Betty White, comedian and legendary Golden Girls star, dies at 99
Betty White, the five-time Emmy Award-winning actress whose career spanned six decades and included pivotal roles on some of TV's most influential shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls, has died, PEOPLE has confirmed. She was 99 years old, and would have turned 100 on Jan. 17.
"Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever," her agent and friend, Jeff Witjas, told PEOPLE in a statement Friday. "I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don't think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again."
TMZ was the first to report the news.
An only child, White was born in Oak Park, Ill., raised in Los Angeles, and graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1939. She was on TV before it was even beamed into homes: White sang an operatic song with a high school classmate on an experimental transmission two months before NBC famously presented the then new-fangled medium at the New York World's Fair in 1939. After spending the '40s working in radio, White officially hit the TV airwaves in 1949 on the local variety show Hollywood on Television, for which she snagged her first Emmy nomination.
White went on to produce and star in the show's domestic spin-off comedy, Life With Elizabeth. An assortment of short-lived roles followed, including an eponymous variety show and the first of her famed spots on game shows, from What's My Line to Make the Connection to Password. Years later, White appeared on other game shows, including Pyramid and Match Game, as well as hosted NBC's Just Men! (for which she won a Daytime Emmy). Her association with the genre earned her the nickname "First Lady of Game Shows." Appearing on Password in 1961, White met her third husband, Allen Ludden, who hosted the show (White was briefly married twice in the '40s). The pair got hitched in 1963, and Ludden died of stomach cancer in 1981. White never remarried.
The first of White's two most famous TV roles began in 1973, when she joined the cast of the super-successful CBS sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, playing "happy homemaker" Sue Ann Nivens. The character was legendary as a two-faced, nasty maneater hidden behind a sweet facade. White snagged two Emmys for the role. Then in 1985, she debuted as Midwestern simpleton Rose Nylund alongside Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan on NBC's The Golden Girls, a series that focused on four geriatric ladies living together in a Miami house with a spacious lanai and lots of cheesecake.
Considered a precursor to Sex and the City, Golden Girls was a surprise Saturday night hit that stirred the cultural zeitgeist because of its frank discussion of taboo topics like sex over 60, AIDS, and gay issues. White's character famously told meandering stories about her hometown of St. Olaf, Minn., and spouted off weird, Scandinavian vocabulary. White was nominated for an Emmy during each of the show's seven seasons and won in its first.
"With The Golden Girls, it wasn't so much sadness [at the end] as it was a deep realization that none of us would ever be a part of something so special again in our careers," White told EW in 2005, on the show's 20th anniversary. "It was the peak of everybody's career."
White joined McClanahan and Getty in a spin-off the following year, The Golden Palace, but it lasted only one season. After Palace ended, White took roles on Bob Newhart's CBS sitcom Bob and Marie Osmond's ABC show Maybe This Time.
In her later years, White became something of a magnet for Guest Actress Emmy nominations: Between 1996 and 2004, she tallied four nods in series ranging from The John Larroquette Show to The Practice; her part in the latter drama led to a recurring role as a conniving legal secretary on Boston Legal. White continued to appear on the small screen, in spots on the daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful, sitcoms My Name Is Earl and Community, as well as the big-screen rom-com The Proposal opposite Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. From 2010 to 2015, White delighted fans with her portrayal of widowed caretaker Elka Ostrovsky in TV Land's Hot in Cleveland.
As generations of other stars came and went, White managed to endure — and thrive.
"Television was a fledgling, barely out of the nest, when I began taking my first stumbling professional steps," she wrote in her 1995 autobiography Here We Go Again: My Life in Television. "It boggles my mind that in such a transitory field of endeavor, I am still allowed to hang in there."
More than just "hang" in television, the gutsy, sweet White left an indelible mark.
In addition to her incredible Hollywood career, she was also a pet enthusiast known for her animal advocacy. White worked with various animal organizations over the years, including the Los Angeles Zoo, spcaLA, and the Morris Animal Foundation, where she had served as president emeritus since 2009.