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

Phil McCarten / Reuters

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.



You talked about how you tried to turn down your role in Hot in Cleveland multiple times because you didn't have time in your schedule for it. Are you glad that you ultimately worked out a way to accept it?

I'm so glad I took it. But I have the backbone of an eel. I said I would do a guest shot on the pilot. I was happy to, provided I would not be obligated in any sense if it got picked up to series. Well, you know how many pilots that are done that never get picked up to series. And a lot of times you'll do a pilot, say in February, and you don't know what its fate is until maybe May or June. Well this one got picked up in three weeks. It was just amazing. TV Land picked it up for 10 shows, and they came and asked if I would do some extra shows. I said, "Well no, that wasn't our bargain. My schedule is absolutely jammed. I can't, but thank you very much." But they kept saying what if this, what if that. And of course Miss Jellyfish here, I ended up doing all 10. Then they picked us up for 34, and the same thing went on. Well guess who's doing all 34. I have no sales resistance. When you're having this much fun it's awfully hard to say no.

But how do you keep up the energy for it?

Well, I'm blessed with good health, and my energy—I never get tired. I should, but I don't.

You should sell your secret to that.

I'm going to be 90 in January, so I feel so lucky. Sooner or later, the bottom's got to drop out somewhere. But it hasn't yet.

Do you wish you were less busy?

I love this busy-ness. I really love it. I got another book that I just contracted for that I have to start now to hopefully get it out by next summer. But I enjoy being busy, I really do. Remember, I'm the stub end of the railroad. I have no family, so I'm not taking busy time away from people that I should be spending it with. So I'm just relaxing and enjoying it.

What's this new book?

I've worked with the Los Angeles Zoo for 45 years, and we have this magnificent photographer, Tad Motoyama. He takes these wonderful, wonderful animal pictures. All through the years he's given me copies of these pictures. Well, I have all these gorgeous ones, so I said, "Tad, I want to do a book with your picture on one side." And remember, when I've been at the zoo for so long, those animals in the picture are personal friends of mine. So I use his pictures and write a little anecdote about that individual animal. Not "a zebra." This isn't "a zebra;" it's Fred.

If you ever have the chance to watch episodes of some of your earlier series in repeats, are there particular episodes or scenes that reliably make you laugh?

I don't get a chance to watch much television of any kind, so I haven't seen those shows in a lot of years. But once and a while if I happen to catch part of one when I'm flipping to the news or something, I must admit sometimes it makes me laugh out loud. And that's the blessing of good writing.

Do all the memories of filming those scenes come back to you?

Oh sure, of course. Losing all of our Golden Girls was a blow. We thought Ruesie [Rue McClanahan] was going to make it. She wasn't feeling well and stuff, but we thought she was going to make it, and she didn't. Losing all of the Golden Girls and being the only one left is kind of tough.

Do you have a favorite memory so far from working on Hot in Cleveland?

Oh just being around those girls. They are the most wonderful—and for me to be able to say that after the Mary Tyler Moore group and the Golden Girls group—these are the most delightful gals. We just hang out together. We don't go back to our dressing rooms. We just stick together and have a wonderful time. It doesn't take much to break us up. We're doing just fine until Valerie's eyes start to dance, and then pretty soon somebody gets the giggles, and we're off and running.

You mentioned in your book that you'd "rather go to the dentist for a root canal" than do red carpet interviews and these kinds of things, so I hope this wasn't too painful.

Oh, I appreciate all this, and I appreciate that you read the book. Now just stick with me.