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Television

Betty White is trending and it’s all good: PBS plans tribute to ‘First Lady’ of TV

Summer 2018 TCA Press Tour - Day 7
Steve Boettcher, Arthur Duncan, Georgia Engel and Gavin MacLeod at the panel for the show “Betty White: First Lady of Television” on Tuesday at the Summer 2018 Television Critics Assn. Press Tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
(Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images)

Betty White was trending on Twitter this afternoon — but calm down, everybody.

The tweets were the result of PBS promoting “Betty White: First Lady of Television” at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Beverly Hills, which if you do a search on the social media platform, clearly was much to the relief of many who feared the worst about the 96-year-old comedy great.

White was not on hand for the panel (co-director and producer Steve Boettcher assured everyone she was “great” but deserved a day off), but she remained the central subject as Boettcher and some of White’s former cast mates spoke about her roughly seven-decade career and a project 10 years in the making (debuting Tuesday, Aug. 21).

With fellow “Mary Tyler Moore Show” stars Gavin MacLeod and Georgia Engel on hand, memories about White’s role as Sue Ann Nivens was a given. But one of the moments that stood out in a clip from the documentary may be a lesser-known highlight for White, who was the first woman to produce her own national television program with “The Betty White Show” in 1954.

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During that show’s run, White worked with a dancer named Arthur Duncan, whose presence became a controversial subject as the show went national.

“People from various areas, mainly the South, sort of resented black Americans on the program and they threatened to withdraw their support for the show if I continued on the show,” said Duncan, who was a panelist at TCA. “I only found out about it years later when Betty wrote her book. Her remark was, ‘Needless to say, we used Arthur Duncan every opportunity we could.’ She stood up for her beliefs and that ended that.”

Long an object of ridicule by White’s character on “Mary Tyler Moore,” MacLeod remembered reuniting with her more recently for a promo video for New Zealand Airlines. During the shoot, he learned a secret of White’s longevity while they were on a lunch break.

“That was the first time I realized that Betty loved hot dogs,” he said, remembering White’s secretary saying she had one every day. “I said, she’s 92 years old – count how many hot dogs that is a year, and they tell you not to eat those things. Betty White can do anything.”

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Panelists also marveled at White’s work ethic, which was described by Duncan as a sense that every time she took the stage was an opportunity to learn something. Boettcher remembered that during the making of the documentary, the actress came to know the crew members, their families and their pets.

“I remember the first day we were on set doing interviews with her she walked into the room, everybody takes a beat and she looked at every guy in the room and said, ‘I like my odds.’ The whole crew kind of fell in love with her at that moment. ”

chris.barton@latimes.com

Follow me over here @chrisbarton.


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