Award-winning actress, television icon Betty White dies at 99

Betty White speaks onstage during the 70th Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on Sept. 17, 2018, in Los Angeles. The legendary comedian/actress died at the age of 99. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images/TNS)
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New York Daily News (TNS)

Betty White, whose multigenerational TV career proved nice girls don’t finish last and sometimes don’t seem to finish at all, died Friday. She was 99.

The beloved TV icon was 18 days short of her 100th birthday.

“Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever,” her agent Jeff Witjas told People in a statement. “I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don’t think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband, Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again.”

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White won six Emmys in a career that stretched over nine decades. She was best known as the man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” from 1973 to 1977, and the slightly spacey Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls,” from 1985 to 1992.

But it was her remarkably diverse body of work that gradually established her as the American sweetheart of television. Through sitcoms, TV movies, parade hosting, talk-show appearances and commercials, she developed a friendly girl-next-door image so ultra-wholesome that White herself poked fun at it.

She enjoyed tossing off double entendres or playing sketches that went against her image on her frequent talk show appearances and she finished her sitcom career as the feisty, wisecracking Elka Ostrovsky on TV Land’s “Hot In Cleveland.”

She signed on for the Ostrovsky role at the age of 88, and her late-in-life vitality won her dozens of eldest distinctions, including oldest actress nominated for an Emmy and oldest host of “Saturday Night Live,” in May 2010.

She won her final Emmy for “SNL,” on which she joked that she prepared by getting a tutorial on Facebook.

“I didn’t know what Facebook was,” she said, “and now that I do know what it is, I have to say it sounds like a huge waste of time.”

White’s own media career started before there was television, never mind Facebook.

One of her first show biz jobs, she said in a 1994 interview, was singing songs from “The Merry Widow” on an experimental Los Angeles television station before anyone in Los Angeles had a television set.

That was in the summer of 1939, three months after she graduated from Beverly Hills High School. She spent much of the 1940s working as a military volunteer and doing radio shows that included “Blondie,” “The Great Gildersleeve” and her own “Betty White Show.”

She returned to television in 1949 and in 1950 scored her first Emmy nomination for hosting “Hollywood on Television,” a live six-day-a-week variety show in Los Angeles.

From 1952 to 1955 she starred in the sitcom “Life With Elizabeth” and became known for co-hosting the annual New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses parade, a gig she kept until 1975.

Her primary television role in the 1960s was game show appearances.

She married “Password” host Allen Ludden in 1963 and became a semi-regular on his show as well as “To Tell the Truth,” “What’s My Line” and “The Match Game.”

She strayed to the movies only once, playing Kansas Sen. Bessie Adams in the 1962 film “Advise and Consent.”

What catapulted her from just another actress to enduring stardom was a guest spot on the fourth season of “The Mary Tyler Moore” show as Nivins, host of a TV show called “The Happy Homemaker.”

The part was received so well that White was brought in as a regular, and she won back-to-back Emmys.

When the show ended, White and co-star Georgia Engel moved to “The Betty White Show,” which only lasted one season.

White won another Emmy in 1983 for hosting the game show “Just Men,” and she was starring in “Mama’s Family” with Rue McClanahan when they joined Estelle Getty and Bea Arthur for “The Golden Girls.”

White was nominated for an Emmy every year the show ran, winning once.

A spinoff called “The Golden Parade” only lasted one year, but then White launched yet another career as the most inexhaustible and well-received guest star in television history.

She scored an Emmy in 1996 for guest-starring on “The John Larroquette Show.”

She was joined by the other three Golden Girls for that appearance, and the punchline had Larroquette dressing as Arthur while White fantasized herself as the star of the show.

She had recurring roles on “Boston Legal” and “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson.”

Her guest-star list included “The Ellen Show,” “The Practice,” “Community,” “30 Rock,” “Ally McBeal,” “My Name Is Earl” and “Chelsea Lately.”

She became a regular on the daytime soap “The Bold and the Beautiful” and returned to the revived “Password.”

She won a Grammy in 2011 for the audio recording of “If You Ask Me,” the last of her several books.

She also started her own clothing line and had a wine named for her, White Wine, of course.

She starred in a 2012 Super Bowl commercial that helped kick off the Snickers “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign. It featured White getting flattened in the middle of a pickup football game.

She also hosted NBC’s “Betty White’s Off Their Rockers,” a reality show where senior citizens played practical jokes on the young. It was kicked off by a special on her 90th birthday.

She was an animal-rights activist all her life, devoting much of her charity work to that cause.

She said one of the greatest thrills of her life was being named an honorary USDA Forest Service forest ranger in 2010 because she had always wanted to be a forest ranger as a young girl, but had been told women weren’t allowed to join.

A close friend of the late Liberace, she was also a supporter of gay rights and gay marriage.

“I think it’s fine if they want to get married,” she said. “I don’t know how people can get so anti-something. Mind your own business, take care of your affairs, and don’t worry about other people so much.”

Besides her Emmys and the Grammy, White won three American Comedy Awards. She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame and given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

She was married twice, both times briefly, in the late 1940s. She and Ludden remained married until his death in 1983.

They had no children together, but she was a stepmother to the three children from his previous marriage.

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