Betty White’s golden touch keeps her red-hot
In the space of one recent week, Betty White hopped in the shower with Hugh Jackman on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” watched a Chippendales dancer gyrate for her on “Ellen” and told Larry King she didn’t know the meaning of the word “retirement.”
The string of TV appearances came on the heels of a Super Bowl commercial for Snickers that went not only viral but global; a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award; a starring role in a new TV Land sitcom; and a Facebook campaign, 500,000 fans strong, that paved the way for her first hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live.”
The dizzying level of activity shows no sign of slowing down. It seems as if everybody wants a piece of the 88-year-old actress. “Except Robert Redford,” White deadpanned. “Take it on faith -- he doesn’t.”
White, who also just shared an all-comedy hour of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” with Steve Carell, Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan, tossed out that one-liner about her not-so-secret crush on the movie star before she’d even finished getting her makeup done for a photo shoot at the beach-side Hotel Shangri-La in Santa Monica recently. “You can’t think about comedy too much and keep it funny,” she said. “You have to just let it pop out.”
Like on the set of the Snickers ad, in which she’s playing football with a group of twentysomething guys when she gets tackled in a mud puddle. A stuntwoman took the fall, but White had to lie in the water for the next shot, with a burly man on top of her.
“She said, ‘Geez, guys usually buy me a drink first,’ ” said David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer at ad agency BBDO North America.
The six-time Emmy winner, probably best known for her roles in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Golden Girls,” jumped into television in 1949 when the medium was in its infancy, and she’s been working consistently on the small and big screens ever since. She’s built a career flawlessly delivering zippy punch lines, which are enriched by the contrast between her nonthreatening appearance and a razor-sharp, often raunchy, wit. But there’s a renaissance of sorts happening around the actress-comedian right now, touched off by last year’s hit rom-com “The Proposal,” that even White can’t quite grasp.
“It’s so ridiculous at my age to have all this going on,” she said. “I’m not fighting it -- I’m loving it.”
Among her upcoming projects are the fall Walt Disney Pictures comedy “You Again” with Kristen Bell, Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver and a guest-star role on the season finale of ABC’s sitcom “The Middle,” in which she’ll play a librarian who’s none too pleased that young character Brick (Atticus Shaffer) loses, damages and otherwise mistreats books. It will air during May sweeps.
The creative team at “The Middle” wrote the part hoping to land White, and sent her a pleading personal letter along with the script. “We wanted to woo her,” said Eileen Heisler, executive producer and writer. “I quoted lines from Sue Ann Nivens and talked about classic bits from ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ that had stuck with me over the years. And I promised she’d have a good time.”
When word came back that White was game, “we were thrilled beyond our dreams,” Heisler said. “How many comedy legends do we still have around, and how many are still firing on all cylinders?”
Executives at TV Land, hearing a pitch last August for an original sitcom, thought immediately of White to play a cranky housekeeper in “Hot in Cleveland.” “The Proposal” had just burned up the summer box office and White has had a long-standing relationship with the network.
Larry Jones, TV Land president, said White agreed to do the pilot, and then “something special” happened during the table read with White and costars Wendie Malick, Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves. “The chemistry was just magic.”
White is set to appear in all 10 episodes, which start shooting the day after she comes back to Los Angeles from her “SNL” gig. The latter job came about, at least partially, because of a Facebook campaign directed at “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels. He reportedly didn’t need much arm-twisting to ask White, since he’d done so three times in the past with no luck.
“It’s so New York, and I’m so not New York,” White said of the NBC show. “But my manager told me in no uncertain terms that I should do it now.”
That’s music to the ears of David Mathews, the 29-year-old fan who hatched the Facebook drive with some friends last Christmas. It was one of those late-night schemes that still sounded reasonable enough the next day to follow through on, and so became the Facebook page “Betty White to host SNL (please?)!”
“I grew up around my grandparents and always watched ‘Golden Girls’ and loved Betty White,” said Mathews, who lives in San Antonio. He was all of 4 years old when the show launched but caught the reruns. “Her comedy is timeless and it can appeal to you whether you’re 8 or 18 or 80.”
White will host the May 8 show, dedicated to women in comedy, with appearances from Fey, Amy Poehler and Molly Shannon, to name a few. It’s part of the wave of popularity that White is enjoying with teens and young adults who may not know her legacy but appreciate her comic timing and salty-and-sweet combo. (A behind-the-scenes video to promote “The Proposal” couldn’t have hurt. The widely circulated clip, on FunnyOrDie.com, shows White in a mock fight with costar Ryan Reynolds in which she gives him the finger, treats him like a gopher and orders him to get her a cup of coffee.)
“You wouldn’t expect her to do and say these nasty [things] -- it belies her physical look and age,” said David Hoberman, producer of “The Proposal” and “Bringing Down the House.” “It’s what makes her so funny.”
White credits her parents -- she was an only child -- with instilling in her a sense of ribald comedy. Her dad, a traveling salesman, always came home with jokes for White and her mother, “but they never explained them to me,” she said. “They just told me which ones I could share at school and which ones I couldn’t.”
White said she loves double-entendres, which she traces back to her folks and her lifelong love of crossword puzzles. “I like entertainment where you have to pay attention,” she said.
It’s no surprise to TV Land’s Jones that White is red-hot with the so-called millennial generation. “She transcends generations -- she makes aging look like fun. Plus, she’s so hip.”