Sweet. Sassy. Kind. Funny. And very smart. Those are just a few of the heartfelt air-kisses wafting throughout Betty White: First Lady of Television. This pleasant new 55-minute documentary, directed by Steven J. Boettcher, debuts tonight, Tuesday, August 21, 2018, during a 90-minute PBS fundraising blitz that rolls out at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat screenings in your region.)
It’s pretty clear that the endearing Betty White you’ve come to know and love at various stages of her remarkable, 80-year career in show business is the same caring, zesty, quick-witted charmer off-camera as well. As early TV programmers cast their net in uncharted territory, she heard opportunity knocking and became a pioneer in the new medium in her own right. She was the first woman to produce a national TV show, the first woman to star in a sitcom, the first producer to hire a female director, and the first woman to receive an Emmy® nomination.
Filmed over a period of five years and peppered with recent interviews with Betty, her co-stars, and wonderful vintage TV clips, Betty White: First Lady of Television introduces viewers to her groundbreaking segue into TV via Hollywood on Television (1949-’53) and her seamless slide into sitcoms in Life with Elizabeth (1952-’55).
A devotee of legendary film soprano Jeanette MacDonald and her screen partner, Nelson Eddy, Betty also made good use of her own lovely singing voice, as is evident in the charming vintage clips that bookend this film. It’s obvious from these clips that the camera always loved her and she loved it back. And that affection has continued to extend to the fans who followed her career and grew throughout the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and into the new millennium.
Interviewed for this film during her nineties (Betty turned 96 on January 17, 2018!), Betty adds significant perspective to her career’s salad days and her catalog of beloved signature character roles, including Elizabeth (Life with Elizabeth); Sue Ann Nivens (Mary Tyler Moore, 1973-’77); Rose Nylund (The Golden Girls, 1985-1992); and Elka Ostrovsky (Hot in Cleveland, 2010-’15).
Always fascinated by words, Betty hit the ground running as an early TV game show celebrity guest, most famously appearing regularly on Password, where she met and married the show’s original host, Allen Ludden. Off-camera, she sharpens her competitive edge with daily Scrabble games and crossword puzzles.
A lifelong animal welfare advocate, Betty has spent decades partnering with various zoos and animal rights organizations, speaking out and writing books about the wisdom of animals. When you see her cuddling and sharing kisses and treats with a huge bear in Betty White: First Lady of Television, first you’ll probably gasp and question the scene’s veracity, but your cynicism will quickly fade and you’ll be touched by the depth of her love for animals.
“You can always tell about somebody the way they put their hands on an animal,” she has said. “Animals don’t lie. Animals don’t criticize. If animals have moody days, they handle them better than humans do.”
For this reason, I’ve always been a Betty White fan and tried never to miss a variety or talk show (The Tonight Show was a regular Betty White stomping ground) that featured her as a guest. I laughed my way through her hilarious turn at age 88 as the oldest host and star of Saturday Night Live (May 8, 2010). I think she appeared in most of the sketches during that special Mother’s Day episode, each one funnier and more risqué than the next.
According to Betty White: “I may be a senior, but so what? I’m still hot.” Yes, that’s true, Betty! We should all be so lucky!
Be inspired to thumb your nose at your advancing age and revisit more than a few memorable TV moments with this talented, cockeyed optimist and the friends and colleagues who sing her praises. Tune in to PBS at 8:00 p.m. ET tonight, Tuesday, August 21, 2018, and enjoy an hour with Betty White: First Lady of Television. (Check local listings for air times and repeat screenings in your region.) –Judith Trojan