HAPPY BIRTHDAY Betty!
America’s sweetheart on her celebrity crush, her bucket list and how to live long and healthy
Approaching a milestone birthday in January, Betty White has just one wish for a present: Robert Redford!
White’s No. 1 celebrity crush couldn’t be less of a secret. The handsome, squarejawed, Oscar-winning actor-director has been at the tip-top of her bucket list for a long time.
“But it never works. I try every year,” she says with a twinkle in her bright blue eyes.
White has never collaborated with Redford, and they’ve yet to even meet—quite surprising, given that White, who’ll turn 96 on Jan. 17, has worked with just about everyone, done just about everything and charmed absolutely everybody.
Seated in a suite at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel Air, White beams with her signature dimpled smile and radiates the indestructible, relentless wit that made her a TV sweetheart for decades. A self-proclaimed optimist, she says her thousand-watt outlook on life is “pretty much the same” as it has always been. “I know it sounds corny, but I try to see the funny side and the upside, not the downside. I get bored with people who complain about this or that. It’s such a waste of time.”
The six-time Emmy winner has been working in show business consistently for more than 75 years, and hers is the longest television career of any female entertainer in history.
Does she have any tricks or tips for living happily and healthfully for more than nine decades? Indeed: “Enjoy life,” she says. “Accentuate the positive, not the negative. It sounds so trite, but a lot of people will pick out something to complain about, rather than say, ‘Hey, that was great!’ It’s not hard to find great stuff if you look.”
She also loves vodka and hot dogs, “probably in that order.”
Born in Oak Park, Ill., White moved with her family to Southern California when she was young, and she always considered herself to be “a California girl.”
She discovered her love of performing in high school, and by the 1940s, in her early 20s, she was making the rounds to movie studios. She was turned down over and over for being “unphotogenic,” but she was never deterred.
“You just keep plugging away,” she says. “You don’t give up.”
Perseverance paid off, and two of White’s earliest breakthroughs were hosting six-day-a-week live TV variety show Hollywood on Television and producing and starring in the sitcom Life With
Elizabeth, about an ordinary suburban couple and their predicaments.
To this day, White says her Life With
Elizabeth character (a spunky optimist who loves animals) is more like the real Betty White than the rest of her iconic roles over the years. But, she admits, “there’s a little bit of Betty in everything I’ve played.”
White was a regular guest on the hit game show Password from 1961 to 1975, where she met the love of her life, host Allen Ludden. They were married for 19 years—“Not long enough,” she says— before Ludden’s death from stomach cancer in 1981. White didn’t remarry, and though they didn’t have children, she was stepmother to Ludden’s three children from his first marriage.
White’s inspiring, storied career stands as a monumental example for anyone looking to build a career in show business. Does she have any tips for young up-andcomers looking to break in?
“Do your work, learn your lines and come in prepared,” she says. “Don’t think you can wing it, because you can’t. We’re in show business, which is fun, but take your business seriously, because it is a serious business.”
As for the entertainment industry, White says she believes it is “in good hands” with a new generation of funny women (and men), and she’s hopeful for the future.
“I think the business is in pretty good shape; I don’t have to fix it.” She smiles. “I
will, but I don’t have to.”
Looking back on her accolades over the years (which also include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame), White says she certainly hasn’t ever felt overlooked. “I got an award for everything,” she says. “Inhaling, exhaling . . . I’ve been so spoiled rotten.”
Her body of work is impressive, but one source of White’s fountain of youth is her love for animals and her commitment to their welfare. White says it began “in the womb” and was nurtured by her parents. “I’m an only child,” she says, “and my mother and my dad loved [animals]. We had them as long as I could remember.”
Among White’s beloved childhood pets were several Pekingese, including her favorite, a Peke named Bandit “because he stole my heart.” Today, she has a golden retriever, Pontiac, “the star of the house.”
She has served for more than four decades as a trustee and on the board of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, and in 2012 published a book, Betty & Friends:
My Life at the Zoo, with photos and anecdotes of her favorite animals there.
So how does she want to be remembered? “Warmly,” she says. “I hope they
White wants to keep her upcoming 96th birthday celebration a low-key affair. “Staying home would be the best thing in the world,” she says.