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Betty White: White heat

Thanks to ''Saturday Night Live,'' Snickers, and Sandra Bullock, the actress is having the time of her life

Betty White is classy, sweet, and — even after the most notable year of her professional life — frustratingly modest.

''If I'm this sick of the words 'Betty White,''' she says, ''I can imagine how the rest of the world feels.'' They seem to still be hungry for more, actually. ''To say 'I don't like Betty White' is kind of like declaring that you're a member of al-Qaeda,'' says late-night host Craig Ferguson, who befriended the actress in 1995 while working with her on the short-lived ABC sitcom Maybe This Time. Since then, White has appeared regularly on Ferguson's talk show — sometimes as a sassy Santa, sometimes as just her endearing self. ''She has a very earthy sense of humor,'' Ferguson continues, ''and I very quickly realized that, had circumstances been different, we might have ended up somewhere in Tijuana together, coming back married or divorced.'' He pauses. ''I think that still might happen.''

At 88, the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls alum has never been more in demand. White's spectacular year began last June with her turn as a brassy grandma in The Proposal, in which she held her own against Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds' abs. (The accompanying Funny or Die spoof, which portrayed White as a huge diva, killed too: ''When Betty White says she wants a cup of coffee, you get her a f---ing cup of coffee!'' she yelled.) Then came her bawdy speech at the SAG Awards, where she accepted a lifetime achievement honor and took the opportunity to chide Bullock, who had become her friend, for making it in Hollywood even though she's ''as plain as she is.'' How did she beat that? By getting tackled in a Snickers ad that ran during the Super Bowl last February. The USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter rated the spot, which also starred comedian Abe Vigoda, as the game's top commercial. The clip went viral and jump-started a campaign on Facebook that eventually propelled 500,000-plus fans to join a group that simply begged: ''Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!'' A star had been born. Again.

As it turns out, Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels had considered White as a host before, and even offered her the job a few times in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, but she'd politely declined. ''After three rejections, I stopped asking,'' says Michaels. ''But it seemed amusing to me as the Facebook thing started.'' White, however, remained uninterested. ''I told my agent, 'Thank them so much, I appreciate it, but no thank you,''' she remembers. ''People have had such an overdose of me — they don't need me anymore! And he said, 'You've got to do it. If you don't do it, I'll divorce you!'''

Michaels ultimately prevailed and recruited alums Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Molly Shannon, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, and Maya Rudolph to pitch in for an all-star Mother's Day Eve show on May 8 with White at the helm. ''Their sense of comedy is so good,'' White says. ''The beauty of being with people like that is that you can relax and start horsing around.'' A bonus: After White signed on, Jay-Z was announced as the night's musical guest. ''We thought, This is an interesting mix,'' Michaels says, before hinting that the pair just might create something memorable together. ''Jay-Z was excited about the idea of working with Betty White — further proof that her influence is pervasive and enormous.''

Some have said that Betty White is having a comeback, but the truth is that she never really left the public eye. After all, this is a woman who's been on TV practically since it was invented. No lie: She sang on an experimental television transmission in 1939 — two months before RCA introduced the medium to the public at the New York World's Fair. Ten years later, she landed a job on a daily L.A. variety show, which eventually led to her first sitcom, Life With Elizabeth, and her first Emmy in 1952. She then became a late-night and game-show staple and met the love of her life, her husband of almost 18 years, Allen Ludden, while he was hosting Password. (Ludden passed away from cancer in 1981. White never remarried.)

Of course, White is primarily remembered for her two most iconic roles: as the newsroom nymphomaniac Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the '70s and the sweet simpleton Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls in the '80s and '90s. They garnered her three Emmy wins and 10 nominations. ''To have two characters so distinctive and successful and popular as Rose Nylund and Sue Ann Nivens — that's unheard-of,'' says Fey, a longtime White acolyte. ''Maybe if you're lucky, you get one of those.'' Sue Ann and Rose are two of White's favorites, but she's humble about them, too. ''Actors take all the credit,'' she says. ''Oh yes, we did this or that. But you can't do it unless the writing is there. You just cannot.''

Since The Golden Girls ended in 1992, she has racked up another Emmy for a guest turn on The John Larroquette Show and four more nods. ''I didn't think I went anywhere!'' White insists. ''I've been doing all the talk shows, all the game shows,'' she says, ''so I've never felt like I was out of work.'' Recently she's appeared on shows ranging from The Bold and the Beautiful to My Name Is Earl to That '70s Show to Boston Legal, created by David E. Kelley. As a matter of fact, Kelley has cast her in no fewer than four of his recent projects, in which she's played characters decidedly against type — a murderer and a pill-pushing shrink, to name a couple. ''I first worked with her on Lake Placid [a movie he wrote and produced in 1999],'' Kelley explains, ''and I was looking for the sweetest, most grandmotherly type, who in fact was vicious and had a gutter mouth. Betty certainly personified the former, and she had no problem embracing the latter.'' Adds Kristen Bell, her costar in the upcoming comedy You Again: ''She is the funniest person in the room, no matter how many people you compile. She took the cake. She was very greedy with the cake.... She's a kind soul in the body of a hooker.''

In fact, many of Betty's saucy parts have been written with her in mind. Writers often slug roles in scripts as ''the Betty White role'' with the hope that they'll be able to land the legend. (With apologies to Cloris Leachman, White has cornered the market on the bawdy grandma.) ''You kinda get the sense from Betty that she is extremely, wickedly sexy,'' Ferguson explains, ''but at the same time, she knows how to navigate a church social. That's unusual, and why comics and actors and directors love her so much. It has an air of naughtiness that I think people find irresistible.'' White embraces the theme. ''I was Grandma Annie in The Proposal, I'm Grandma Bunny in You Again, I was Grandma somebody in something else,'' White says. ''That's wonderful. That's fine,'' she adds with a laugh. ''But we're getting to the point of America's great-grandmother! It's just ridiculous,'' she continues. ''At my age, you shouldn't have all this good stuff. But honestly, how lucky can I get?'' And again with the modesty: ''Look at all the people who get to my age and aren't working this much. It's sheer, blind luck!'' she says.

Her lucky streak will continue throughout the summer: She'll play a crazed librarian on the season finale of The Middle on May 19; a curmudgeonly property caretaker opposite Valerie Bertinelli in TV Land's first original sitcom, Hot in Cleveland, launching June 16; and that sassy Grandma Bunny in You Again, in theaters this September. Meanwhile, she'll keep working with organizations that focus on animal welfare, like the Morris Animal Foundation and the Los Angeles Zoo. (White herself adopted a golden retriever named Pontiac, whom she calls ''Mr. Perfect.'') ''I always wanted to be a zookeeper when I was growing up, and I've wound up a zookeeper!'' she says. Well, in a sense. ''I've been working with the Los Angeles Zoo for 45 years,'' she adds. ''I'm the luckiest old broad on two feet because my life is divided absolutely in half — half animals and half show business. You can't ask for better than two things you love the most.'' Fortunately for White, she may be one of the few in Hollywood experienced enough to tell the difference.

DON'T MISS THIS!
A fun video tribute to Betty, featuring some of her best lines, at youtube.com/StOlafGleeClub

Originally posted Apr 30, 2010 Published in issue #1101 May 07, 2010 Order article reprints
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