Friday, December 31, 2021

Vital Viewing (Thank You for Being a Friend Edition)


 It's not the best way to ring in the new year, and I don't know that it's any consolation that it actually happened on the last day of the old year, but Betty White no longer walks the earth. Here she is in an interview that she gave about nine years ago, in which, among other things, her own pending mortality is discussed:

That interview focuses on the latter half of Betty's career, the last fifty years or so. Come to think of it, that's a lot of latter! Amazingly, she was already a celebrity at the beginning of that half-century, before she took the television roles that she's best known for today. So what happened back then that boosted her name recognition? Well, if you do a bit of research, you'll come across the following television role, one that she's no longer best known for, on the long-forgotten 1952 sitcom Life with Elizabeth (well, no long-forgotten on YouTube, where you can watch entire episodes):

Photography before smartphones.

Life with Elizabeth was a moderate success. As was a variety show that came shortly thereafter. These moderate successes added up. As did her many talk show and celebrity game show panelist appearances. Betty White was soon a household name, even if that name recognition seemed to exceed any single career accomplishment. She was well-known enough by 1963 to get this gig...

 The Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, the television broadcast of which she and Bonanza star Lorne Greene co-hosted for nine years. This is probably my earliest memory of Betty White, though being of elementary school age, I was more eager to see the Bullwinkle balloon than care about who was co-hosting the event. Here's the two of them in 1972:

Watching that, I'm reminded that Betty White could also sing (and so, apparently, could Lorne.)

Though acting had been her main thing early on, by the end of the 1960s, Betty White was much more well-known for playing herself than for any fictional role. But exactly what was "herself"? Co-hosting things like the Macy's and Tournament of Roses parades, she was expected to project an upbeat image, which she may have done a bit too well, coming across to at least one person as "sickeningly sweet". Now, who in tarnation would describe her as that?  

The woman on the left, that's who. A script for The Mary Tyler Moore Show called for a hostess of a WJM-TV household hints and cooking show who was perky in front of the camara but could be hard-as-nails off-camera, and sexually voracious as well. Regarding the first of those three characteristics, the perkiness, Moore suggested in a production meeting that it could be someone "like Betty White". Eventually Betty White herself was asked to play Sue Ann Nivens, the Happy Homemaker. Far from being offended at what was originally meant as a self-parody, White acted the role with gusto. That guest appearance led to another, then another, and she was eventually added to TMTMS cast. Here she is along with Ted Knight (as Ted Baxter), Ed Asner (as Lou Grant), and Gavin MacLeod (as Murray Slaughter). Watch: 

The Mary Tyler Moore Show transformed White's career, wiping away the previous twenty years of real-life goody-two-shoes TV hosting, all by playing a fictional goody-two shoes TV hostess on a sitcom. How can such a thing be possible? The woman was a comic genius, that's how. Just why it was overlooked for so many decades, well, that's show biz for you.

And as a comic genius, White was no one-trick pony, though she could have easily been regarded as such had she accepted the role of Blanche Devereaux in writer-producer Susan Harris' new sitcom The Golden Girls. Blanche was, as White said in the interview at the top of this post, a "nymphomaniac", and Sue Ann Nivens arguably had been that. Meanwhile, Rue McClanahan had been offered the part of addled-brained Rose Nyland, which was very similar to the character Vivian Harmon she had played on Maude (which starred Bea Arthur, who now headed the GG cast as Dorothy Zbornak; her mother Sophie Petrillo played by Estelle Getty.) Both wanting to do something different, White and McClanahan switched parts, and a classic sitcom was born. In this clip, Rose warns of the dangers of plastic surgery:

 I'm not going to bother explaining to those who don't recognize the name just who Stepin Fetchit is, but he's not somebody you normally would associate with Norway.

 Like many famous people nowadays, Betty White appeared in her very own Super Bowl commercial, in 2010:

The Saints beat the Colts that year, but all anybody was talking about the next day was the Snickers commercial, which brought the then-88-year-old White back into the public eye all over again. A successful Facebook campaign got her on Saturday Night Live, the oldest person ever to host the show (much preferrable to a later Facebook campaign that got a crooked real estate developer into the White House.) And she got one more sitcom to cap her career, as a Polish caretaker in Hot in Cleveland. For the final video, I'm not going to show you either SNL or HIC. I've used enough of your time (plus I've been sitting in this chair too long--my rump hurts.) However, I do have one final video...

In 1961, Betty White guested as a celebrity panelist on the game show Password, then at the beginning of its decades-long run. Password emcee Allen Ludden was smitten with White and kept asking her to marry him. Having walked down the aisle twice before, she was reluctant, but eventually said, "I do". They may not have been Liz and Dick, who got married a year later, but their union lasted a lot longer. On YouTube I found this pastiche of their wedded bliss, much of which also was working bliss, as they acted and otherwise appeared in a lot of shows together. It's a good a way end this:

Allen Ludden died in 1981, and never got to see Betty in The Golden Girls. If they're together now, maybe she can catch him up on all the going-ons in St. Olaf.

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