Film and TV

Goodbye to Betty White, popular culture’s beloved (and saucy) great-grandma

Oh, Betty! Dear Betty, sweet Betty, saucy Betty. We always knew the day was coming, but you were so good at helping us pretend it would never get here.

And now there you are, all that sparkle and happiness, smiling at us in the checkout line just as we are sad-scrolling through the breaking news of your death on an already bummed-out New Year’s Eve: People magazine, hedging all kinds of bets against the universe, has an issue on the stands touting your 100th birthday in January. It’s so like you, Betty, to get in one last good one. The joke is on them now, along with assuredly terrific newsstand sales. The sorrow, meanwhile, is on us.

Betty White, who was found dead Friday at age 99 in her Brentwood, Calif., home, did not, as the obits are factually obligated to tell us, leave behind any children - or grandchildren or great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren.

But come on now. 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.)

She 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.

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.

Incredibly, White was one the first people to be seen on the newfangled invention known as television during a 1939 exhibition; through the decades, she charmed and entertained us as an actress, talk-show host and as one of the world’s most reliably gung-ho game-show guests. Where other celebs appeared to mainly goof off in the shaggy silliness of 1970s game shows, White would also join in on the lightly crude banter, but she always came with the earnest urge to win, helping everyday contestants prevail in dozens of different game shows, including “Password,” which was hosted by her husband Allen Ludden. (“Where else can you spend a couple of hours playing games with nice people and get paid for it?” she wrote in one of her several memoirs, “Here We Go Again: My Life in Television.”)

Sitcom success in the ‘70s and ‘80s forged our strongest relationship with White, first with her Emmy-winning run as the rather conniving local-TV personality Sue Ann Nivens on CBS’s “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” - sweet as apple pie in her job as Minneapolis’s own proto-Martha Stewart (“What’s All This Fuss About Famine?” was one her typical homemaking and cooking segments) and entirely different off-the-air, taking delight in cutting her colleagues. (“Oh Murray, I just hope my mind’s still active when I’m your age.”)

Then, during the seven-season run of NBC’s “The Golden Girls,” White took on the persona of a purer, even funnier character, Rose Nylund, the small-town Minnesota girl now living with three other retired women in South Florida. Rose’s perpetual naivete made for some of the series’ biggest laughs:

Rose: How did you know that, Dorothy?

Dorothy: I’m clairvoyant, Rose.

Rose: You’re so lucky. I get into a pool and I sink like a stone.

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 just have her around. Something about her comedic agility, her resilience, gave us faith in our own.

This was particularly true for fans and fellow celebs who had just begun to reckon with mortality in their own lives: a funny aunt dies, Grandma dies, Mom dies. But here’s Betty White, still kicking, still wonderful, on a late-night talk show, and that was a small but necessary joy. The only time I ever got to see White in person was backstage at a taping of CBS’s “Late Late Show” in 2009. It was December and she walked by in a Santa Claus suit, nodding to saying hello to everyone, and we all melted in her presence.

As online culture thrived and social networks took over our existence, it was only a matter of time before the Internet got together and demanded - demanded! The nerve! - that “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels book a then-88-year-old White to host an episode of the show, one of the only things on television she had never done.

This was neither White nor her representatives asking for the gig; it was America. It was a viral insistence to which Michaels, counter to his control-freak image, caved in and gave the people what they wanted. White’s answer to the call was a resounding yes. Her entire career was a tribute to the power of just saying yes, taking the part, running with it - which she did on SNL on May 8, 2010. Joined by current and former female cast members, White managed to pull off what must have been a grueling week for a late-octogenarian, claiming that she needed nothing more than a “vodka and a hot dog” to recuperate from rehearsals and demands of the live show. Watching it, you could sense the reverence and care with which SNL put White through its typical manic paces. They didn’t want the blame for breaking a national treasure.

Nevertheless, something unseemly lurked just beneath this shared lovefest: Did we ask too much of her? Did she ever just get tired of having to be Betty White, the always-on matriarchal minx? If so, she never said it.

It’s hard to express surprise when a 99-year-old dies, yet here we are. In a year that claimed so many luminaries and legends, we travel on to whatever the new year brings, with a combination of dread and fear, reminding one another with less and less enthusiasm that things will someday improve. Betty White stays put, in memories and reruns. Given all the options for eternal rest, that was her happiest place to be.

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