Thank you for being a friend: Betty White dead at 99

Betty White, the iconic television star who endeared herself to generations of fans over a decades-spanning career, has died at age 99.

Decades-spanning career included The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls

Television icon Betty White dead at 99

2 years ago
Duration 2:37
Television icon Betty White has died at 99, just weeks before her 100th birthday.

Betty White, the iconic television star who endeared herself to generations of fans over a decades-spanning career, has died at age 99.

White's death was confirmed by her longtime agent Jeff Witjas in a phone call Friday with publicist Pam Golum. White would have turned 100 on Jan. 17, 2022.

"I truly never thought she was going to pass away," Witjas told The Associated Press. "She meant the world to me as a friend. She was the most positive person I've ever known."

Her combination of sweet and edgy gave life to a roster of quirky characters in notable roles, including Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls and Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She continued to work in television in the 2000s with roles on The Bold and the BeautifulBoston Legal and later on Hot in Cleveland.

White won numerous awards for her television work, including five Primetime Emmys and two Daytime Emmys — one of which was a lifetime achievement award at the Daytime Emmys.

She was also a pioneer in television by co-founding a production company and serving as a co-creator, producer and star of the 1950s sitcom Life With Elizabeth.

WATCH | Betty White's appearance on CBC game show Flashback in 1966:

Betty White on Life With Elizabeth

3 years ago
Duration 1:56
On the CBC game show Flashback in 1966, Betty White describes her early days working in TV.

White remained youthful in part through her skill at playing bawdy or naughty while radiating niceness. Her movie roles in the horror spoof Lake Placid and the comedy The Proposal were marked by her characters' surprisingly salty language.

But she almost wasn't cast as "Happy Homemaker" Sue Ann Nivens in The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1973. She and her husband, Allen Ludden, were close friends of Moore and Moore's then-husband, producer Grant Tinker. It was feared that if White failed on the show, which already was a huge hit, it would be embarrassing for all four.

But CBS casting head Ethel Winant declared White the logical choice. Originally planned as a one-shot appearance, the role of Sue Ann lasted until Moore ended the series in 1977.

"While she's icky-sweet on her cooking show, Sue is really a piranha type," White once said. The role brought her two Emmys as supporting actress in a comedy series.

Betty White, the iconic star of The Golden Girls, died Friday at 99. (Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NATAS)

White made frequent appearances on game shows, late-night talk shows and in commercials over the course of her lauded career; in 2010, the then-88-year-old became the oldest person to host Saturday Night Live following a social media campaign to get her on the show.

White said her longevity was a result of good health, good fortune and loving her work.

"It's incredible that I'm still in this business and that you are still putting up with me," White said in an appearance at the 2018 Emmy Awards, where she was honoured for her long career.

"It's incredible that you can stay in a career this long and still have people put up with you. I wish they did that at home."

A film honouring White on her birthday will be released as planned for a one-day showing in more than 900 theaters nationwide, said Steve Boettcher and Mike Trinklein, producers of Betty White: 100 Years Young — A Birthday Celebration.

"We will go forward with our plans to show the film on Jan. 17 in hopes our film will provide a way for all who loved her to celebrate her life — and experience what made her such a national treasure," they said in a statement.

Mainstay on The Golden Girls

In 1985, White starred on NBC with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty in The Golden Girls. Its cast of mature actresses, playing single women in Miami retirement, presented a gamble in a youth-conscious industry. But it proved a solid hit and lasted until 1992.

White played Rose, a gentle, dim widow who managed to misinterpret most situations. She drove her roommates crazy with off-the-wall tales of childhood in fictional St. Olaf, Minn., an off-kilter version of Lake Wobegon.

The role won her another Emmy, and she reprised it in a short-lived spinoff, The Golden Palace.

After her co-star Arthur died in 2009, White told Entertainment Tonight: "She showed me how to be very brave in playing comedy. I'll miss that courage."

White, second from left, is pictured at the Emmys in Los Angeles in 1976 alongside co-stars Ed Asner, left, Mary Tyler Moore, second from right and Ted Knight. (Reed Saxon/File/The Associated Press)

But it was in 2010 that White's stardom erupted as never before.

In a Snickers commercial that premiered during that year's Super Bowl telecast, she impersonated an energy-sapped dude getting tackled during a backlot football game.

"Mike, you're playing like Betty White out there," jeered one of his chums. White, flat on the ground and covered in mud, fired back, "That's not what your girlfriend said!"

The instantly-viral video helped spark a Facebook campaign called "Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!," whose half-million fans led to her co-hosting Saturday Night Live in a much-watched edition that Mother's Day weekend. The appearance won her a seventh Emmy award.

'Who didn't love Betty White?'

White began her television career as $50-a-week sidekick to a local Los Angeles TV personality in 1949. She was hired for a local daytime show starring Al Jarvis, the best-known disc jockey in Los Angeles.

It was then she got a tip to start lying about her age.

In this 2004 photo, White, left, poses with two of her co-stars from The Golden Girls, Rue McClanahan, centre, and Bea Arthur. (Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

"We are so age-conscious in this country," she said in a 2011 interview with The Associated Press. "It's silly, but that's the way we are. So I was told, 'Knock four years off right now. You'll be blessing yourself down the road.'

"I was born in 1922. So I thought, 'I must always remember that I was born in 1926.' But then I would have to do the math.

"Finally, I decided to heck with it."

White was not afraid to mock herself and throw out a joke about her sex life or a snarky crack that one would not expect from a sweet-smiling, white-haired elderly woman. She was frequently asked if, after such a long career, there was anything she still wanted to do and the standard response was: "Robert Redford."

"Old age hasn't diminished her," the New York Times wrote in 2013. "It has given her a second wind."

Minutes after news emerged of her death, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters: "That's a shame. She was a lovely lady." His wife Jill Biden said: "Who didn't love Betty White? We're so sad about her death."

With files from CBC News and Reuters