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Remembering Betty White

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

And finally today, we want to take a look back at the long life and career of Betty White. White died Friday at the age of 99, just a couple weeks shy of her 100th birthday. A presence on TV going back decades, White was part of the legendary casts of both the "Golden Girls" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," where she played Sue Ann Nivens, the so-called happy homemaker who was sweet on the outside and mischievous on the inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

BETTY WHITE: (As Sue Ann Nivens) Oh, hi, Mary. I see you're off.

MARY TYLER MOORE: (As Mary Richards) Yep.

WHITE: (As Sue Ann Nivens) Now, you can have fun at that wedding.

TYLER MOORE: (As Mary Richards) Oh, thanks.

WHITE: (As Sue Ann Nivens) And don't forget to kiss all the ushers for me.

TYLER MOORE: (As Mary Richards) Sue Ann, you don't kiss the ushers in a wedding.

WHITE: (As Sue Ann Nivens) Mary, dear, don't tell me how to have fun at a wedding.

(LAUGHTER)

FLORIDO: NPR's pop culture correspondent Linda Holmes is here to talk about Betty White. Welcome, Linda.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me.

FLORIDO: You wrote a remembrance of Betty White and talked about how her career on TV went back a really long way.

HOLMES: It sure did. She had her own syndicated show in the 1950s called "Life With Elizabeth." But a lot of people, I think, got to know her in the 1960s, when she was a ubiquitous celebrity guest on talk shows and especially on game shows. One of those game shows was "Password." That's where she met her husband, Allen Ludden, who was the host. So apparently, she made quite an impression. She was really, really sharp, very good on that show, wonderful on "Match Game," some other ones. She was just a very, very clever, clever lady.

FLORIDO: She was also part of the cast of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," as we mentioned earlier. She played Sue Ann Nevins on that show. What did Sue Ann get from Betty White?

HOLMES: Well, Sue Ann was this seemingly very sweet woman who did this show as the happy homemaker. But off camera, Sue Ann was very sharp-tongued, very flirtatious, to put it mildly, very different from that kind of squeaky-clean image. And Betty White is just tremendous in that part. She's funny, and she's so in control of the delivery. This is a clip of Sue Ann auditioning for a segment called News from a Woman's Point of View.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW")

TED KNIGHT: (As Ted Baxter) And now with a new feature, News from a Woman's Point of View, Sue Ann Nevins.

WHITE: (As Sue Ann Nevins) Thank you very much, Ted. And good evening. Massive mudslides wreak havoc. Late last evening...

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: (As Sue Ann Nevins) ...Huge mudslides in south central Alaska buried the picturesque little village of Norsk, long noted for its tapestries and woolly artifacts.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: (As Sue Ann Nevins) Apple-cheeked housewives bustling down the cobbled streets were swept away by slithering mounds of mud.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: (As Sue Ann Nevins) Let's all hope that survivors remembered that stubborn grime can be removed with a blend of...

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: (As Sue Ann Nevins) ...Warm water and cornstarch.

FLORIDO: (Laughter).

HOLMES: You can really hear how Betty White just has such control over those little flips back and forth between kind of the sweet and the savory, the big grin and the - those really dark words. That's the delightful part of it. She's just an incredibly controlled performer.

FLORIDO: Why do you think that even after these really iconic roles, people still cared about her as a pop culture figure decades later, for the rest of her life, right up until she died?

HOLMES: I think at some point, Betty White fandom kind of took on a life of its own. Like, she was sort of everybody's favorite raunchy grandma. And I don't think that's entirely fair to her because she was so much more than that.

FLORIDO: Sure.

HOLMES: But for whatever reason, she stayed in the pop culture spotlight, doing things like hosting "Saturday Night Live" after this big fan campaign to get her a hosting slot. She appeared in a Super Bowl commercial. She just worked and worked and worked. She really never stopped. She was a regular on the sitcom "Hot In Cleveland" into her 90s - not a common thing to do.

FLORIDO: How do you even start to sum up the story of an actor who worked for that long? Is there a single thread you think that ties all of her work together?

HOLMES: Well, I think starting when she had that show of her own in the 1950s, she was somebody who pushed on people's ideas about women in television. She could be sort of broad and daffy. She could be very sharp and acidic. And then she had this whole career pretty much playing herself on "Match Game" or "The Tonight Show" or what have you. And she refused to get stuck in a single mode of comedy or a single kind of role. She was truly, truly one of a kind, which is something people so often say. And it's rarely quite as true as it was with Betty White.

FLORIDO: Well, we'll miss her. That was NPR's pop culture correspondent Linda Holmes talking about the long, distinguished career and enduring appeal of Betty White, who left us before we moved into the new year just shy of her 100th birthday. Linda, thanks for joining us.

HOLMES: Thank you, Adrian.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANK YOU FOR BEING A FRIEND")

CINDY FEE: (Singing) Thank you for being a friend. Traveled down the road and back again. Your heart is true. You're a pal and a confidant. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.