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Betty White at 90: Seven decades on screen [video]

January 17, 2012 | 12:39 pm

Betty White
Betty White may be the most obsessed-over woman in Hollywood these days (seriously, the stars fall all over themselves to get near her at awards shows). But her route to the top of Mt. Celebrity has been a long, long time coming.

White was born in Oak Park, Ill., in 1922 and made her screen acting debut at age 23 in the 1945 short film "Time to Kill" alongside fellow neophyte actor DeForest Kelley (who was Bones before there was "Bones") and future Superman George Reeves. The short film was produced by the U.S. Armed Forces as a way to encourage soldiers to get an education after their tours of duty in order to achieve success later in life. Betty appears 10 minutes into the short as Lou's girlfriend, encouraging the poor lunk to go back to school when he gets out of the Army.

By 1952, Betty had had her own radio show and became host of the live, daily variety show "Hollywood on Television." The next year White landed her first starring role on the sitcom "Life With Elizabeth," an "I Love Lucy"-style comedy that was unique in that Betty, as the lead, would often communicate with the show's narrator. The series lasted two seasons, until 1955.

Through the 1960s, White became known as the host of the annual Tournament of Roses parade, and as a regular celebrity guest on "Password" (she was married to the show's host Allan Ludden), "What's My Line?" and "To Tell the Truth," among others. Betty and Alan Ludden met on "Password" and married in 1963. They remained married until his death in 1981.

White's most famous role to date was as Sue Ann Nivens, the host of "The Happy Homemaker" on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Moore wanted a Betty White-type and wound up casting the woman herself as the man-hungry Sue Ann. The role won her two Emmys as supporting actress on a comedy series, which ran from 1973 to 1977.

Amazingly, White topped her role on "Mary Tyler Moore" with her starring role on "The Golden Girls," the sitcom about the lives of four elderly widows or divorcees who are roommates in Miami. Betty played the naive Minnesotan Rose Nylund, a role that earned her another Emmy for actress in a comedy series and nominations for every year of the sitcom's run, from 1985 to 1992.

After "Golden Girls" ended, White was an actress for hire, racking up an impressive number of guest star appearances on "Malcolm in the Middle," "Ally McBeal," "Everwood," "Joey" and an Emmy-winning appearance on "The John Larroquette Show." She also found a way to reinvent her image as a trash-talking, foul-mouthed granny in David E. Kelley's giant alligator horror-comedy "Lake Placid." Her saucier scenes aren't acceptable for a family website such as this, but this scene gives you some idea of what she's like: She feeds a cow to a giant alligator.

The real Hollywood obsession with Betty White began sometime during the actress' 80s. Perhaps it's because at such an age, the actress still seems as spry and alert and aware as ever, as evidenced by this live song-and-dance performance she gave at Morgan Freeman's AFI Career Achievement ceremony last year, when Betty was 89 years old.

That's not even mentioning White's regular role on her third major sitcom, "Hot in Cleveland" or her fan-demanded hosting of "Saturday Night Live." On Monday night, NBC aired a prime-time special in honor of the actress' 90th birthday, with tributes from Amy Poehler, Joel McHale, Ed Asner, Mary Tyler Moore and even a video greeting from President Obama. Here's a behind-the-scenes clip of Betty's arrival at the ceremony and her standing ovation.


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Photo: Betty White. Credit: Jason Kempin / Getty Images