Trailblazing television star, beloved actress, and cultural icon Betty White has died at the age of 99. TMZ originally reported the news on Friday, and White’s agent, Jeff Witjas, confirmed White’s passing to People. White was just weeks away from her 100th birthday on January 17.
White, who garnered eight Emmys over her decades-long career, was best known for her unforgettable roles as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. With 119 acting credits to her name, White held the record for the longest TV career of any entertainer of all time. Born in Oak Park, Illinois, White eventually moved with her family to Los Angeles, where she made her first TV appearance in 1939 on an experimental local TV channel at the age of 17. White’s TV debut predates, by a few months, the introduction of television as a medium to the masses at 1939’s World’s Fair. White’s breakthrough role came in 1949 as a co-host on the variety show Hollywood on Television with Al Jarvis, and she would go on to earn her first Emmy nomination for “Best Actress” in 1951 – the first award in that category’s history.
White, a boundary-breaking television star by 1952, then became the first woman to produce a sitcom, Life with Elizabeth, which she also starred in. She also starred in and produced The Betty White Show on NBC in 1954, which featured an African-American tap dancer, Arthur Duncan. When Southern stations threatened to boycott the program over Duncan’s inclusion, White remarked, “Live with it.” Duncan, reflecting on his work with her in 2018, said, “She was probably one of the nicest, grandest, greatest people I’ve had the chance to meet in my life.”
Throughout the 1960s, White was a staple on talk shows like Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show as well as on game shows like Password, where White met her husband, host Allen Ludden. In his statement to People, Witjas said, “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.” In 1973, White was cast as the, in her words, “icky sweet” Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which earned her two Emmy awards and three nominations. The role was instantly iconic, with White later remarking, “Of course, I loved Sue Ann. She was so rotten. You can’t get much more rotten than the neighborhood nymphomaniac.”
In 1985, White was cast as the naive and endearing Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls, the same year she was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. Golden Girls was a massive success, running for seven seasons and earning White her next seven Emmy nominations. Following Golden Girls’ run, White starred as Elka Ostrovsky on TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland, which ran for six seasons. A beloved and irreplaceable figure on American TV, White also made regular guest appearances on innumerable shows including 30 Rock and Community, and was a late-night TV regular, appearing on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show as well as The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
Following a hugely popular Facebook campaign, White became the oldest person to ever host Saturday Night Live in 2010 at the age of 88, for which she scored another Emmy. In addition to her work on TV, White was also a devoted animal rights activist, with Witjas noting, “I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much.”