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Betty White: Remembering the Iconic Greek-American Comedienne

Betty White
Betty White, whose maternal grandfather was Greek, was an American icon in the entertainment industry. Credit: Angela George/ Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0 Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

Betty White, the irrepressible, iconic Greek-American comedienne, who died exactly two years ago on December 31, 2021, at the age of 99 went to enduring stardom on TV over the span of decades.

Her life was amazing on many different levels. Growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, she blazed a trail for female television executives from the beginning.

Her sweet, gentle personality had a bit of a naughty twist, and in the 1970s she created a completely unique persona in the form of Sue Ann Nivens, a sickly-sweet television cook whose sarcastic, withering comments “off-air” were a jolt to the senses at that time for television viewers.

She occupied a unique place in the American entertainment industry, having worked in it since the 1930’s, starting out singing on the radio in California.

Life story of Betty White one of hard work, constant creativity, which carved out unique niche in entertainment business

Betty Marion White was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on January 17, 1922. She was the only child of Christine Cachikis, whose father was a Greek man named Nicholas Cachikis. White’s father was Horace Logan White, a lighting company executive. Her paternal grandfather was Danish and her maternal grandfather was Greek, with her other roots being English and Welsh. Both of her grandmothers were Canadians.

White’s family moved to Alhambra, California, in 1923 when she was a little over a year old, and later to Los Angeles during the Great Depression. To make extra money, her father would build radios (crystal radio) and sell them wherever he could. Since it was the height of the Depression, and hardly anyone had much disposable income, he would trade the radios in exchange for other goods, including dogs on some occasions.

White was only eight years old when she made her radio debut in 1930; several years later, she began working as a radio personality in Los Angeles with Al Jarvis.

Christine Cachikis
Christine Tess Cachikis, the mother of Betty White. Credit: Unknown

She attended Beverly Hills High School, graduating in 1939. Her lifelong interest in wildlife was sparked by family vacations to the Sierra Nevada mountains. She initially aspired to a career as a forest ranger, but was unable to accomplish this because women were not allowed to serve as rangers at that time.

Instead, White threw herself into writing. She wrote and played the lead in her graduation play at Horace Mann School, and discovered her interest in performing while taking part in that production. White began her television career in 1939, just three months after her high school graduation, when she and a classmate sang songs from The Merry Widow on an experimental television show. Al Jarvis’ Make-Believe Ballroom on KFWB and on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles.

White began hosting the show by herself in 1952 after Jarvis’s departure, spanning five and a half hours of grueling live television six days per week, over a continuous four-year span. In all of her various variety series over the years, White would sing at least a couple of songs during each broadcast.

Betty White blazed trail for women in cutthroat entertainment world from the get-go

Her television sitcom “Life with Elizabeth” was nationally syndicated from 1952 to 1955, making her one of the few women in television with full creative control in front of and behind the camera. The show was unusual for the 1950s because it was co-produced and owned by a twenty-eight-year-old woman who still lived with her parents.

The incidents on that show were based on real life situations that happened to her, the actor who played Alvin, and the writer. She was named honorary Mayor of Hollywood in 1955 in one of the first major honors awarded her.

She later made her feature film debut as Kansas Senator Elizabeth Ames Adams in the 1962 drama, “Advise & Consent.” Although her performance was well received, it would be her only big-screen appearance for decades.

After making the transition to television, White became an almost-permanent panelist on a host of American game shows, including Password, Match Game, Tattletales, To Tell the Truth, The Hollywood Squares and The $25,000 Pyramid; she was once dubbed “the first lady of game shows.”

Through the 1950s and 1960s, White began a nineteen-year run as hostess and commentator on the annual Rose Parade broadcast on NBC and appeared on a number of late-night talk shows, including Jack Paar’s The Tonight Show.

Cachikis family
Christine Tess Cachikis, Betty White and grandfather Nicholas Cachikis. Credit: Unknown

Personal life

In 1947, she married Lane Allen, a Hollywood talent agent. That marriage ended in divorce in 1949 after Allen pressured her to give up her career to become a homemaker.

On June 14, 1963, White married television host and personality Allen Ludden, whom she had met on his game show Password as a celebrity guest in 1961. They were married for decades, until Allen Ludden died from cancer in 1981. While they had no children together, she is a stepmother to three of his children from his first marriage, which had ended with the death of his wife to cancer.

White never remarried after Ludden’s death. In a later interview with Larry King, when asked whether she would remarry, she replied by saying “Once you’ve had the best, who needs the rest?”

White as iconic character Sue Ann Nivens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show

In 1973, White made several appearances in the fourth season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as the “man-hungry” Sue Ann Nivens, whose acerbic wit was even more marked since it came from a character in the “television show within a show” who was outwardly so sweet.

The role garnered White her second and third Emmy Awards. White appeared several times on The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, appearing in many sketches.

For the most part, she always played herself, and was always happy to do whatever was called for, either singing or acting in almost any capacity, creating a unique niche for herself in Hollywood over the decades.

She became the first woman to receive the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Game Show Host for the show “Just Men!” in 1983.

White received eight Emmy Awards in various categories, three American Comedy Awards, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a Grammy Award. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was elected to the Television Hall of Fame in 1985.

Betty White Star Hollywood
Betty White’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is next to that of her beloved husband Allan Ludden’s. Credit: JGKlein /Public Domain

Golden Girls introduces Betty White to a new generation

In 1985, White scored her second signature role and the biggest hit of her career as Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls. The series chronicled the lives of four widowed or divorced women in their “golden years” who shared a home in Miami. The Golden Girls, which also starred Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan, was immensely successful and ran from 1985 through 1992.

White was nominated in the category of Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series every year of the show’s run, becoming the only cast member to receive that distinction. In 2009, White starred in another feature movie, the romantic comedy “The Proposal,” alongside Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. The film was a box-office and critically acclaimed success.

From 2012 to 2014, White hosted and executive produced “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers,” in which senior citizens play practical jokes on the younger generation. She received three Emmy nominations for that show.

White’s success continued in 2012 with her first Grammy Award for a spoken word recording for her bestseller “If You Ask Me (But You Won’t).” She also won UCLA’s Jack Benny Award for Comedy, recognizing her significant contribution to comedy in television, and was roasted at the New York Friars Club.

Betty White: First Lady of Television

With a television career spanning over nine decades, White worked longer in that medium than anyone else in the entire television industry, earning her a Guinness World Record in 2018.

On August 18, 2018, White’s career was celebrated in a PBS documentary called “Betty White: First Lady of Television.” The documentary, which was filmed over a period of ten years, featured archival footage and interviews from colleagues and friends.

The documentary-style movie contains clips from some of her most iconic roles, including Rose on “Golden Girls,” her hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live,” and her role as Sue Ann on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

An upcoming movie, to be screened as a special event for one night only by Fathom Events, will be shown to audiences on her 100th birthday. Called “Betty White: 100 Years Young,” it will honor White’s trailblazing role as both the first woman to produce a television show and the first woman to receive an Emmy nomination.

Friendship with Nobel Prizewinner John Steinbeck

In her 2011 book “If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t),” White wrote about her friendship with famed author John Steinbeck. White’s husband Allen Ludden had attended the same school as Steinbeck’s wife and the couples became close friends. Steinbeck gave an early draft of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to Ludden for his birthday.

White was a noted animal lover and an animal rights advocate who worked with animal organizations, including the Los Angeles Zoo Commission, The Morris Animal Foundation, the African Wildlife Foundation, and Actors & Others for Animals.

White was the president emerita of the Morris Animal Foundation, where she served as a trustee of the organization since 1971. She had been a member of the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association since 1974. Additionally, White served the association as a Zoo Commissioner for eight years.

White donated nearly $100,000 to the zoo in the month of April 2008 alone.

White is the only woman to have received an Emmy in all performing comedic categories, and also holds the record for longest span between Emmy nominations for performances —her first was in 1951 and her most recent was in 2011, a span of 60 years. She has also won three American Comedy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990), and two Viewers for Quality Television Awards.

She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1995 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at Hollywood Boulevard alongside the star of her late husband Allen Ludden. In September 2009, the Screen Actors Guild honored White with the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award.

In October 2011, White was awarded an honorary degree and white doctor’s coat by Washington State University at the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association’s centennial gala in Yakima, Washington for her work for animal rights.

A 2011 poll conducted by Reuters and Ipsos revealed that White was considered the most popular and most trusted celebrity among all Americans, beating the likes of Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock, and Tom Hanks.

In 2017, White was invited to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. White has published several books during her career. “If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t)”, was released in 2011. In February 2012, White received her first Grammy Award, for “Best Spoken Word Recording” for the audio recording of her book.

Other books she has penned include: “Betty White’s Pet-Love: How Pets Take Care of Us,” published in 1983, “Betty White in Person,” from 1987, and “Here We Go Again: My Life In Television.”

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