Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
I’m very sad, but hardly shocked. The prospect of Betty White’s death – which has been trotted out numerous times as one of those sick little gags on the Internet – has taunted many of us for some time. This became especially unnerving once the pandemic began, when it seemed plausible that Covid-19 could take away even a nonagenarian as durable and indefatigable as Betty White.
Bells and whistles would go off on social media whenever she was trending – which was often – spurring brief intervals of panic and premature grief before it turned out she was perfectly OK.
This time, alas, it’s for real. Seventeen days before she was due to turn 100, White died on New Year’s Eve, which seemed a cruel, yet inescapable exclamation point to yet another year rife with the dimming of bright shining lights in American life.
To repeat: it’s not a shock that she died. But you don’t have to be shocked to be deeply hurt by a loss – which for those of us of a certain age, is especially poignant.
Because if you were born when black-and-white television was the only television there was, Betty White was a constant, sturdy and endlessly engaging presence. Going all the way back to 1949, when she appeared regularly on a local Los Angeles talk show, “Hollywood on Television” and later became its full-time host, White and the TV camera were involved in an abiding, mutually sustaining romance.
From the start, her effervescent personality balanced with a crafty sense of humor that arose at unexpected intervals made her a natural for both situation comedies and the ad-libbed variety show.
She hosted the nationally televised “The Betty White Show” and starred in two sitcoms during the 1950s, neither of which lasted for more than two seasons. Yet she was always around somehow, as a guest on quiz and panel shows. She was so ubiquitous in those genres that she was once dubbed “first lady of game shows.” (Maybe it was inevitable that her third and last husband was Allen Ludden, the original host of “Password’ to whom she was, by all accounts, happily married for 18 years until his death in 1981 from cancer.)
By the 1970s, White’s stature as TV’s most charming guest was entrenched and her career took an unexpected, yet brilliant turn when she joined the regular cast of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” as the duplicitous and lascivious “Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens. The role offered White a wicked, witty turnabout on her heretofore warm-and-bubbly TV image while broadening the range of roles she was offered in years to come.
Sue Ann gave White two consecutive primetime Emmys for supporting actress in a comedy in 1975 and 1976. She won another for lead actress in 1986 as the scatter-brained Minnesota widow Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls,” which deepened White’s romance with both the camera and generations of viewers.
In the years to come, they would see her play a sweet, criminally insane widow on “Boston Legal,” become the first woman to win a Daytime Emmy for outstanding game show host for the short-lived “Just Men!” and host “Saturday Night Live” in 2010, at the age of 88, after a successful social media campaign called for her to get the gig.
No matter how much you tally the awesome number of credits White collected, you’re still left wondering how she lasted so long and in so many different contexts.
A simple answer may come from recognizing White’s penchant for constant, diligent work. Another may come in her innate sense of when and how to adjust to the medium she all but embodied. She knew when it was time to juice up her image to keep up with the more socially permissive 1970s and 1980s without going overboard. When she found she could get added laughs as a bawdy, salty “old lady,” White took up the persona with unbridled joy that was shared by her expanding fan base.
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In short: timing, always the first and best quality in comedic acting, was the principal quality of White’s durability. If things were too bland, add a little spice without overdoing it. If she was on too many things at once, step back for a while until your inner image maker tells you it’s time to let the networks and cable channels know you’re up for anything.
And she was, almost to the very end.
Nothing left to add except to thank her for being a friend, right?
More than that.
For being there.