laugh. So I try to follow the writers very carefully because I know how carefully they worked to do it that way.
Chris Coelen: But I would add to that, that that, you know, again Betty my experience of working with you is while that’s true that again especially as an executive producer Betty always has, you know, when she does have something to add it’s always, you know, something that, you know, is an ah-ha moment.
And you’re like wow, you know what, I wish I had thought of that. And it always makes it better. It always makes the bit better.
Betty White: Oh bless your heart. Thank you. I try not to butt in anymore than I have to.
Did you always want to work in this industry while you were growing up or did you have other professions in mind?
Betty White: Well I wanted to be – first of all I wanted to be a forest ranger.
But back in my day girls couldn’t be forest rangers. And then I got – I wrote the graduation play from grammar school. And of course as any red blooded American girl would do I wrote myself into the lead. Well then I got on stage and I thought oh, this is fun.
And I think that’s what started – what – when the show business bug bit me.