The First Lady of Television

By Lila De Almeida

January 27, 2022

On the last day of 2021, Betty White passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 99. This was devastating to any sitcom fanatic; Betty made history in television, coined as the “First Lady of Television.” According to Panhandle PBS, “She was the first woman to produce a national TV show, the first woman to star in a sitcom, the first producer to hire a female director and the first woman to receive an Emmy nomination.” She was also a successful actress who worked on various well known productions.

Betty White was a fan-favorite on the TV screen for seventy years. Her big break was in 1949, when she played Girl Friday on Hollywood on Television. In an interview with Danny Hajek in 2014, White said, “My big break came when a local disc jockey, Al Jarvis, in Los Angeles invited me to be his Girl Friday on his talk show ‘Hollywood On Television’ – so would I be his Girl Friday? Sure, Friday, that’s great. Well, what he meant and I didn’t realize was Friday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Five-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week live.”

Obviously the gig paid off because in 1973, White joined the Mary Tyler Moore Show, a sitcom that follows the life of Mary Tyler Moore and her job at a TV station. White played Sue Ann Nivens, a ridiculously optimistic “Happy Homemaker.” The final episode aired in 1977, and in 1985, Betty began a new chapter in her most well-known TV show, Golden Girls.

Golden Girls depicts the lives of four roommates during their golden years. Betty White played kind-hearted, yet ditzy, Rose Nylund. The show spanned seven seasons and aired for seven years. Although White was phenomenal in her role, she was actually intended to play Blanche, Rose’s flirty roommate. However, the show’s director, Jay Sandrich, worked with her on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and thought the Blanche character was too close to Sue Ann Nivens, according to Lisa Respers France, so she was cast as Rose instead.

Betty White took on the roles of sassy, sweet, and stupid characters, but her true temperament was kind and charitable. Other than acting, her passion was animals. One of her castmates on Golden Girls recalls a prank they played on her: “They had a crew member put a tape recorder in a wall on the set… It played a loop of a cat meowing woefully. Betty was beside herself! She told the crew to contact the fire department and stood there talking to the wall, saying, ‘It’s going to be all right, sweetie, we will get you out of there soon.” (US Magazine). White often supported animal welfare fundraisers and adopted multiple dogs throughout her lifetime, according to People Magazine.

Betty White’s generosity was paid forward after her death with the Betty White Challenge. On January 17, 2022, when Betty White would have turned 100 years old, a social media challenge encouraged fans to donate $5 to an animal shelter. According to Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, the LA Zoo has received $94,297 of donations in her name, and the Best Friends Animal Society raised around $340,000. Betty White’s kindness was infectious, even through the TV screen, and her talent will live on through Golden Girls and others.

Featured Image: Melissa Ruggieri, USA TODAY