May 2011

Betty White

We’ll have what she’s having
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Betty White has been on a roll—a tear, really—for decades. Her show business career has only paused a few times since the late 1940s, when she debuted at the dawn of television with the ad-libbed “Hollywood on Television,” then moved to her own pioneering sitcom “Life with Elizabeth,” which she co-created, co-wrote and produced in the 1950s at the ripe old age of 31.

“I didn’t know any better,” says White, who is now 89. “There wasn’t an alternative—the job was there to be done and you did it. I was so lucky to get in television on the ground floor when it was starting out. I was on five and a half hours a day, six days a week, so it was like going to television college.”

"I have been so blessed. If you ever hear me complain about anything, throw me away!"

While attending “television college,” White hosted classic TV game shows and starred in many award-winning sitcoms including “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Golden Girls.” Last fall she hosted “Saturday Night Live” and now she stars in the cable television hit “Hot in Cleveland.” All the while, White was writing books about her time in Hollywood and her love of animals, beginning with Pet-Love: How Pets Take Care of Us in 1985.

“The bottom line is: I’m the luckiest old broad!” White says by phone from her Hollywood home, her beloved Golden Retriever Ponti on her lap. “I have been so blessed. If you ever hear me complain about anything, throw me away!”

Her new book, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t), has the scoop on her white-hot career and latest projects, including impressions from the sets of SNL and “Hot in Cleveland” and her work on films like The Proposal with Sandra Bullock and The Lost Valentine with Jennifer Love Hewitt.

White also touches on her childhood, her funny parents and her charmed early days in show business, as well as her present popularity, with anecdotes about the perils of typecasting and fascinating stories from her long performing career. Chapters include Body and Mind (“Somewhere along the line there is a breaking point, where you go from not discussing how old you are to bragging about it.”); Love and Friendship (including being a stepmom and dating when most interesting prospects are “much younger men—maybe only 80”); and Animal Kingdom, with touching but unsentimental stories about the animals she has rescued, loved and lost. The final section, Since You Asked, features White’s spirited ruminations on integrity, aging, keeping your head on your shoulders and remaining relevant in a “tough business.”

“Right now I’m doing ‘Hot in Cleveland’ with the greatest gals in show business,” White says. “We all adore each other! From the word go, we fell in love. I’m having the best best time. But that’s a whole different experience from going home and writing.”

White and husband Allen Ludden (who died in 1981) were good friends with John Steinbeck, and she was inspired by the author’s work ethic, right down to his habit of writing with a dog lying on his feet. She writes all of her books in longhand and finds that a fresh pack of paper is her greatest incentive to write. This funny, gregarious lady can think of nothing better than being alone with her animals, writing.

“It’s such a private thing,” White says. “You work it out in your head and you can work anywhere. All of a sudden, if something hits you that you want to put down on paper—it’s just a lovely experience.”

White wanted to be a park ranger or writer when she grew up and jokes that her first book was written at 14. “I wrote it with a pen dipped in ink, in longhand. It was a wonderful original story,” she deadpans. “A girl on a ranch and her brother was sick. I didn’t know quite how to finish it off. It was 106 pages. Finally I had an idea: It turned out to be a dream. She woke up and her brother was well and everything was fine. I just thought it was genius.”

If You Ask Me is White’s sixth book (her recently reissued book, Here We Go Again: My Life in Television, “is the closest to an autobiography”) and she has another one planned for next summer, a photography book with anecdotes about the animals at the Los Angeles Zoo, where she was zoo commissioner for three years and an active board member for 47 years. The little girl who collected blown-glass animal figures rather than dolls has been a lifelong advocate for animals, also spending 48 years on the board of the Morris Animal Foundation. The organization funds studies into specific health problems of dogs, cats, horses and wildlife, including gorillas in Rwanda.

In the book, White tells about her up-close visits with Koko the signing gorilla at the zoo.

“She’s my baby!” White says. “I had the privilege of visiting with Koko three times. She knows me now—she calls me ‘Lipstick.’ When she sees me she runs her fingers across her lips. She’s so magnificent, I can tell you.

“That’s my love—my animal work,” White says. “I have to stay in show business to pay for all my animal work!”

From her 1950s TV appearances to her recent SNL skits, Betty White has been the very definition of a trooper, throwing herself into making people smile. But this feisty octogenarian refuses to take credit for her incredible likability with audiences across generations.

“Have I got you fooled,” she says. “But I’m not going to talk you out of it.”

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