News-Press staff writer Marilyn McMahon says talking with the star was like conversing with a friend
Editor’s note: News-Press staff writer Marilyn McMahon interviewed Betty White in 2000 in advance of the longtime star’s appearance at a scholarship luncheon for Girls Incorporated of Greater Santa Barbara. The News-Press is reprinting the story in honor of Ms. White, who died Dec. 31 at age 99. Her 100th birthday would have been on Jan. 17.
At the time of this story, Ms. White was 78 years old and had a role on the CBS sitcom “Ladies Man,” whose stars included future “Big Bang Theory” actress Kaley Cuoco (who grew up in Camarillo). Ms. White’s other TV credits varied from “Boston Legal” to “Hot in Cleveland,” in addition to her classic roles on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Golden Girls.”
It could have been a scene from the hit TV series, “The Golden Girls.”
There I was sitting at my kitchen table, wearing a bathrobe, sipping my morning coffee and talking to actress Betty White, who portrayed Rose on the NBC comedy. When the 30-minute telephone interview was over, I felt as if I had just had a delightful conversation with a friend.
Ms. White apologized for scheduling the early morning interview, but it was the only time she had available. Long past the age at which most people retire, Ms. White was working full time in a new TV series, serving on the board of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association and was appointed by Mayor Richard Riordan to the Los Angeles Zoo Commission.
Despite her hectic agenda, Ms. White is coming to Santa Barbara to speak at the 15th annual spring scholarship luncheon for Girls Incorporated of Greater Santa Barbara.
“Practice Kindness” is Ms. White’s topic.
“It sounds corny, but we live on such a hard edge these days that I think we are losing our humanity. We are tense, brusque and rude. We focus on the negative,” she told the News-Press. “But life doesn’t have to be this way. We have a choice. We can do little things to make life pleasant for ourselves and other people.”
“Well, take driving,” said Ms. White. “We’re not going to get there one second faster if we keep on switching lanes. I have a heavy foot when I’m driving, but when push comes to shove, I let the other guy in. This takes no effort, and it leaves me with a good feeling and probably him, too. Still, it’s no big thing, and it may prevent a road rage situation.”
Ms. White also believes that the practice of kindness should be extended to animals. She said she rarely declines an invitation to talk about animal health and well-being, but she stressed that she is not an animal activist.
“I think my love for animals goes back to the womb,” she said. “I love nature in all forms, and my appreciation for it increases with time. My three pets are sitting here looking up at me right now.”
Ms. White shares her home with Panda, a Shih Tzu; Kitta, a golden retriever; and Bobcat, a Himalayan cat.
“I had to wait eight months to get Kitta, a career change dog from the Guide Dogs for the Blind,” she said.
In addition to her work with the Los Angeles Zoo, Ms. White served for three years as president of the Morris Animal Foundation, a national research group dedicated to improving the health of companion animals. She received the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Humane Award in 1982. Ms. White also wrote “Betty White’s Pet Love,” which explains how animals take care of us.
In 1970-71, she created, wrote and hosted a syndicated TV animal series, “The Pet Set.”
During a career that began soon after she graduated from Beverly Hills High School, Ms. White has won numerous awards for her work in radio, television and film. Her portrayal of Sue Ann Nivens, the conniving man-hungry gourmet with a cooking program, on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” brought two Emmys for supporting actress in 1974-75 and 1975-76. Ms. White was nominated seven times for best actress in a comedy series for “The Golden Girls,” winning the Emmy the first season in 1985.
She also was named best guest actress in a comedy series in 1996 for her work on “The John Larroquette Show,” bringing her total Emmys to six.
The American Comedy Awards gave her the Funniest Female Award in 1987 and Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990. In 1995, she was inducted into the Television Academy’s Hall of Fame.
Which of her many roles has she enjoyed most?
“I loved playing Rose on ‘The Golden Girls.’ Rose was not dumb — she was just terminally naive — and she was always positive about life,” said Ms. White. “I also loved the show because I was totally involved with it. I enjoyed playing Sue Ann because Mary Tyler Moore and I are good friends, but my appearances were sporadic. Do you know that reruns of ‘Golden Girls’ have been on for three years, sometimes six times a day? Some fans know the lines better than I do.”
Ms. White has no intention of retiring from a career of more than 60 years.
“To what? I’m having too much fun,” she said. “In fact, my favorite role is the one I’m playing currently on the new CBS series, ‘Ladies Man,’ on Monday nights.”
The series stars Alfred Molina as Jimmy Stiles, a “well-meaning, if somewhat bumbling man,” surrounded by women. Ms. White, who plays his mother, describes herself as “a bit of a swinger with my own agenda. I’m open to adventure, and I don’t care if my activities interfere with their lives. I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in the business.”
Not coy about revealing her age, Ms. White said she is 78.
“I’ve never tried to fool anybody,” she said. “How could I? All you have to do is turn on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and hear “Happy Birthday, Betty White, 78 today.’ “