Betty White: Golden Girl of Television

Elisa Lichtenbaum | August 16, 2018

Television pioneer Betty White now and early in her career.

Television pioneer Betty White now and early in her career.

To some fans, Betty White will forever be the oversexed Sue Ann Nivens in the groundbreaking 1970s sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. To others, she’s the eternally innocent Rose Nylund in the 1980s cult favorite The Golden Girls. To a new generation of fans, Betty White is the outrageous nonagenarian who chugged vodka with David Letterman, played Beer Pong with Jimmy Fallon, and scored laughs as a football player in an uproarious Snickers Super Bowl Sunday commercial. And who can forget the mammoth Facebook campaign that led to her hosting one of the highest rated Saturday Night Live episodes ever?

This beloved entertainment icon, who celebrates her 80th year in show business this year – the longest career in the history of TV – is the subject of Betty White: First Lady of Television, premiering Sunday, August 26 at 7:30 p.m. on WLIW21.

Betty White Documentary

Cast of “Golden Girls.” L-R Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur, Betty White, Estelle Getty.


The PBS documentary Betty White: First Lady of Television chronicles the remarkable career of this true television pioneer, who was the first woman to produce a national TV show, the first woman to star in a sitcom, the first woman to receive an Emmy nomination – and the first woman to ever appear on television, given her performance on an experimental broadcast in 1939.

After starting out in radio, Betty jumped over to television as co-host of a live, five-and-a-half-hour, six-day-a-week variety show. She produced and starred in the sitcom Life with Elizabeth and was a popular TV personality throughout the 50s and 60s. A rabid game player in real life, Betty was a much sought-after game show contestant. It was during an appearance on Password that she first met the man who would become her husband and the love of her life, Allen Ludden.

The 1970s saw Betty win two Emmys for her role as the man-hungry “Happy Homemaker” on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Betty earned another Emmy in the mid-80s for her role as Rose on The Golden Girls. She made history when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 2010 at the age of 88 – and won yet another Emmy. Although she continues to attain roles and accolades, Betty’s true love is animals; she has been a passionate animal advocate throughout her career.

The film also includes stories from White’s friends and co-stars, including Valerie Bertinelli, Tina Fey, Georgia Engel, Valerie Harper, Carl Reiner, Carol Burnett, Ryan Reynolds, and more.

Betty White on “Saturday Night Live” with co-stars.

Betty White on “Saturday Night Live” with co-stars. Courtesy of Pioneers of Television Archives

With exclusive access to White and her team, Betty White: First Lady of Television also reveals a personal side of her life, following her backstage at TV shows, entertaining at home, and interacting with her close friends — including a 900-pound grizzly bear.

“I’ve worked nearly 80 years in television, and finally I made it to PBS,” White said in a recent interview.

Thankfully, the 96-year-old dynamo — who credits her longevity to optimism, hot dogs, vodka, and good genes — shows no signs of slowing down.

Tune in Sunday, August 26 at 7:30 p.m. for Betty White: First Lady of Television.

See Betty White in 1950s Sitcom

Betty White at work as the first woman in Hollywood with creative control of a sitcom--on the set of “Life with Elizabeth.” Courtesy of Pioneers of Television Archives

Betty White at work as the first woman in Hollywood with creative control of a sitcom–on the set of “Life with Elizabeth.” Courtesy of Pioneers of Television Archives


If you weren’t alive in 1955, you’ve likely never seen Betty White in Life with Elizabeth (1953-55). PBS offers a great streaming opportunity for latecomers in the program I Remember Television. The episode An Evening With Betty White is dedicated to two archival Life with Elizabeth episodes, which shows Betty had her comic genius from the start, playing opposite Del Moore, her on-screen husband. Watch now.