Betty White, legendary actress and America’s favorite senior citizen, dies at 99 – USA TODAY

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Didn’t at least some part of you think Betty White would go on forever?

There are stars whose deaths are a surprise because, let’s face it, we forgot they were still alive. White’s death on Dec. 31 is a shock because she was so incredibly alive, from her start as a TV ingénue to her reign as America’s favorite senior citizen. Surely we can be forgiven for thinking she was always with us, and always would be.

White died Friday, her agent and friend Jeff Witjas confirmed to USA TODAY.

“Betty has had a fantastic life and career and she was one of the most positive people I know.  She is now reunited with her (late husband) Allen Ludden.”

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department also confirmed to USA TODAY that they “responded to a death investigation call around 9:30 this morning,” but declined to provide a name.

She was set to celebrate her 100th birthday on Jan. 17 and had big plans to do so. On Dec. 17, she invited fans via a tweet to mark the major milestone with “100 Years Young,” a nearly 2-hour film about her with cameos from White’s friends including Ryan Reynolds, Tina Fey, Robert Redford, Lin Manuel- Miranda, Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Kimmel and others. 

She also tweeted on Dec. 28 about her milestone birthday. “My 100th birthday… I cannot believe it is coming up,” she shared alongside a magazine cover she did with People. The issue featuring White hit newsstands Dec. 29.

My 100th birthday… I cannot believe it is coming up, and People Magazine is celebrating with me! The new issue of @people is available on newsstands nationwide tomorrow.

— Betty White (@BettyMWhite) December 28, 2021

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Has any TV star ever had a better run? Her 21 Primetime Emmy nominations, stretching over seven decades from 1951 to 2014, and five wins — with a Daytime Emmy thrown in — only begin to tell the story.

From her very first television series, “Life With Elizabeth,” there has hardly been a time when she has not been a regular presence in our homes: From “Date With the Angels” through “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Betty White Show,” “Mama’s Family,” “The Golden Girls,” “Boston Legal,” “Hot in Cleveland” and “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers.”

And that’s not to mention the years of afternoons we spent watching her on game-show panels, including “To Tell the Truth,” “What’s My Line,” “Girl Talk,” “The Match Game,” “You Don’t Say!,” “Just Men!,” “The Hollywood Squares,” “The $25,000 Pyramid” — and of course “Password,” the show where she met her third husband, Allen Ludden.

As “Hot in Cleveland” reached its 2015 finale, White, a spry 93, told USA TODAY she was open to more acting work.

“That’s one of the things I appreciate the most, that I’m still invited to work. Usually, you get to a given age —  and that’s a couple of decades ago for me — and (work) dries up, but, oh, I’ve been so lucky,” said White, who followed “Cleveland” with guest appearances on “Bones” and a few other acting projects. “Work is just a joy. I know it can’t go on forever, but I’m making the most of whatever comes along.”

White received a standing ovation during an appearance at the 2018 Primetime Emmy awards, as she joked about her longevity.

“Somebody said something the other day about the ‘First Lady of Television’ and I took it as a big compliment,” she told fellow stars and millions of TV viewers. “Then I heard her talking to her daughter a little later and she said … ‘She’s that old, she was the first one, way, way back.'” 

Even at 97, White remained an active force in show business, lending her voice to 2019’s “Toy Story 4” as the teething toy “Bitey White” and 2019’s “Trouble,” as the wealthy dog owner Sarah Vanderwhoozie. That year, she also embraced her “B-Dawg” alter ego for an NBC “Sunday Night Football” promo.

Not only was it a long and great career, it was a career that inspired an almost unprecedented level of affection from all age groups. In her late 80s, she won a Teen Choice Award for the 2009 Sandra Bullock-Ryan Reynolds film, “The Proposal,” and became the beneficiary of a youth-driven Internet campaign that made her, at 88, the oldest host of Saturday Night Live. Her long advocacy for animals only made her more beloved by fans.

The secret of White’s appeal lay in her ability to convey an incredible, but never cloying, sweetness while also being able to project an equally incredible level of sexual voraciousness. For most of her career she bounced between the two extremes, but sometimes she combined them — and every time, in every role, there was something knowing behind the eyes that belied the innocence of the smile.

We saw the sweetness first, as she played a young wife in the now largely forgotten 1953 sitcom “Life With Elizabeth” and the 1957 ABC series “Date With the Angels.” They won her a 20-year stint as host of the Tournament of Roses Parade, but neither made her a star.

That process began, oddly enough, with her 1960s stint on “Password,” the show that introduced her to Ludden, the man she called her great love. Apparently, he saw what we did: Lurking behind that gentle exterior was a smart, accomplished woman with an incredibly quick wit and a talent for putting across a racy double entendre without allowing the slightest hint of smut to ruin the fun.

Without “Password” and her other genuinely amusing game show appearances, she may never have been cast against type in her first great TV role: Sue Ann Nivens in “Mary Tyler Moore.”

Joining the show in 1973 as WJM’s “Happy Homemaker,” White seemed to delight in tweaking her own image — switching effortlessly from the saccharine on-air Homemaker to the viperish Sue Ann — and filling a supporting-character void vacated with the spin-off departure of Valerie Harper’s iconic Rhoda, a task that would have intimidated a lesser performer.

Sue Ann leered after producer Lou Grant, insulted news writer Murray, and treated poor Mary as if she were a lamb she couldn’t be bothered to slaughter. Has any actor ever been better at hiding a dig behind a mirthless smile — and has any show ever pulled off a better set piece than the gang’s first visit to Sue Ann’s mirrored love nest?

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Having embodied that character so well, most actors would have been content with — or doomed to — variations on it for the rest of their careers. Instead, for her next hit series, White went in the opposite direction. Rather than playing the sex-crazed Blanche, the role that was first offered to her on “The Golden Girls,” White traded with Rue McClanahan and took the part of TV’s queen of naiveté, Rose Nylund.

For seven years on “Girls” and another on spin-off “Golden Palace,” she redefined the limits of playing dumb while proving older women could be as big a TV draw as their younger sisters — a lesson that, sadly, the industry quickly forgot.

She was in her 70s when her run as Rose ended, an age when many actors find work opportunities scarce. But White had one more great role in her, a role that would carry her to the end of her life, and it was — to put it broadly — Betty White, Dirty Old Broad.

The part was created for her by David E. Kelley in his big-screen horror spoof, “Lake Placid,” where every inappropriate word White uttered drew a shocked laugh. He did a variation on it for her in lawyer dramas “The Practice” and “Boston Legal,” and she basically ran with it from there, in her TV appearances and in her final sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland.” She got old, which happens. The act didn’t, which almost never does.

But of course, people only get so old, and then they leave us. We always knew she would. But White left us with Sue Ann and Rose and a thousand happy memories, and how many people can say the same?

So maybe she will be with us forever after all.

Contributing: Bill Keveney, Charlie Trepany, Amy Haneline