Betty White has been a household name since the 1950s — from her early work on a five-and-a-half-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week live variety show and her first sitcom Life with Elizabeth, to subsequent supporting and starring roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls, among many others. But she reached full pop icon status after her unexpected and racy turn on Comedy Central’s Roast of William Shatner, those Snickers commercials, and, in the crowning achievement, her gig as host of Saturday Night Live in May 2010.
In a new PBS special, Betty White: First Lady of Television, White’s agent Jeff Witjas recounts how he pushed White to do some projects that people wouldn’t have expected of her, including that roast. The popular NBC sketch comedy series wasn’t even on their radar, though, until a fan started a Facebook petition, and SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels took notice.
In an exclusive clip above, Witjas says White, then 88 years old, rehearsed “vigorously all week,” but then on Thursday she gave him a look he’s “never seen before” and said, “Never again.”
“Maybe I pushed her a little too far and a little too much, because I was pushing her out of her comfort zone,” he explains.” And then she said it, she looked [at me], went right back into the regular Betty White after she said it.”
White goes on to explain how she does get stage fright, but it’s not always a bad thing. “It’s a lifesaver because the panic that sets in, you have to [counteract] and you have to get a handle on it in order to do what you’re doing,” White, now 96, says. “So the stage fright is what puts the edge, I think, on a performance.”
“I can’t believe Betty did SNL and at that age,” says Ryan Reynolds, who played her grandson in The Proposal. “And not only did SNL at that age but took the ball and knocked it so far out of the park.”
Audiences took notice, as did the television academy; she won her fifth primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her work. (White has 21 total primetime nominations, plus a Daytime Emmy Award, another daytime nomination, and a Lifetime Achievement honor.)
The special, from the Pioneers of Television team, was filmed periodically over the course of 10 years. In it, she also talks about how she refused to remove black tap dancer Arthur Duncan from her talk show in the 1950s after audiences in the south complained. She also discusses meeting her husband, game show host Allen Ludden, and his death, and she explains her long love affair with animals and wildlife.
Betty White: First Lady of Television, premiering Tuesday on PBS (check your local listings for time), also features former costars and friends including Carl Reiner, Valerie Bertinelli, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Tina Fey.