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Sinister dark side of a sticky-sweet actress

Despite a recent string of roles seemingly designed to challenge the notion, Betty White may be the sweetest woman in the world.
/ Source: NBC News producer

Despite a recent string of roles seemingly designed to challenge the notion, Betty White may be the sweetest woman in the world. By every indication, it is virtually impossible not to love her.

Apparently much of Hollywood would agree. The four-time Emmy Award winner began her show business career on radio programs in the ’40s. But her television career would begin full force in 1949, when she co-hosted five hours of television a day, six days a week. Three years later, at age 29, she was not only the star of the show, but also producing her own situation comedy.

During the early ’60s, she became a guest fixture on variety and game shows, including “Password,” where she met her future husband, host Allen Ludden.

In the 1970s, when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” called for a role apparently described an “icky sweet Betty White type,” someone decided it might be a good idea to get in touch with the real deal. And so, she became the overly charming and flirtatious Sue Ann Nivens on the enormously successful program.

After a series of projects in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she was cast on a show that still resonates today. On “The Golden Girls,” White was the endearing, although ditzy, Rose Nylund. (She was initially cast as the hot-and-bothered Blanche, but switched characters at the last minute.) She portrayed Rose for seven years. The show airs several times a day on Lifetime Television, where it continues to enjoy successful ratings.

In her recent television and film work, White has enjoyed playing against her sweet image, in a variety of roles that portray her as a ‘nice old lady’ with a manipulative, underhanded and occasionally foul mouthed dark side.

Her latest recurring role is on the ABC drama “Boston Legal,” a spin-off of “The Practice,” both helmed by David E. Kelley.

We’ve seen you and loved you on so many shows — but your latest work is a little bit different than what we’re used to. Tell me about it.

Well, I was so surprised when they called me for a guest spot on “Boston Legal.” I thought it was a ‘one shot,’ and when I got the script I was so delighted to find that I was the same character that I played on “The Practice” — Catherine Piper. She’s not the nicest person in the world — she’s kind of abrasive but she’s kind of funny. And my gosh, she comes back and applies for the job of James Spader’s secretary, and gets it! Don’t ask me why he hired her, but he did.

Up until recent years, people have been used to seeing the sweet side of Betty White.

Well, David E. Kelley has fixed that! On “Ally McBeal” I was a pill pusher. I was trying to get (Ally) to take pills so we could take them together, and I had a vest with all these little pill bottles in it! In “Lake Placid,” I was this little old lady way up in the wilds of Maine with a mouth like a garbage truck driver. And then on “The Practice,” I was your friendly neighborhood blackmailer. So I think David E. Kelley must know something more about me than everyone else.

Is it refreshing to be able to visit a character again? You got to know your characters Rose Nylund and Sue Ann Nivens so well. Is it nice to get to know this character?

It is great fun. She has some different facets that I can take no credit for. I mean, they’re all David E. Kelley. She’s only on briefly, but each time you get to learn a little bit more about her. I’m discovering she’s somewhat of a religious fanatic on top of it.

Speaking of religion, I watch “The Golden Girls” religiously every night because it airs at my bedtime, so I guess you could say I go to bed with you every night.

Listen — that’s the best offer, well, that’s the only offer I’ve had all morning! (Laughter.) 

Has the success of the repeats introduced you to a whole new audience?

“The Golden Girls” reruns — even the first run I think, came as a shock to everybody, including the network. I don’t think anyone expected the youth audience to pick up on it. But the majority of our mail, even when we were first on, came from kids! Now we’re a big kind of a college cult. College students have “Golden Girls” clubs and things like that. 

You’ve been working pretty steadily ever since! So what is the secret to your longevity? It’s rare for someone to keep the momentum that you have.

Are you kidding? At this age I shouldn’t be working at all!

And to be this busy is not only a delight but a complete surprise and shock to me, and believe me,  I’m not complaining. It’s just wonderful. I have been doing this silly business for 57 years, and I think a certain audience has grown up and grown old with me.

I don’t go away long enough to come back so everyone says, “Look what happened to her.” I just don’t go away. We’re all growing old together.

You’ve written four books already, but you’ve done so much since your last one. What’s the next chapter for you?

My life is divided into two equal halves. Half is show business and half is animal business. I have to stay in show business to pay for my animal business! (laughs.) I have been with the Morris Animal Foundation for 38 years. They’re a health organization. We run specific studies on the health problems of dogs, cats, horses and wildlife. I’m also a zoo commissioner at the L.A. Zoo. I’ve always been very deeply interested in animals, both domestic and wildlife.

I watched you on Pat Sajak’s late night talk show years ago. Is it my imagination or did Pat Sajak hand you a dog biscuit — and did you take a chomp out of it?

Probably! If it seemed like a good idea at the time, sure you’d do that! I was with my Golden Retriever. My best friend Tom Sullivan has been blind since birth, and he had retired his guide dog. He couldn’t handle the new guide dog that came in, and so I took her, and brought her on the show that night. So he probably took the dog biscuit out for her and I took it.

It’s not what you’d call the classiest move.

Was there a Betty White that taught dancing on LP albums? I’ve come across an album called “Learn to Fox Trot with Betty White.” Is that you or someone else?

No, it wasn’t me. You’re probably the only one who has found that. When I first started I was on a show (in Los Angeles) for five and a half hours a day, six days a week. At the same time, there was this Betty White dance album that came out, and everybody thought it was me. So I kept getting all the dancing questions and all the mail about the dancing. She must have been ready to kill me! She had her album but I got all the mail.

Multi-part question now: I know you were a fixture on game shows, so in the tradition of “Match Game,” on which you were often a guest star, I have a few quick questions that I have left ‘blank’ at the end. Let's see what else we can find out about you.

Here goes...

Q: Betty White cooks a mean...A: food.

Q: You’d be surprised that Betty White likes to...A: golf.

Q: Betty’s proudest moment was...A: ... being inducted into the Academy of Television Hall of Fame.

Q: Betty White wouldn’t be caught wearing...A: ...Thongs.

Q: Do you mean thong underwear or thong shoes?The underwear. I might get caught wearing the shoes.

You’ve been around to see how television has evolved. What’s missing from TV today?

I think it needs warmth. Everybody needs it. I know “sweet” can be a nauseating word, but you’d like to see just a little more sweetness someplace. Everybody is trying to top everybody. And the girls — God forbid they should be vulnerable. I think we need a little more vulnerability.

Well, as far as sweetness is concerned, I don’t mind that word, and I think you’ve got sweetness covered! Maybe we need more Betty White!

See the sinister darker side of Betty White on “Boston Legal,” Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.