Still Golden - A Talk With Betty White
If you immediately think of The Golden Girls whenever you hear Betty White's name then you're not alone. She honors her golden period and isn't afraid to say so. In a roundtable conference call Betty put any question to rest, even the hope of a Golden Girls reunion. A bummer for many print and online journalists on the panel, Betty nurtured our regret like only a sweet grandmother can.
In between Bringing Down the House with Queen Latifah and Stealing Christmas from Tony Danza, Betty shows that there is life after the Mary Tyler Moore Show. And contrary to popular belief, Betty loved the 80s shoulder pads and floral print she flaunted while on The Golden Girls, despite Melissa and Joan Rivers "professional" criticism. If you think Betty is the naive St. Olaf blonde native then think again. This woman won't let her Emmys collect dust any time soon.
Certainly you and your costars for Golden Girls were all established actresses by the time the series came along. What did you learn from your costars acting-wise with the series?
Oh, it started the first day of the first read-through for the pilot. We had all received this really great script from Susan Harris. You get so many bad scripts so to get a good one, it gets your attention. We showed up for the read-through it was like batting a tennis ball over the net. You better be ready because you were going to get it right back over the net. It was so exciting to be with four people with that chemistry - I'll never forget that first read. That just continued through the series. It was such a pleasure to see four professionals who knew good material and respected it.
Why do you think Golden Girls has such appeal with gay audiences?
Isn't it remarkable? Wen we were on Saturday night's, gay bars around Los Angeles would shutdown the music when Golden Girls came on. Everybody watched Golden Girls and then they'd start the music back up and start dancing again. It was wonderful. I think the gay community likes old ladies. I know I get a tremendous amount of mail that talk about growing up, watching our show and watching it with either their mother or their grandmother, but mostly their grandmother. So I think we were maybe surrogate grandmothers.
How do you compare the character of Rose versus the character of Sue Ann (on Mary Tyler Moore). Was that an occasion for being very excited or were you a little bit taken aback by the fact that she wasn't this kind of very - I don't want to say evil, but certainly...
Well, the wonderful part was Jay Sandrich is responsible for my whole Golden Girl career. Jay directed most of the Mary Tyler Moore shows. And Jay directed the pilot on Golden Girls. They wrote the show with me in mind for Blanche. Jay said, "If Betty plays another man-hungry neighborhood, you know what, they're going to equate it with Sue Ann and think it's just a continuation of that." He said, "Why don't we give her Rose and give Rue who played on Mama's Family" -- she was very quiet and kind of mousy sister -- "Why don't we switch those two parts?" Susan Harris was kind enough to say that she loved Rose and that Rose was very strong. I thought at first, "Well, what do I with Rose? I know Blanche. What do I do with Rose?" And Jay Sandrich said she takes every word for its absolute meaning. I mean she knows no sarcasm, no nothing. If somebody said I could eat a horse, she'd call the SPCA. But Rue took Blanche out into orbit where I would never have dared go. It worked out so beautifully and I thank Jay Sandrich everyday of my life.
Were there any real controversial scripts on the Golden Girls that never saw the light of day because of the material?
I doubt that seriously. We wouldn't know that and probably, anything that controversial would stop in the writers' room. We were so blessed with these magnificent writers that we get the credit because our face is shown on camera, but the heart of the show, of course, was the writing team. But we did a show on where they thought that Rose had AIDS. We did menopause, we did pregnancy, we did all kinds of stuff.
It was unusual in mid-80s for these issues to be explored in detail on TV especially with a group of older women.
Well I think that was the secret that allowed us to do what we did. Blanche had the sex life of, you know, that everybody would be shocked at. But being an older woman, she got away with it. And we all got away with stuff because we were passed that youth thing. The writers again, had an incredible concept.
If I would have had half the sex life that Blanche had, I'd be a happy camper
Oh, if I had half that sex life, I'd be dead from exhaustion.
You did everything on the Golden Girls, comedy, singing and dancing... did you ever think that you were going to be approached with this comedy project and it would explode into multiple Emmy wins?
Well, no. You never know how a show is going to shakedown. You hope for the best on all of them, but when we'd all been in the business awhile, when Golden Girls came along and you get so many bad scripts, oh, you just don't believe how many bad scripts people send to you. When we got this script for the pilot, it just jumped at all of us. It was so well written and so - it was funny and the characters were distinct from each other but they blended together. Well we were so excited, did the pilot, hoped for the best. You never know but Bill Cosby was on at the time and he kind of owned the television business. And we beat him out the first week on the air, we were No. 1, he was No. 2 and we thought, "Oops, we're on to something."
Since Golden Girls you've taken a number of much darker roles. Is that a conscious decision of yours to take roles like that to break the mold of Rose like you had on Golden Girls and Mary Tyler Moore or is it just happenstance?
It's primarily happenstance. When you're guesting on a regular series, you have the privilege of saying yes to something or no to something. And again, it's - whatever role comes along, if the thing itself seem strong enough and worthwhile enough, then you're delighted to say yes to that. But you also turn down the ones that aren't. I know that the language was horrendous in Lake Placid, but the character was within the framework of the movie. It kind of worked. And I go across an airport now when I'm traveling or anything and a grandmother will come up with her little granddaughter or grandson by the hand and she says, "Oh, I loved you in Lake Placid." And my stark remark is always, "I apologize for the language." And she says, "No, no, that was fine. That was funny." So, you never know.
Is there anything you haven't played yet that you'd like to?
I guess opposite Robert Redford in a wonderfully romantic - no, no, no, that's - I was just daydreaming there for a minute. I used to answer that question by saying I'd like to do a love story. I don't mean a sex story. I mean a love story, a romance. And they wrote one for me. And Leslie Nielsen, he did it opposite me and it was a chance of a lifetime. And it was a sweet, romantic comedy - but I think what would knock me out. I've done a Hallmark movie, it will be out on the 22nd of January. Hallmark movie for the Hallmark channel, but to do a Hallmark Hall of fame it think would knock me out.
Why do you think the show has maintained its popularity through all these years?
Well I have to go back to the writing. You just don't get good writing that holds up like that overtime. Because people will often say, "Oh, I've seen – I've probably seen each one six times." I think the audience knows the lines now better than we ever did. But they seem to be able to laugh at it again. Now, you can give us all the credit you want to, but we can't save a bad show. We can screw up a good show, but we can't save a bad one. It was the writing that makes that hold up. And I am eternally grateful.
Do you think it still appeals to all ages?
Oh well, we're like a college cult. And even when we were on first run, it was the young people who picked up on the show. But now, I'd say, 80% of my mail comes from people in college and younger.
What was it like being on the set everyday with such established actresses, what was the vibe like?
It was such fun because when work so closely together pretty soon you short cut. You know each other so well, it's like a family where you don't have to explain anything. And Bea would come in with a new joke and nobody can tell a joke like Bea. It may not be the cleanest joke in the world, but it's bound to be funny. We would commiserate with each other. It was just heaven. It was like being with the family everyday.
Do you miss it?
I've missed Golden Girls since we've went off the air. But you find in any - almost any set of sitcom, like with Alfred Molina on Ladies Man and stuff, when you work together, if it's a happy set and that usually goes right to the top whoever is in the start of the show can set that tone, you get that family feeling. But I think we extended it really a little more than normal because we were so close and still are.
What do you think about death of sitcoms in the face of reality TV taking over?
Don't get me started on reality TV because I don't want to use language I shouldn't use. I think the problem with sitcom, this whole youth wave that washed over - people say, well they – well, older actresses can't, you know, can't get jobs because they. Well we get jobs, we work all the time. It's the writers who have an age block. So many of the producers and network thinks, "Oh, you need young writers because they know what the audience wants." Well they have no frame of reference. So they write about today's jokes which by next week are, "What was that all about?" Nobody understands it. So I think again it goes right back to the writing. The lack of good sitcoms is because we need seasoned good writers and it's a tough call.
What would be the chances do you think of a 30-minute reunion special with you, Bea and Rue?
Oh, they've asked us so many times and I think it would be wonderful, Rue thinks it would be wonderful, but Bea just doesn't want to do it. And she's probably right. You know, quit while you're ahead.
Rose is known for her drawn out, St. Olaf stories, do you have any funny stories from the set that you could possibly share that no one else would know about but you girls?
Well, St. Olaf, we treated on the show as the town of St. Olaf, that Rose came from. But actually it's a wonderful college in Minnesota. And I thought because Rose was not the swiftest oar in the water, that they would resent the fact that she was painting a long picture of them. Well, they took Rose to their hearts, they sent me St. Olaf shirts and all that. They invited me back to visit the college which I did and they have this magnificent chorus. It's famous all over the world, they travel all over the world. In fact, some of the exchange students said when people would ask them in Germany, "Where are you going to school?" "Oh, St. Olaf," "Oh, the Golden Girls," they said, "No, we're going there because of their chorus." And they say, "Oh, we didn't know the Golden Girls sang." You can't explain it to anybody. One week they came out en masse, they were appearing in Los Angeles down at the concert hall. And 70 of them came to the show. And so - it happened to be my birthday. So Rue and I came out on a warm-up beforehand and we sang their college song. "They come from St. Olaf, they sure are the real stuff." And it ends with "Um-ya-ya, um-ya-ya." So we sang it to them as a joke. Well 70 voices in all of its umpteenth part harmony, sang happy birthday back to us. It was the most gorgeous thing you ever heard in your life. Rue and I crept off the stage. We promise we'd never sing again.
Now that The Golden Girls DVD has come out and you have a Lifetime movie that is coming out for the holidays, what else can we look forward to seeing you in?
I have a movie for Hallmark channel coming out January 22, "Annie's Point" and we had a wonderful time. I think it's going to be fun. Then I have an independent film that I did with Jenna Mattison, "Third Wish". It'll be out on Valentine's Day. And then I just did "Complete Savages," with Mel Gibson. It's Mel Gibson's comedy package, but he directed the episode which I was amazed at. And so we had fun on that. That'll be out very soon. It's on Friday nights and so that'll be outrageous. I got a lot of things in the hopper and hopefully just keep (wheezing) away because I sure am having a good time.
- Danielle Henbest