It’s been a banner year for actress Betty White in a career as remarkable for its longevity as for the diversity of those who would call themselves Betty White fans.
White, 88, is the rare Hollywood star whose fan base spans multiple generations. While most entertainment personalities are popular for a period and may later stage a comeback, White never disappeared from the public eye. In the past year, she’s become more visible than ever.
She’s probably still best-known for her roles as “happy homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the 1970s and Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls” in the 1980s. But a new generation of viewers came of age during her guest appearances on “Boston Legal” in the past decade, and most recently in 2009’s Sandra Bullock-starring feature film “The Proposal” and a Snickers commercial that aired during the Super Bowl this year.
Later this month she’ll guest star as an elementary-school librarian on ABC’s “The Middle” and in June she stars in the TV Land sitcom “Hot in Cleveland.”
After one devotee began a Facebook group demanding that White host “Saturday Night Live” (10:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC) — a group eventually joined by more than 500,000 Facebook users — she received an official invitation to host a Mother’s Day-themed episode this weekend with “SNL” alums, including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Molly Shannon.
White has no Facebook account herself and she didn’t even really want to host “SNL,” something she’d been invited to do in the past. She said it’s a New York show and she’s a Californian, so she always feared she would feel like a fish out of water.
“People would tell me they saw this Facebook thing and all these people had joined. I couldn’t believe it at first and I thought they were putting me on,” White said last week.
“It came out of left field and I was astounded. I told my agent, ‘Please say, “Thank you, but no thank you.” ’ He said, ‘You have to do it. If you don’t do it, I’ll divorce you.’ I love my agent, so here I am doing it.”
Her biggest worry: “I’ve never been able to work from cue cards. I memorize or I ad lib. And I know with the changing scripts ... that won’t be possible. And with cue cards I hope I don’t have to wear my glasses. I hope the print is big enough. If it isn’t, I’ll do the show with my glasses.”
As for what’s planned, that’s something “SNL” writers decide this week; last week, White had no idea what skits might be written.
“All I know is I have veto power if there’s something I really don’t want to do,” she said. “They promised me I wouldn’t have to do any nudity.”
And there it is, the slightly bawdy side of Betty White. No one suggested there would be nudity; she willingly went there on her own. An ability to upend her sweet demeanor and grandmotherly appearance may be the root of her appeal, especially to younger fans.
“I’ve always had a bawdy sense of humor,” she acknowledged. “My father was a traveling salesman and he’d bring jokes home and never explained them to me. ‘Honey, you can take that one to school, but I wouldn’t take that one to school.’ ”
White began her career on local Los Angeles television in the 1940s and began to work in nationally televised programs in the 1950s, including the sitcom “Life With Elizabeth.” In the 1960s she was a frequent celebrity guest on game shows, including “Match Game” (GSN will air episodes featuring White from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday) and “Password,” where she met the love of her life, host Allen Ludden. The couple married in 1963; Ludden died in 1981 and White did not remarry.
“Believe me, I’ve been around so long, I don’t think there’s much that I haven’t done,” she said. “I just think it’s great at my age to be invited to do (‘Saturday Night Live’).”
She has just one requirement for “SNL”: No drug humor.
“I won’t do dope jokes,” she said. “I don’t think dope is a joke. That’s about the only thing I would resist doing.”
That’s the only time during a half-hour conference call that White sounded the slightest bit like the octogenarian she is.
“I’m blessed with good health. ... My energy level is very high,” White said. “I can’t get over at my age what all is going on. All I can do is roll with the punches and enjoy it thoroughly and be grateful for it.”