Betty White was noticeably absent at the PBS interview session to promote the “Betty White: First Lady of Television” special premiering Tuesday, August 21 on PBS SoCal KOCE. But the 96-year-old’s sassy spirit filled the ballroom as fabulous tales were told about one of the most beloved performers in show business.
During the recent PBS day (July 31) of the Television Critics Association’s press tour at the Beverly Hilton, Betty’s dear friends Arthur Duncan, Georgia Engel and Gavin MacLeod shared their stories, along with Steve Boettcher, co-director and producer of Betty White: First Lady of Television. Sure she’s had an impressive career, arguably the longest career in TV history at 80 years, but it was the wildly wonderful personal anecdotes from the panel that painted a true portrait of the showbiz Golden Girl Betty White.
It was Boettcher who reported, “Betty White wanted to be here, but she’s worked so hard, she deserves a day off. She sends her best and she’s doing great.”
The Pioneers of Television documentary filmmaker also revealed, “The first day on set doing interviews with her, she walked in the room, and everybody kind of takes a beat, and Betty looked at every guy and she goes, ‘I like my odds.’ And the whole crew just falls in love with her at that moment, and they all raise their game just because Betty is in the room. It was just fascinating to watch. Betty makes a point to know the crew members, their families…she knew the pets of the crew members. That’s the way Betty is.”
Also singing the praises of Betty White was legendary tap dancer Arthur Duncan best known for The Lawrence Welk Show. But before that, in 1954, Betty was the first woman to produce a national television program, The Betty White Show, and she discovered a young dancer/singer and brought his talent to television for the first time. There were stations in the country that didn’t want to see an African American as a regular on TV, but Betty stood up for Duncan (unbeknownst to him at the time) and kept him on her show.
Their longtime friendship has never diminished. Duncan told the TV critics, “I am very honored to be part of this tribute to Betty White. She is the grandest of all people that I’ve met. Whenever she walked into a room, it lit up. She launched me into show business by appearing on her show. There were those threatening to drop the show if I continued to appear, but she just stood up for her beliefs.”
Although Betty at 96 lets everyone know her age, Duncan is more crafty when he’s asked. Arthur answered the age question with, “I’m old enough to know better and young enough to try it again. I’m still active and performing my cabaret show across the country. Taking a page from Betty’s book of eternal youth, I intend to do that as long as I can. I enjoy what I do and I’m going to give that horse a good ride.”
Betty’s Mary Tyler Moore Show co-star Georgia Engel talked about the love of animals she shares with Betty: “Her lovely assistant takes Betty and me on adventures to the L.A. Zoo riding in a golf cart. Betty sees all her animal friends. She goes to the elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus…giraffes will just come over to see her. She’s like an animal whisperer. And Betty taught me how to give a bear named Bam-Bam a marshmallow with my teeth, and the bear takes it,” Georgia explained sweetly, adding, “She loves all living creatures. Her wonderful parents exposed her to that early. Her curiosity and wanting to learn more about the animals is a wonderful thing. It’s enriched my life and made my friendship with her so special.”
Celebrate the beloved star’s 80th anniversary in show business with the Betty White: First Lady of Television special premiering Tuesday, August 21 at 8pm on PBS SoCal KOCE.
Margie Barron is a member of the Television Critics Association and has written for a variety of top publications for more than 35 years, and was proud to be half of the husband and wife writing team of Margie and Frank Barron.