Although we’re sad she’s not here to celebrate it, today is still Betty White’s 100th birthday — and what better way to mark the occasion than by taking a look back at her amazing life and career? She made us laugh for over 70 years, but there’s no shortage of serious lessons we can learn from the beloved icon.
Below, we’ve excerpted selections from the book How to Be Golden, by Paula Bernstein. Ever wondered what advice Betty White might have offered if you’d had the chance to meet her? This charming book aims to answer that question. Keep reading to find out — then pick up a copy for yourself and a friend!
Fake it ’til you make it.
[One of Betty’s first jobs was working alongside disc jockey Al Jarvis on the daily live television variety show Hollywood on Television, in 1949.] The extent of Al’s instructions to Betty consisted of: “All you have to do is respond when I talk to you. Just follow where I lead.” Nowadays, more preparation is involved in producing a YouTube video. Betty and Al were pretty much winging it, but they had such a natural rapport that the audience didn’t seem to notice—or care if things seemed impromptu and a bit slapdash.
“When you’re on five and a half hours, there’s no way to follow a script. We didn’t rehearse. I’d slap some makeup on,” Betty said of Hollywood on Television. Without a script, Betty learned to ad-lib and respond to any situation that might arise, skills that would serve her well for the rest of her career.
Stand up for others.
Black tap dancer and singer Arthur Duncan impressed Betty with his talent whenever he performed on Hollywood on Television. Once she became a producer of The Betty White Show, Betty hired Duncan as a regular to perform a song-and-dance number each episode. But not everyone approved of Duncan’s involvement.
As the show expanded nationally, TV stations in the South threatened to pull it from their schedules unless they fired Duncan. “It came as a frightfully ugly surprise, one day, when a few of the stations that carried our show through the South notified us that they would ‘with deep regret, find it most difficult to broadcast the program unless Mr. Arthur Duncan was removed from the cast,’” Betty remembered. “I was shocked, and it goes without saying that Arthur continued to perform on our show as often as possible.”
She stood her ground and refused to fire him. “I was livid.” She put her foot down and said, “I’m sorry. He stays.” Luckily, the network backed up the decision. She got her way. In 1954, that was pretty gutsy. Unfortunately, it didn’t solve everything. Initially a ratings success, the show changed time slots and was cancelled before too long. Still, in addition to earning Betty her first Emmy, it helped launch Duncan’s career. And she never made a big deal about what she had done.
Don’t give up on your dreams.
Growing up, everybody’s favorite sitcom star always wanted to be a forest ranger (and a writer, and a singer, and a zookeeper!), but back then, only boys could be forest rangers. In 2010, her childhood wish came true when the U.S. Forest Service made her an honorary forest ranger. During the ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell apologized that Betty didn’t have the opportunity to join the Forest Service as a young woman.
“Judging from your illustrious career, you would have made marvelous contributions to our agency and to the cause of conservation across the United States,” said Tidwell. “Betty, you are a role model for little girls — for all of us — never to give up on our dreams.” [Today’s U.S. Forest Service is 38 percent female.] White received a great big (bear) hug from Smokey Bear and showed off her new official ranger’s hat and badge before emphasizing the importance of protecting nature.
Hold out for true love — on your own terms.
Betty took a chance on love twice with two brief “practice marriages” before finding the real thing. She knew enough not to settle in a relationship that wasn’t working for her. That’s a big deal, considering back then divorce was considered scandalous — and she was, after all, considered America’s Sweetheart for a time. Leave it to Betty not to worry about any backlash and to follow her heart without hurting her career. Lucky for her that smartphones and social media were still many years off!
Marriage was never the goal for her. She was looking for love — and someone who would be supportive rather than competitive of her career. Clearly, her first two husbands weren’t able to fulfill those needs. Rather than stick around out of a sense of duty, she knew it was better to be alone than to stay with the wrong person. And she certainly wasn’t going to give up her big Hollywood dreams to fulfill some man’s fantasy of a wife. “Both marriages helped me to appreciate the real thing when it came along,” she said.
Stay active and keep doing what you love.
Starring in Hot in Cleveland [the television show Betty starred in from 2010 – 2015] wasn’t enough to keep White busy. She wanted to pack in as much work as possible, working with people she liked on projects that meant something to her. When the show was on hiatus, Betty couldn’t resist taking on side projects she was excited about, including a fun role on the NBC comedy Community and a leading role opposite Jennifer Love Hewitt (Party of Five) in the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie The Lost Valentine.
She was nearly eighty-nine — or as she put it “eighty-eight-and- three-quarters years old” when she flew to Atlanta to shoot the movie, and it was worth the effort. In the film, Hewitt plays a reporter who interviews White about her husband, who she’s been pining for since he was declared Missing in Action during World War II.
Doing a love story was “a nice change of pace,” and the project appealed to her because it was about a lost love. “It’s a deep, deep love story, like the one I had with my beloved Allen Ludden.”
From the book How to Be Golden by Paula Bernstein. Reprinted by permission of Running Press, part of the Perseus division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2021 by Paula Bernstein. (Buy from Amazon, $20)
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