Betty White: The Movieline Interview


Is there any more beloved American comedy icon than Betty White? You need only have scanned the outpouring on Twitter last Thursday, when the star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls shot to the top of the trending topics following a charming appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. (It bears mentioning that she took the host on in a cutthroat match of Beer Pong -- the Official Sport of Movieline, it just so happens.)

Whether boldly paving the way for cougars decades before their time as Sue Ann Nivens, or torturing roommates with tales of her Viking ancestry as Rose Nylund, there's simply no one who could match White's masterful comic timing or gift for character. With talk already turning to the possibility of Oscar nominations for her scene-stealing, tear-jerking turn in The Proposal, Movieline had the opportunity to talk with White about her incredible career.

She was everything we hoped for and more.

Wow. You're Betty White!

I don't frighten you, do I?

It's more like awe than fear.

Oh, bless you.

It's so great to meet you!

Well, it's lovely to meet you. Thank you.

I met Norman Lear on Thursday. And now you. It's the greatest week ever!

Isn't he wonderful? He is the dearest man in the world. He's just wonderful. My husband and I went to Bora Bora on a vacation, and it's way at the other end of the world. It's an 18 hour flight, then you get on a boat, and then you get on a launch, and then you finally get to the Hotel Bora Bora.

And we got off the boat, and here sitting in the restaurant is Norman Lear. And he looked up and saw Allen Ludden and Betty White, and he said, "I thought I was getting away from all of you!" And we said, "All right, look -- you go to your end of the beach, we'll go to our end of the beach, and we won't bother you at all." Of course we spent every night together. He's such a sweet man.

It was so inspiring to hear him talk about this Golden Era of television -- a bygone era, really.

Yes, he was a big part of changing it into what it became in that Golden Era.

But so were you. You career is just so expansive, and still going strong.

You can't get rid of me, is what you mean.

Well, we don't want to. How have you seen things change in Hollywood through the years?

When we started in television, there was that magic box in the corner of the room, and "Oh my gosh -- look what it's doing!" But as the years went on, the audience has become very jaded. They've heard every joke, they've seen every story line, they know where you're going before you even start to get there. And that's a hard audience to keep interested, and that's why I think so much of the shows now try to throw language, or situations, or sex -- anything to get the audience's attention. I think it's hard to go back and find that innocence. You can't. Once it's gone, it's gone. But also our morals have changed to the point where almost anything goes. The bar lowers every year, so I think it's the audience that's dictating where the shows go.

Lear emphasized that it all comes down to character. Regardless of what the subject matter was, you had to care about the people on the screen.

You had to care. That's the thing. And now so often in so many of the shows, you look at it, but you're not concentrating. You used to watch something and be so focused. Now it's running in the background, or they've got it on iPod, or they're Twittering each other.

You know what Twitter is?

Oh, yes. And they're doing all that stuff, and it's a whole new ballgame.

But you're still playing!

That's the surprise -- they haven't caught on. I just signed for another Disney movie that starts at the end of July.

What is it?

It's with Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis, and it's called You Again. It's a cute script. I fell in love with this script -- The Proposal -- because, again, you cared about the two people getting back together again. And it was a great role for me, at this age, to get a part like that. And she wasn't a mean granny. I've played mean grannies, bawdy grannies, and silly, crazy grannies. But she was just a regular human being who was just trying to help these kids get together. It was fun.


It was really sweet.

I haven't seen an inch of it. I'll see it tomorrow at the premiere.

Your role sort of made it, I have to say.

Oh, right -- with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.

You stole the movie. And added the sentimentality it needed. That scene in the airplane really got me.

Well aren't you dear. Thank you.

There were some other topics I wanted to cover --

Can I get you any coffee or water?

Coffee? Oh, no, thank you. I don't think I need to be any more nervous.


I want to talk about The Golden Girls. What are your memories of those years?

Oh, it was incredible. Again -- writing. If it isn't on the page, we can't do anything about it. To get blessed with the kind of writing on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls. But also, to have those other people to play with. And the writers did such an incredible thing: We were like four points on a compass, each one plenty to do on every show, but our characters were totally separate, so our writers would throw a situation on the table, and the audience would wait to see how each of the characters would react to that situation.

It was probably the best experience of my life, as far as challenge, and to keep the characters clean -- I mean free of each other -- but still work well together. So when they cast those three other ladies, that's not the worst job in the world. It was such fun.


Was it instantaneous? Did you just suddenly, at your first read-through, say, "Oh my God. We have magic here?"

When they first sent the scripts, I had done guest spots on Maude with Bea, and Estelle was a new starter. She was doing Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway, so we didn't know her. The producers had seen her back there and they cast her. And Rue was Rose: They sent her the Rose script, and they sent me the Blanche script.

Well, Jay Sandrich, who had directed most of The Mary Tyler Shows, directed our pilot. He said, "If Betty plays another neighborhood nymphomaniac, they're going to think it's another Sue Ann Nivens all over again. Why don't we switch. Why don't we give Blanche to Rue?" And, well, I didn't know who Rose was. Blanche, I knew who that character was. And he said, "Rose is not stupid. She's totally naive. She takes every word for what that word means. She doesn't ever put things together, or act sarcastic." So he set the parameters for the character, and I thank him so deeply for what Rose became.

This was all before rehearsals even began?

All he had done at that point is sent me the script. So the first morning, we went to the read-through. And here was Bea, and Estelle, and Rue, and we started. Well -- it just came to life! When you read a line, you were going to get it right back over the net from one of these other women.

It was like the All-Star team!

It was so exciting. It was so exciting.

I was just sitting in a suite a few minutes ago with some other journalists, and they put an episode of The Golden Girls on the TV. And everyone was rolling in laughter. It just holds up so well.

Isn't that amazing? After all these years? When the DVD came out, I thought who's going to buy these? When we went into reruns, we were on four times a day. The audience knew the lines a lot better than we ever did. They still do. So when the DVD came out, I thought, "Who's going to buy the DVD? They've seen the show so many times." But the DVDs are still top-sellers. It's incredible. But that's writing. That's what good writing will do.

Do you have any thoughts you could share about Bea?

Oh. I've been doing a lot of thinking about Bea, God love her. There comes a time when you just have to let go. It was the same with Estelle. They were both so sick, and Bea was in such pain that morphine couldn't reach, so you just had to pray to let it go, but it didn't make it hurt any less. We all lived about three miles from each other, so we would see each other. It's still hard to believe she's not there anymore.

It was a punch to the gut for me, so for you I can only imagine.

What I was thrilled about, she got her lifetime achievement award when she could still know about it, and actually go to receive it. It was the last thing she ever did. But it could have so easily have happened after the fact, so that was lovely.


Speaking of awards, you've won six Emmys. Is that right?

Yeah. One was for my first series, Life with Elizabeth. And then two for Sue Ann Nivens, and one for The John Laroquette Show...

And you won one for Just Men.

Yes! It was a daytime game show.

And you were the first game show host to win who was a woman!

A woman, yes! And I'm sure the only reason I got that Emmy was gender-oriented. "Better give it to her! She's the only woman in the bunch..."

Some of it is on YouTube. I was watching it. That show is crazy!

You found it on YouTube?!

A Jon-Erik Hexum fan edited together all the parts of you talking to him.

It was great fun to do! I was the host, and I had six guys, either actors, or athletes, or politicians. But they were all guys.

They were all hunks.

Yeah, well -- I'm no fool. We'd do five shows a week. The first day was get-acquainted day. But Wednesday, I would need a whip and a chair. My God, there was no handling them. It was so fun.

So was this. Thank you, Betty.

Thank you so much. Keep your fingers crossed on the movie. ♦