TV

Betty White is a sweetie with a salty side

To know Betty White's career is to know the progression of modern American entertainment.

From radio dramas to experimental 1940s television, from game shows to TV's most memorable sitcom ensembles; from the early incarnations of late-night chat to YouTube, Betty White has evolved with each medium.

Whether spontaneously inventing the variety show on TV, starring in the most-talked-about commercial of this year's Super Bowl or being the subject of a fan-based Internet campaign, Betty White is not just current, she is pop-culture currency.

Somehow, White has always been media-ready.

This week, White will host what some predict will be the highest-rated Saturday Night Live in years. Afterward, she'll fly back to California to begin work on her next project, Hot in Cleveland, a sitcom for TVLand.

The groundswell of adulation "blows my mind," she said in an interview last week. "I can't get over, at my age, what all is going on."

Her celebrated renaissance at 88 flies in the face of the medium's worship of all things youthful. While noting that she is blessed with energy and health, she delights in referring to herself as an "old broad."

From pre-network TV to her recent bow as a Web sensation, the comic actress has left a mark on whatever medium is in fashion. Her Snickers ad, in which White appears to be tackled on a muddy football field, topped the 2010 Super Bowl ad meter and remains a hit on YouTube. New fans continue to discover her Golden Girls character, playing nightly in back-to-back episodes on cable.

"Their parents also grew up with me, and in many cases their grandparents grew up with me," White said. "I've been around as a fixture."

It's the unexpectedly catty/sexy/nasty streak beneath her sweetly naive characters that is the hallmark of her humor. The white hair and prim smile are the perfect setup for her against-type zing.

"My mental editor goes to sleep sometimes," she said, claiming her impish persona as real.

No matter how well we think we know her, the bawdy humor catches us off guard.

Her canny combination of buttoned-up propriety and lust, in the man-hungry homemaker Sue Ann Nivens, made that character an instant hit. What was supposed to be a guest shot on the Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1973 turned into a regular role in one of TV's classic comedies.

An even bigger career achievement was ahead: Her naive country-bumpkin character Rose Nylund, a font of homey Scandinavian memories and surprisingly sexualized fantasies, was a favorite on The Golden Girls starting in 1985.

With six Emmys (so far), White is known as a workhorse. And she carries her sweet-yet-salty presence off-camera. After playing opposite Sandra Bullock in 2009's The Proposal, White joked at Bullock's expense in accepting a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild: "Isn't it heartening to see how far a girl as plain as she is can go?"

She told the famous faces in the SAG audience that "I actually know many of you, have worked with quite a few. Maybe had a couple." Her deadpan reaction to this studied naughtiness has been perfected over six decades. She milked the prolonged laugh.

After Beverly Hills High School, White landed parts in popular 1940s radio shows including Blondie and The Great Gildersleeve.

She had her own radio gig, The Betty White Show, but an improvisational, live TV experiment, Hollywood on Television, was her big break.

For 51/2 to six days a week on KLAC-TV, she was part of the troupe filling time. Eventually she spun off characters from that show to launch her own domestic comedy, Life With Elizabeth, syndicated nationally.

Lucille Ball is usually credited with being the canny female comedian- entrepreneur who had control of her show in front of and behind the camera, but White did also.

She was an early hit in late-night TV. White was a substitute host for Jack Paar, Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson. She was a regular on Password, where she met her husband, Allen Ludden.

And that was all before that guest shot on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1973.

The SNL Mother's Day show promises a reunion of six former female cast members: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Molly Shannon, Maya Rudolph, Ana Gasteyer and Rachel Dratch. Knowing it's an all-female cast, White said, "I'll hit on every member of the crew."

Her career is proof that the more the media platforms change, the more showbiz remains the same. Audiences can spot a reliable, endearing performer. The only comedy she won't do, she said, is drug jokes. Otherwise, she's game for whatever the writers bring.

Her biggest fear is not being able to read the cue cards. "I hope I don't have to wear my glasses."

Her next gig, a cable sitcom, partners her with Valerie Bertinelli, Wendie Malick and Jane Leeves in Hot in Cleveland, premiering in June on TVLand, about women from Los Angeles whose plane is stuck in Ohio. When they realize they're considered "hot" there, they decide to stay. It's scheduled for 10 episodes this summer.

Thanks to the instant archive of modern entertainment, White is still playing in Date With the Angels from 1957 — on YouTube. The only existing medium she hasn't conquered is the webisode. But give her time.

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