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'Betty White: First Lady of Television' celebrates a legend's career

She has been a constant presence in our lives and a welcome reminder that the world's not such a bad place.

Betty White in the 1970s.

 Betty White in the 1970s. Photo Credit: Pioneers of Television Archives

A few years ago when she got a People's Choice Award for favorite TV icon, Betty White made her way slowly and methodically to the mic. Time had slowed the legs, but obviously not the mind: "When Melissa McCarthy was up here earlier, she promised she'd stay around as long as you'd let her," she said, then paused. "Well, you've abused that privilege with me."

Funny line, but it also got an appreciative laugh because it so perfectly captured the truth of the matter. We have "abused" the privilege for decades, some of us for nearly eight of them. White turns 97 on Jan. 17 which only begins to explain the magnitude of this run.

She first stepped in front of a TV camera in 1939 and has been famous for so long that we've forgotten what made her famous in the first place. (Game and talk shows, as a matter of fact.) She's been beloved for so long that we can no longer trace the taproot of that devotion.

It probably began with “The Betty White Show” in 1954, one of TV’s first live national talk show hosted by a woman, although White was unquestionably TV's first solo female host with "Hollywood on Television" earlier in the '50s, after its host left. Since then, White has been a constant presence in our lives and a welcome reminder that the world's not such a bad place, but a kind one, and motherly one, and animal-loving one. Indeed, the privilege has been all ours.

What's left to actually learn about this most enduring and endearing of TV personalities? You'd be surprised. A new PBS special, "Betty White: First Lady of Television" arriving Tuesday, Aug. 21 (8 p.m., WNET/13) does tend to be more affirmation than revelation — we really do think we know her intimately — but it also fills in the remarkable timeline.

White's career began just before World War II disrupted both the proto-technology of TV and the future industry. She first co-starred on something called "The Al Jarvis Show," featuring a well-known Los Angeles disc jockey, where she sang popular songs. (White had an excellent voice, which is demonstrated here in clips that go back to the 1930s.)

After wartime service in the American Women's Voluntary Services, White went back to TV in 1945, in her first credited role, "Time to Kill," a short program co-starring TV's future Superman, George Reeves. The Jarvis show turned into a talk series called "Hollywood on Television." She hasn't stopped working since.

Such runs beget statistics, and White has those, too. She has been nominated 76 times for major awards, including 21 Emmys. The most recent Emmy nod was in 2014, while the first was in 1951 for “Hollywood on Television.” She's won five Emmys total. She has appeared on just over 50 game shows as either contestant or host. She starred in a couple of classics, "Mary Tyler Moore" (1970-77) and "The Golden Girls" (1985-92). Her happy-homemaker character Sue Ann Nivens, remains an indelible part of '70s culture, and the same for Rose Nylund in "Golden Girls."

And after a Facebook campaign sought to bring her to "Saturday Night Live," she became the oldest host at age 88 in show history in 2010. Her appeal therefore isn't just generational but multigenerational. That's perhaps what makes her unique.

Steve Boettcher, the veteran PBS producer and "Pioneers of Television" showrunner, said in a recent interview that, "We did a 'Pioneers' interview with her about 12 years ago, and then sat down with her 10 years ago, thinking we'd like to do something" on her 70th year on television. "But she's had her foot on the gas her entire career, and with 'Hot in Cleveland,' and everything else, she's been incredibly busy," and there was never any time to complete the interviews. He said she finally did "take a break" and so this broadcast will consequently mark the 80th year.

Boettcher collected "thousands of hours" of interviews and footage over the past five years, but in his telling, the many encounters were rarely sustained. He'd catch up with her in the back of a car, or on set. He'd show up at her office where she appeared daily, to respond to fan mail or sort through her various appointments.

Besides a relentless work ethic, the secret to both her success and longevity, he says, begins with her love of animals which are "very very important part of her life." (There's a great clip here of White embracing a grizzly bear at the Los Angeles Zoo, and the affection appears mutual.)

The secret to her career longevity came from her mother, Christine, "who was a cockeyed optimist and instilled in her a sense that you've always got to embrace life."

White, he says, "stays in the moment [and] has the ability to really really enjoy life."

"First Lady of Television" is ardent, and abundant, proof.

White's life on TV

What were just a few of Betty White's most famous credits? Here are just a few:

"Life with Elizabeth" (1952-55) Her first sitcom, a syndicated series which co-starred Del Moore, and was based on sketches she originated on her earlier talk show "Hollywood on Television."

"The Betty White Show" (1954; '58) The first talk show hosted and produced by a woman. White managed the feat six days a week for the hourlong show.

"Make the Connection" (1955) White's first stint as a game show panelist. An avid game player and expert panelist, she'd become in time the most prolific game-show panelist in TV history, on shows such as "To Tell the Truth" (41 episodes), "$10,000 Pyramid" (75 times) and "The Match Game" (555 episodes).

"The Tonight Show" On June 27, 1958, White makes her first appearances on "The Tonight Show," with Jack Paar as host. She's appeared 95 times over the years, making her the third most frequent guest in "Tonight" history, and nearly tied with second-place Joan Rivers (97).

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (1970-77) As Sue Ann Nivens, the Happy Homemaker and foil of a thousand jokes.

"The Golden Girls" (1985-92) As good-hearted Rose Nylund who was otherwise "not the brightest nickel in the drawer" (as White once described her) but who was a fan favorite and vital to the success of "Girls."

"The Bold and the Beautiful" (2006-09) As Ann Douglas, and mother to characters Stephanie Forrester and Pamela Douglas, White had a starring role on a major soap opera for the first time in her career.

"Hot in Cleveland" (2010-15) As Elka Ostrovsky, White manages something no one else ever has — a starring role on a network series in six of the past seven decades. (Only during the ’60s, when she was a prominent talk show host and game show panelist, did she miss out on sitcom stardom.)

— VERNE GAY

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