The iconic Betty White, who died Friday just 17 days shy of her 100th birthday, "was beloved in the most collective sense of the word, spending the last 20 years or so of her life in the role of America’s great-grandma, the SuperNana of popular culture, perhaps the last thing everyone could agree was good about this world and what we’ve become," says Hank Stuever. "And rather than bask in the latter-day heaps of admiration we poured on her, she instead gave gratitude, just constant gratitude for the steady work. She was present at the dawn of television and she endured through decades of its evolution (with an occasional feature film credit). She is no small part of its history as a mass medium, a permanent part of the retrospective of entertainment in the American century. She was a dedicated actress and showbiz personality to the very end, working for as hard and long as the opportunities kept coming her way, outliving nearly all of her peers and co-stars. She didn’t get picky or egocentric about her craft, for she always knew that the magic of broad comedy and fast wit was all anyone needed, whether in front of the camera or on the sofa at home." Noting that Betty White made her first appearance on television in 1939 at age 17, Stuever says that "as the years went by, TV changed, and its audience fractured into countless groups of niche viewers. Fans became more demanding and finicky. White remained a constant and reliable presence, refining her shtick as an old lady with spicy proclivities — interior thoughts that had a way of coming out as perfect punchlines. She noticed that the older she got, the more people were glad to have her around. Something about her comedic agility, her resilience, gave us faith in our own." He adds: "Betty White is survived by, to begin with, all the thousands of hilarious women in comedy and TV who find new ways to define their craft every day: the Tina Feys, the Amy Poehlers, the Julia Louis-Dreyfuses, the Cecily Strongs, the Sarah Silvermans, the Issa Raes, the Kaley Cuocos, the Mindy Kalings, the Ilana Glazers. She is also survived by hundreds of millions of surviving kin, a.k.a. her fans, who adored her in the same way we adore all the grannies, mimis, mamaws and aunties in our lives, especially the ones who tend to blurt out whatever happens to be on their minds, even if it’s a bit tawdry. (And she has billions more survivors if you count what may have been White’s truest love: all the world’s animals.)"
To call Betty White a fundamental part of the very fabric of American television would almost undersell how ubiquitous and likable she was: "She was everywhere throughout TV history, doing a little bit of everything," says Alan Sepinwall. "She starred in numerous sitcoms, and was an indelible part of two of the great comedy ensembles ever, as man-hungry local TV host Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the Seventies, and as daffy retiree Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls in the Eighties. Over the years, she fronted three different TV series called The Betty White Show, in different genres: a talk show and then a variety show in the Fifties, and a sitcom in the late Seventies. Talk shows couldn’t get enough of her as a guest; she sat on The Tonight Show couch alone nearly 100 times, from the Jack Paar era through the second Jay Leno era. And she was a game show mainstay across multiple generations, usually as a crackerjack celebrity guest on the likes of Password and To Tell the Truth, but at times as an emcee herself. (She was the first woman to win an Emmy — one of eight she received, counting daytime, primetime, and local awards — for hosting a game show with 1983’s Just Men!) White never really stopped working, and she somehow leveled up her celebrity in the 21st century, in which she became America’s Most Beloved Senior Citizen, playing tackle football in Super Bowl ads and hosting Saturday Night Live thanks to a relentless fan campaign."
Betty White satirized the “Betty White type": White played The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Sue Ann Nivens "as setup and punch line at once, an embodiment and a rejection of the demands American culture made of women," says Megan Garber. "Through the character, too, Betty White satirized the 'Betty White type.' She extended that satire through the many, many other characters she played, and through her own evolving persona. She spent the decades of her career—eight of them, to be precise—taking people’s underestimations of her and treating them as what they were: a joke...The collision of expectation and reality extends to Sue Ann’s sex life. White played the character as faintly feline—a cougar before it would occur to people to give middle-aged women’s desire its own ironic taxonomy. She is manipulative and unruly and raunchy, which is to say very many of the things American culture suspects women in general of being, in secret. She is in some ways, for her time, a worst-case scenario: a collision of femininity and masculinity, each unfettered, each neglecting its place. But Sue Ann is decidedly not a cautionary tale, because Sue Ann, as White’s performance makes clear, also has a fabulous time being all the things she is not supposed to. The Happy Homemaker turns life’s lemons into lemonade, sure, but then she spikes the bowl. In one episode, Mary, Murray, Lou, and Ted visit Sue Ann at home, in her bedroom. Something catches Ted’s eye from above, and suddenly he’s bending at awkward angles, adjusting his hat as if he’s glimpsed himself and seen something askew. The joke, rendered entirely through the actor Ted Knight’s pantomime, takes a moment to register: Sue Ann Nivens, purveyor of primness, has a mirror above her bed. White brought a similar whiplash to Rose Nylund, the oracle of St. Olaf, Minnesota, and The Golden Girls’ complicated simpleton. White was originally cast to play Blanche Devereaux, while Rue McClanahan, whom White had worked with on Mama’s Family, was set to play Rose. The two actors ended up swapping the roles. Magic ensued. White gave Rose some of the key elements of Sue Ann’s public persona: Rose is optimistic and accommodating and always ready to flash that frank, blank grin. But, buoyed by the show’s sharp writing, she is also much more than she seems. Rose is dim right up until she’s brilliant (remember when she replumbed a bathroom, all on her own?). She is obliging until she’s competitive. She’s kind, unless you cross her."
Betty White was as important a figure in the history of television as she was a beloved icon: "She was as important as she was beloved, and by the 1960s, White was beloved enough that she was a go-to talk show guest and one of the most adored celebrities on every possible TV game show and panel series," says Daniel Fienberg. "She was a TV institution before she won multiple Emmys as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a role that for almost any other actress would have been career-defining and a part that already relied on audience affection for the idea of Betty White as a longtime household staple. If Sue Ann wasn’t the breakout character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show — obnoxiously sweet on-camera, vicious and voracious off-camera — it was only because The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the rare series in which each character could have taken a place on the sitcom character Mt. Rushmore, and each character could have been, and in a few cases later became, the revered centerpiece of their own sitcom."
Betty White was perhaps the greatest comic tactician in the history of television: "That’s distinct from comic acting, although White was, of course, a very fine actor," says Daniel D'Addario. "What set White apart was her unerring ability to find not just the joke, but the thing behind the joke: It was as if a special internal radar guided her toward the deflation of vanity. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for instance, her sunny domestic goddess Sue Ann Nivens was purposefully oblivious, and White wrung delicious humor out of Sue Ann’s unwillingness or inability to see that not everyone in the room was charmed by her. And on The Golden Girls, her Rose Nylund was a variation on the form: A clueless naif who lived perpetually under the mistaken impression that she was just on the verge of figuring things out. Bea Arthur was the spirited center of The Golden Girls, and Rue McClanahan got its best lines, but it was White who gave the series its sprightliness, and its soul. Rose — a character who was, as written, very easily the butt of the joke — sprang back from each insult or misunderstanding ready to zing again. White had a bright, gleeful delivery that could easily be made to convey a sort of dizzy cluelessness; beneath this hid a savage intelligence. A lesser performer would not have convinced you that the simplest of the Golden Girls so often won the group’s verbal jousts, or made it seem, each time, quite so unexpected."
Betty White had a special connection with the gay community: "It’s a little known fact that when you received your gay card, it was hand-delivered by Betty White," says Kevin Fallon. "Well, let’s say that at least spiritually speaking, it was. I don’t know specifically why the LGBT community has, for generations, been obsessed with Betty White, other than to say it makes perfect sense and, over the course of a lifetime with the infallible star—how often can multiple generations say that about a cherished entertainer?—she has meant a great deal to many people. The Great Gay Obsession with Golden Girls has become its own pop culture joke. The bond forged between queer men, Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia was folded into the fabric of Looking, HBO’s groundbreaking comedy series about a group of gay friends in San Francisco. On his podcast, RuPaul flaunted an encyclopedic knowledge of the show that is worthy of a dissertation. There’s a raunchy, withering humor, which could draw fair comparisons to both the Old Hollywood divas and dames that gay men love, but also, of course, drag queens. There was the progressive and, at the time, historic way the sitcom centered episodes on HIV awareness, cross-dressing, and the trauma of coming out to a family member. There is also the idea of chosen family that rings profoundly true to the LGBT community—not to mention the fantasy of living out your years with vibrancy alongside your best friends, having lots of sex, and devouring cheesecake, with no impact on your waistline. In the moments after it was announced that Betty White had died on New Year’s Eve, I thought about so much more than Golden Girls. I thought about my grandmother, my aunts, my parents, and my cousins, all of us gathered around watching the series together. I had never seen Nana laugh as hard as she did when Dorothy interrupted one of Rose’s St. Olaf stories with a murderous glare. In turn, I had never laughed so hard. As I got older, I never stopped watching the show. It was a beautiful surprise to realize that no one else did either."
Betty White was the most beloved star of her (or maybe any) generation: "Depending on where you joined White’s seven-plus-decade journey through show business — at every stage of which she managed to define a role for a Woman Her Age that was also uniquely and unmistakably Betty White — you might know her first as a pioneer of television talk, variety and situation comedy; host of Rose and Macy’s parades; a smart, sparky game show panelist; a reliably unbridled and funny talk show guest; dark-hearted 'Happy Homemaker' Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Show; sweet Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls; romantically active Elka Ostrovsky on Hot in Cleveland; a soap opera villain on The Bold and the Beautiful; or Ryan Reynolds’ grandmother in The Proposal," says Robert Lloyd. He adds: "Graced with bright eyes and a wide, dimpled smile, she radiated delight: delight to be working, delight to be alive, delight in conversation, delight in animals, but also delight in wickedness. She could turn a lilting voice to sharp ends, and a combination of these effects applied in different proportions — of innocence masking experience and experience informing innocence — would serve her through her career."
In 1954, Betty White resisted racist demands to give 21-year-old Black performer Arthur Duncan his big break on The Betty White Show: As Gillian Brockell points out, "this was in 1954. As in, the year the Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision banning segregated schools. As in, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock Nine and the Greensboro, N.C., lunch-counter sit-ins. Television was still a new medium, but White was already a veteran performer of stage and radio, had acted on a sitcom and had co-hosted a Los Angeles daytime talk show." In the 2018 documentary Betty White: First Lady of Television, Duncan recounted his big break, saying: “The first TV show I had ever been on, and I credit Betty White for really getting me started in show business, in television...People in the South resented me being on the show, and they wanted me thrown out. But there was never a question at all." As White recalled, "all through the South, there was this whole ruckus. They were going to take our show off the air if we didn’t get rid of Arthur, because he was Black.”
Don Cheadle remembers White, his co-star on Golden Girls spinoff The Golden Palace: “betty was the best of the best,” he tweeted. “when we were shooting scenes together it was difficult for the DP to get the lighting right between my chocolate and betty’s white! she was either a ghost or i was the shadow. i came on set one day and betty had darkened her make up/hair a bit in an attempt to accommodate for it.”
President Biden pays tribute to White: "Betty White brought a smile to the lips of generations of Americans. She's a cultural icon who will be sorely missed. Jill and I are thinking of her family and all those who loved her this New Year's Eve."
People magazine spent months working on its premature “Betty White Turns 100!” cover that it unveiled three days before her death: "As tributes began to wash across Twitter, with fans celebrating Ms. White’s comedic performances on The Golden Girls and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, People also began to trend," reports The New York Times' Brooks Barnes. "Some fans blamed the magazine for jinxing Ms. White. (In addition to its weekly issue, People also marked her impending centennial with a commemorative issue entirely devoted to her seven-decade career.) Others were pleased that Ms. White, known for her devilish sense of humor and impeccable comedic timing, had seemed to have pulled off one last laugh." According to People deputy editor Wendy Naugle, the magazine's correspondents had been collaborating with White on the cover story for weeks, with the TV icon answering questions via email. Asked to reconcile the sadness of White’s death with the whoops of the cover, Naugle looked on the bright side. “I think fans will be touched to know that she was funny and in good spirits right until the end,” she said.