Betty White on Surviving 63 Years in Show Business With No Backbone

A conversation with the 89-year-old actress, whose fifth book, If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't), came out last week


Reuters/Phil McCarten

Betty White has won seven Emmy awards (and counting) over the course of her 63 years in show business. With her roles on syndication staples The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls she can sometimes be seen on TV four times a day. She was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Screen Actors Guild in 2010, only to win another statue at this year's ceremony, for her role on the hit TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland.

At 89 years old, White's career is hitting a stride most actresses dream of when they're in their 20s. She not only stars on Cleveland, but is producing an upcoming senior citizen prank show called Off Their Rockers, will voice a character in The Lorax, and last week released her fifth book. If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't) is a collection of essays reflecting on her long career and ruminating on her current professional hot streak. (How hot? Twilight's Robert Pattinson provides one of the book's celebrity endorsements: "Betty White is one of the sexiest women in America.")

I spoke with her about the book, her thoughts on Bridesmaids and the "can women be Funny?" debate, why Hot in Cleveland found success, and how she finds the energy to work so hard.

The title of your book is If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't), but it's my impression that these days everybody is asking about your career and wants to hear your stories.

When they came to me and wanted me to do the book, they suggested calling it Listen Up. Well the last thing in the world I'd ever say is "listen up" because I don't have that much worth listening to. It's a series of short pieces on how I feel on a variety of subjects. If you ask me how I feel on such and such, I'll tell you. But you probably won't ask me. So all of a sudden that seemed to be the right title.

But do you find that many of your younger co-stars asking for advice?

Not really. Advice is a hard thing. We just have fun together, but we work so closely. I'm so lucky to be working with that group on Hot in Cleveland—Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendy Mallick—that it's not a case of asking advice. It's wanting to hear stories about earlier times in television. That's all anecdotal.

Your co-stars in Hot in Cleveland have all gone on record saying that they always hoped to have the chance to work with you. Were there actors when you were starting out that you hoped to one day work with?

Well my problem was that I started right around the time television started in Los Angeles. A good friend of mine was Lucy Ball. Her mother and my mother were best friends. So Lucille would be the one that you'd think that about, but it was like I was working with her because we were buddies.

What is it like being buddies with Lucille Ball?

We had such fun. She was always going to teach me backgammon. She was determined she was going to teach me. So we'd get together and she'd have it all set up. But her idea of teaching was, "Alright here, I'll take my turn. Now you throw the dice," which I would. And then she'd move my pieces here and here, and I'd say, "Lucy, how am I going to learn the game if you're playing the game with yourself?" But we did it a lot and had fun.

Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph, whom you worked with when you hosted SNL last year, are opening the film Bridesmaids this weekend. So much of the conversation surrounding the film asks that "can women be funny" question again, and also predicts that its success will determine whether more comedies starring women will get made. What do you make of all that?

I've never really noticed that women haven't been doing a lot of comedy. I know it's a common thought that they don't, but I've had such a lucky career. I've had leading roles in comedies for many years, so I don't have the right perspective to make a judgment on that what's going on with that debate right now.

Especially considering some of your biggest successes, like Golden Girls and Mary Tyler Moore, were so female-centred.

Very female-centered. I've been lucky enough to go from one to the other. Even before that I was on five and a half hours a day, six days a week as the sidekick of a male disc jockey. It kind of laid of groundwork for getting those later roles.

Considering the movement on TV towards single-camera comedies—and not to mention the trend towards being more risqué—are you surprised by the success of Hot in Cleveland, which is a sitcom in the most classic and traditional sense?

We're just an ordinary, old-fashioned sitcom, and I think the audience has gotten lonesome for an old-fashioned sitcom. We get a little racy. We get a little pale blue once in a while. We're not trying to break any ground or any of that. We just all adore each other off screen, and I think that rapport is contagious. I think the audience may not know what it is, but I think they're aware of how much we're having fun. I think it comes through.

How much does filming in front of a live studio audience make a difference ?

It makes a major difference! That's one of the things that sold me on doing this show. Multiple camera shows were kind of going away for a little while. You're timing comedy differently if you don't hear that response. You think you're allowing for laughs that sometimes don't happen, or sometimes you go on with a line not realizing there'd be a laugh there. And then you kill the laugh because you talk through the laughter. When you're with a live audience, the energy level that comes through and the responses, it's like doing live theater.

Do you think the success of Hot in Cleveland will inspire more shows to revisit filming in front of a live studio audience? There aren't many that do it anymore.

Are we one of the only ones? They don't know what they're missing. It sure is more fun, and it keeps you on the toes.

The live laugh is more infectious than a laugh track.

Yea, I think that comes through. Our audiences have been so responsive. To go in and all of a sudden get that geared up, keyed up feeling, and it makes it not an evening of work. It makes it great fun.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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