Forever Betty

updated 12/06/1999 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/06/1999 01:00AM

Sue Ann Nivens probably would have whipped up something more elaborate, but Betty White—who played The Mary Tyler Moore Show's precursor to Martha Stewart with sweet malice from 1973 to 1977—so far has celebrated her 50th anniversary on television with little ado. On the set of her latest sitcom, CBS's Ladies Man, cast and crew recently crowded around a cake and lifted champagne glasses. Executive producer Chris Thompson offered a toast. "The password is 'talent,' " he said, alluding to the classic game show hosted by White's late husband, Allen Ludden, and on which she herself was a frequent, savvy player. "The password is 'professional.' The password is 'class.' "

The guest of honor, 77, beamed. "I've been the luckiest broad on the face of this earth," White said with her typical enthusiasm, which always stops just short of gushing.

White has been one of the most familiar, endearing, enduring comic presences on TV since 1949. "You show a picture of Betty, and everybody will stand up and salute," says Estelle Getty, her costar for seven years on The Golden Girls, in which White played naive Rose Nylund. Even Alfred Molina, her beleaguered son on Ladies Man, followed her career in his native London. "I've been a fan for years," he says. White has done so much TV she can't even tally her appearances—including a recent shot as Ally McBeal's shrink—but her Emmys total six. She keeps them in the three-bedroom home she shared with Ludden in Brentwood, Calif.

Her persona has changed little—same hairstyle, same tilt of the head, same old Betty, always cheerful, sometimes bawdy. When she was cast as Mary Tyler Moore's sexually predatory Sue Ann in the show's third year, "I thought, 'This is one hot mama,' " says Ed Asner, who played Lou Grant. No matter the part, says Mary Tyler Moore, "you know underneath is a good soul."

White says she makes no special effort to fend off age. Exercise? "I have a two-story house and a very bad memory. I'm up and down those stairs all the time." What has kept her young, she says, are her pets: Panda, a shih tzu; a Himalayan feline named Bob Cat; and Kitta, a golden retriever and former guide dog "who had bum hips." White is almost as well-known as an animal-welfare champion as she is as a star. She's vice president of the Los Angeles Zoo Commission, had her own syndicated show, The Pet Set, in 1971 and is quick to share veterinary advice with friends like Vicki Lawrence. White once steered the Mama's Family costar to a specialist for what appeared to be a fatally sick cat. "Betty says go," says Lawrence, "and like $2, 000 later the cat is fine." She turned down a plum film role—Helen Hunt's mom in As Good as It Gets—because in one scene Jack Nicholson dumped a lapdog down a trash chute.

Growing up in L.A., White learned her love of animals and nature from her father, Horace White, an electrical engineer. Each year he took his only child and her mother, Tess, a homemaker, camping in the Sierra Nevadas. And he had a soft spot for pets. "We wound up with 26 dogs once," says White.

She fantasized about being a forest ranger but fell in love with acting in school. She skipped college to pursue that dream, but two marriages slowed her down. Dick Barker, a WW II pilot who wed White in 1945, took her home to an Ohio chicken farm. "Oh, it was a nightmare," says White. In four months she was back in L.A. and soon doing theater. In '47 she married an agent, Lane Allen—"but he wanted me to stop show business." They split in two years.

Then her career took off. In 1949 she became an on-air girl Friday to deejay Al Jarvis, whose show started out broadcasting five hours a day. With TV still in its infancy, "we were one of the only games in town," says White. "It was like television college." In 1952 she produced and starred in her first sitcom, Life with Elizabeth. By 1960 she had starred in several more series and was a polished game show player. "I just loved those," says White.

Password became more than a game. As a celebrity player in 1961, she met host Allen Ludden. "A delight," she says. Starring in a play with White the following summer, Ludden, a recent widower with three children, became smitten. Within weeks, he proposed marriage—"just as a joke," says White, who was in no mood for remarrying. "But he wouldn't let up." When she refused a diamond wedding ring ("Oh, I was a bitch!"), he wore it on a chain around his neck. She finally gave in on Easter 1963. He sent her "this adorable fluffy white stuffed bunny," she recalls, "and in its ears were gold leaves with ruby, diamond and sapphire earrings." They wed that year. "I wasted all that time we could have been together," she says ruefully.

White learned to adjust to being stepmom to David (now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania), Martha (a secretary in Washington, D.C.) and Sarah (a martial-arts instructor in Chicago). "It turned out great," she says. Those years with Ludden also included her Emmy-winning triumph on Mary Tyler Moore, which ended its run in 1977.

Ludden was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer a few years later. The disease progressed slowly, affording them time to build a dream getaway home in Carmel, Calif. In his final days, "we took him back up to see the house finished," says White. "He slept there two nights." He died at 63 in 1981. White remembers being home alone days after that: "I came upstairs, and our dogs were lying on his robe. I just fell apart, and we sat there together on the floor." White speaks softly of those times, but she prefers to keep sorrow to herself. "There is a tremendous amount of feeling in her churning away," says Mary Tyler Moore. White did carry on bravely, she admits, "but if one more person said, 'Oh, you're so strong,' I would have decked them."

In the years since Ludden's death, her work pace seems to have actually quickened: Mama's Family and her own game show Just Men! in 1983; The Golden Girls from 1985 to 1992; and The Golden Palace, its short-lived spinoff. She was Bob New-hart's boss on 1993's Bob and Marie Osmond's mother on 1995's Maybe This Time. Now she's Alfred Molina's mother on Ladies Man. And her timing is still crack. Says Sharon Lawrence, who plays her daughter-in-law: "She's so quick."

At her age, White doesn't want to waste a second. "You better realize how good life is while it's happening," she says, "because before you know it, it will all be gone."

Tom Gliatto
Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

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