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Betty White, the golden girl of film and television, has died at 99

The beloved film and television star enjoyed a career with a length and impact that is unparallelled.
/ Source: TODAY

Betty White, whose pioneering career as a TV star mirrored that of the medium itself, has died, NBC News confirmed Friday. She was 99 years old.

"Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever," her agent and close friend Jeff Witjas said in a statement given to NBC News. "I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don't think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband, Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again."

Born Jan. 17, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, White was the rare performer who maintained an ability to appeal to a cross-section of people, winning devoted fans of all ages and both men and women, while remaining a pop culture icon well into her later years.

Actresses Betty White And Carolyn Hennesy Host Media Preview For Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association's Beastly Ball Fundraiser
Betty White in 2015.Vincent Sandoval / WireImage

White’s list of accomplishments is as long and varied as her own career. She notched her first Emmy Award nomination in 1951 and her last in 2014. She would earn a staggering 21 nominations in her lifetime, winning five times. She also won a Daytime Emmy in 1983 for outstanding host or hostess in a game or audience participation show for “Just Men!” — the first woman with such an accolade.

White received a lifetime achievement Daytime Emmy in 2015. A 1995 inductee of the Television Hall of Fame, the actor was recognized with a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1988, a lifetime achievement award at the American Comedy Awards in 1990 and a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2010. She even won a Teen Choice Award for her role in the 2009 film “The Proposal.” Guinness has cited her for Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female).

An only child, White moved to California before she was 2 years old. She graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1939 and appeared on an experimental TV show in Los Angeles that same year. After volunteering to support the effort during World War II, White wanted to break into show business and did some theater and radio work.

After getting a few small TV jobs, White was approached by Los Angeles disc jockey Al Jarvis to appear on his TV show. The show aired live for five and a half hours a day, six days a week and required them to do a lot of ad libbing. She stayed on the show for nearly four years. “It was like going to television college,” she said of the experience, which, in 1951, garnered her her first Emmy nomination in the newly created best actress category. One of the recurring sketches on that show would become White’s first sitcom, “Life with Elizabeth,” which aired from 1953 to 1955.

Betty White
Betty White in 1954.NBC

She would go on to host two iterations of “The Betty White Show” in the 1950s and soon became a regular fixture on TV, where she would remain for the duration of her life. She frequently appeared on “The Tonight Show” when Jack Paar hosted it, and the 1960s saw her begin a relationship with game shows, with her often serving as a celebrity panelist. She would appear on a wide range of shows, including “To Tell the Truth,” “What’s My Line,” “I’ve Got a Secret,” “Pyramid,” "Match Game” and “Password.”

She met her third husband, game show host Allen Ludden, on “Password” in 1961. They married in 1963 and remained together until his death in 1981. White never had kids of her own, although she was stepmother to Ludden’s three kids from his previous marriage. She never remarried.

Betty White with husband Allen Ludden in February 1972.Getty Images

"I had the love of my life," she told Anderson Cooper in 2011 when talking about dating. "If you've had the best, who needs the rest?"

White took the occasional guest role on TV series in the ‘60s before she landed the career-changing part as Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” First appearing on the landmark comedy’s fourth season in 1973, White played a co-worker of Moore’s Mary Richards, earning a pair of Emmy Awards.

Image: The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The cast of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in 1975: Betty White, Ted Knight, Georgia Engel, Gavin McLeod, Mary Tyler Moore and Ed Asner.Getty Images

Her success on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” led to her own short-lived self-titled sitcom, her third “Betty White Show” bearing her name. She would continue to appear on game shows and made several guest appearances on TV shows, while also hosting NBC’s “Just Men!”

White’s career-defining role, though, would come in 1985 when she joined Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty to make up a quartet of senior citizens living together in Miami on the smash NBC comedy “The Golden Girls.”

Image: The Golden Girls
Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur, Betty White and Rue McClanahan in an episode of "The Golden Girls."NBC

Her portrayal of naïve Rose Nylund resonated with viewers and critics alike. The show was a ratings winner, and White snagged the Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series in 1986. She would garner another six nominations for the role. The show itself remains a cultural phenomenon running strongly in syndication.

"Now, Rose isn't slow-witted; she just marches to a different drum, that's all," White told TODAY in 1987. "Rose believes anything anybody tells her and she takes each word at its surface meaning; she never looks for the overall meaning. And sometimes she backs into unfortunate situations."

White would remain as vital and in demand as ever after “The Golden Girls” ended, earning Emmy nods for guest roles on “The John Larroquette Show,” “Suddenly Susan,” “Yes, Dear,” “The Practice” and “My Name Is Earl.”

In 2010, she became the oldest host of “Saturday Night Live,” which also earned her an Emmy nomination. She starred in the TV Land show “Hot in Cleveland,” which notched her yet another Emmy nomination.

She would return to her game show roots in 2012 by hosting “Betty White's Off Their Rockers,” which resulted in a trio of Emmy nominations for outstanding host for a reality or reality-competition program. The show ran for three seasons.

42nd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards - Show
Betty White accepts the lifetime achievement honor during the 42nd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards in April 2015.Allen Berezovsky / WireImage

A TV stalwart, White also made her way onto the silver screen. Most of her movie roles would come in the second half of her career, none of which received as much fanfare as 2009’s “The Proposal,” in which she teamed up with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. She also starred in “Bringing Down the House,” “You Again” and “The Lorax.” Her last film roles were in 2019, voicing Bitey White in “Toy Story 4” and Sarah Vanderwhoozie in “Trouble.”

White, who was once voted America’s most trusted celebrity, also turned down the chance to work on TODAY, with the job ultimately going to Barbara Walters. She also hosted the Tournament of Roses Parade on NBC for nearly two decades until 1975 before moving on to emcee the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on CBS for 10 years.

A lifelong animal lover, White also championed animal rights and worked with scores of organizations to help. She even wrote the 2011 book "Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo," which chronicles her love affair with animals.

“You can help something you believe in strongly just by using that celebrity,” she told The Wall Street Journal about her passion for helping various animal causes.