The legendary actress, comedian, and animal lover died Friday at the age of 99. What an honor to have her on this earth as long as we did.
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Betty White's power was in her contradictions. The apron-wearing Happy Homemaker with a filthy mind. The Florida retiree with the naive worldview of a child. The little old lady with a wit as brutal as a prison-sharpened shiv. Whether she was working in the '50s, the '80s, the 2000s or beyond, White — who passed away in her home on Friday — demolished the barriers between what women "should" or "shouldn't" do in comedy, and the world was funnier for it.

From her first leading role in 1953, an era where TV parts for women ranged from "wife" to "mother-in-law," White made her own norms. In Life With Elizabeth — which she created with her production company partners George Tibbles and Don Fedderson — White starred as the titular half of a happily married California couple who were prone to gentle comedic mishaps. At least once an episode, the show's male announcer would scold Elizabeth for her latest shenanigans. "Elizabeth, aren't you ashamed?" he'd admonish in a condescending baritone. White's reaction was consistently, comedically defiant:

Betty White gif
Elizabeth (Betty White) is not ashamed.
| Credit: Guild Films

The impish Elizabeth was the first in a long series of classic Betty White characters who subverted expectations about how women were supposed to act. After spending much of the '60s as America's most beloved game-show panelist — Password, Match Game, To Tell the Truth — White began her four-season run on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as the randy and sharp-tongued "Happy Homemaker," Sue Ann Nivens. It was 1973, a time when women were still a minority in the workplace — one that was regularly objectified and undervalued — but Sue Ann dominated her space in the WJM newsroom. In White's hands, Sue Ann was the opposite of what you'd expect from a "happy homemaker": She was judgmental, openly sexual, and flat-out mean. She was also an expert at playing along with society's expectations, even if she wasn't going to live by them.

On MTM, White turned her sunny public image into a tactical comedic weapon, delivering savage zingers while flashing a dazzling, dimpled smile. Gifting Mary with a "free-form mobile representing the four food groups," Sue Ann purrs, "Why don't you put it in your bedroom? You must need something in there to relieve the tedium!" Though her character was written as a one-off guest spot in season 4, White made Sue Ann an essential part of an already classic ensemble — earning two Emmys along the way.

"I'm so grateful to each and every one of those evil, adorable, wonderful nasty people at MTM who make Sue Ann the rotten lady that she is," White joked during her 1976 acceptance speech.

After MTM ended in 1977 and White's eponymous follow-up sitcom got canceled in 1978, the actress returned to her career as a TV journeywoman: She starred alongside her husband, Allen Ludden, on The Love Boat in 1980; gave killer clues as a panelist on $25,000 Pyramid; and traded barbs with Carol Burnett as Eunice's snobby sister Ellen on Mama's Family. In 1985, NBC held auditions for a new sitcom, The Golden Girls, about four retirees sharing a house in Miami. White read for the part of man-hungry Southern belle Blanche Devereaux. Jay Sandrich, who had worked with White on MTM and was directing the Golden Girls pilot, had a different idea. As creator Susan Harris told EW in 2018, "He said, 'Betty's done that before. On Mary Tyler Moore, she was the [vixen]. Let her read for the part of Rose.'" 

Once again, playing against type propelled White to new heights of TV hilarity. A kindhearted widow, Rose Nylund was the sweet counterbalance to her much saltier roommates: Imposing retired teacher Dorothy (Bea Arthur), Dorothy's wisecracking mother Sophia (Estelle Getty), and sex-positive senior Blanche (Rue McClanahan). Whether Rose was driving the other women crazy with stories about her quirky-tiny hometown of St. Olaf, Minnesota, or stretching their patience to its limit with her unrelating naivete, White played it all with underlying sweetness and pluck. Her Rose was a nincompoop we never failed to root for, and one who lit the match for so many of Arthur's withering glares of white-hot rage. (Dorothy [sarcastic]: "I'm clairvoyant, Rose." Rose: "You're so lucky. I get into a pool and sink like a stone.")

Though White worked continually after Golden Girls (and its short-lived spinoff Golden Palace) went off the air in the early '90s, there were years when she wasn't top of mind. Somehow, even the lulls worked to her advantage. We never truly forgot her, but every time she reemerged, we experienced the glorious thrill of discovery yet again: Oh my God, Betty White is the absolute best. Her unforgettable turn in 1999's Lake Placid as the foulmouthed Mrs. Bickerman ("If I had a d---, this is where I'd tell you to suck it") is the only reason the killer alligator flick hasn't been completely lost to the ages. David E. Kelley, who penned Placid's script, soon cast White as another brutally blunt character, Catherine Piper on ABC's The Practice. (Do yourself a favor and fire up season 8, episode 14 on Hulu, to hear White deliver this line to Jessica Capshaw: "No offense, sweetheart, I'm sure you're darling. But your mouth looks like a drive-through window for oral sex.")

The true Betty White Renaissance began in 2009: In The Proposal, the 87-year-old actress delighted audiences with her "Get Low" dance moves as randy Grandma Annie. Then came the buzzy Snickers Super Bowl ad ("That's not what your girlfriend said last night!") followed by a fan-driven push for White to host Saturday Night Live — which she did, at long last, on May 8, 2010. "Many of you know that I'm 88-and-a-half years old, so it's great to be here for a number of reasons," she told the audience. Most of the sketches played off White's well-established "DGAF Grandma" persona — like talking about her "Giant Dusty Muffin" on an episode of Delicious Dish and telling a flummoxed census taker (Tina Fey) about her "crotch massager." Part of the joy of watching White, especially in the last phase of her career, was watching how much joy other people got from being around Betty freaking White. Just look how much Bill Hader loved being roughed up by White's tough-talking Grandma Lorette in this "Scared Straight" sketch:

For at least the last decade, the words "Betty White" would trend, without fail, on or around Jan. 17 for her birthday. And for at least the last decade, so many of us would click that trending topic with trepidation, praying that the day we all dreaded had not yet arrived. Soon after news of her death broke on Friday, I thought back to the one time I had the privilege of interviewing Betty White for EW's Stupid Questions series in 1998, timed to her appearance in the Morgan Freeman action film Hard Rain. A lifelong animal advocate, White told me that she had turned down the role of Helen Hunt's mother in As Good As It Gets because of the movie's opening scene, when Jack Nicholson's character tosses his neighbor's dog down the garbage chute. ("It broke my heart to say no, but there are other ways to get laughs than to throw a dog down a garbage chute.") And then came the final question, which led to this exchange:

EW: You were a panelist on the '60s game show The Liars Club. What's the last lie you told?

WHITE: Um, boy, it's hard to choose. [Maybe] when I said I didn't mind talking this morning.

What an honor to be the target of a classic Betty White burn. And what an honor to have Betty White on this earth for as long as we did. May she now, at last, rest in peace.

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