In her six-decade-long career — from radio dramas to live television variety shows to Mary Tyler Moore to The Golden Girls to her current gigs, TV Land’s sitcom Hot in Cleveland and Lifetime’s reality prank show Off Their Rockers — there is pretty much no question that Betty White hasn’t answered. She even said as much to me within the first two minutes of our interview, for which I was given a strict 15 minutes. “I’ve been in the talking business all my life,” White explained by way of apologizing for not having an answer to my question about what she can get away with saying now at 92 that she couldn’t when she was younger. “So I think even if I wasn’t supposed to talk about it, I did. It’s been 65 years now in this business. That’s a long time! That’s a lot of talking!”
What I quickly discovered, however, is that even after a lifetime spent in the public eye, Betty White still has the capacity to surprise.
1. She will take advantage of your deepest desires in life to win you over — like, for example, giving you a cupcake.
It’s true: The very first thing Betty White did when I met her in her well-appointed dressing room for TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland was give me a cupcake. “My team did some research,” she said, “and learned you like cupcakes, so here you go!” My Twitter bio does mention that I eat cupcakes, and I’m going to presume that’s where her team learned this information, because otherwise Betty White is secretly the head of the NSA.
2. She agreed to host the hidden camera prank show Off Their Rockers without being much of a fan of pranks.
The premise of the show, which moved to Lifetime for its third season after debuting on NBC, is straightforward — old people play hidden camera pranks on youngsters, and White introduces each sketch. But while White appreciates the privileges of old age — “Oh you can get away with murder at this age! Sometimes [people] bring you chairs, even if you don’t want one or don’t need one!” — and she has a “wonderful time” hosting the show, it turned out that she’s actually not all that keen on pulling pranks herself.
“Off Their Rockers started in Belgium,” White said. “Big, big hit. They were going to bring it over here, and they asked if I’d do it. And I thought, ‘I don’t even know what that means.’ Well, ‘course, I have the resistance of a worm, and I found myself doing it. I’m not a — It’s silly to say with a show like that — I’m not a good prankster. I don’t like to put people on. Sometimes your close friends, sure. You pull gags on ‘em and that. But as far as actually pranking — we always try on the show terribly hard not to be mean-spirited. You don’t want to embarrass somebody. You want to prank ‘em. You want to surprise ‘em. And make them giggle. But you don’t want to embarrass them.”
3. She really, really loves her collection of stuffed animals.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped into White’s dressing room was the row of stuffed animals lining the top of the couch she was sitting on.
“Ah well, my family,” White said when I first mentioned the animals. She turned to a stuffed hippo just off her right shoulder: “Now, you sit up and behave yourself!”
Who gave her all of these animals? “Everybody,” said White. “They all know how much I love them. And they all have a life of their own as far as I’m concerned. I can’t just put them aside like stuffed animals. I have a whole room in my house, the guest room, filled with them. It’s also where my computer is. So I go in there, and as I leave, I always say, ‘OK, goodbye guys! I’ll see you later!’ Not to be coy, but just because they all have a living being to them! So I never live alone.” She chuckled. “I’ve always got these guys.”
4. But she loves her time with real animals even more — they’re the reason she’s still working at 92.
“I have to stay in show business to pay for my animal business,” said White. “They’re my passion.” While White said she is “not much of a traveler,” over the decades, she has developed relationships with zoos all over the country, which have invited her inside their facilities to experience their animals firsthand. Like, for example, the time White met a baby okapi, “a very rare antelope,” who was an “exact duplicate, a little clone” of its mother.
Or when White recently visited the Tucson Zoo. “I was just called by the zoo director that they had three new baby lions. So I got a ticket and we went over the next morning to meet these three lion cubs,” said White, curling her arms like she was cradling a small baby. “I had them this way.”
White’s love of animals has often spilled over into her Hollywood career, as well. For her 92nd birthday, White said that “the girls” — i.e., her Hot in Cleveland costars Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendie Malick — had adopted a horse for her and named him Ludden after White’s late husband, Allen Ludden. “That was a big thrill.”
5. Her absolute favorite animal is Koko, the 42-year-old gorilla famous for learning and communicating via sign language.
“She invites me in and I go into her enclosure — she has a whole house! — but into her sitting room,” said White. “And there’s little chair there, so she invites me to sit, or sometimes I’ll just sit on the floor with her with my hands on her fat tummy! She’s as gentle as a lamb. We converse! Literally, converse, and she signs — makes me aware of what she’s saying as well as talking to her… It’s just mind-boggling to look into those eyes and to be talking to her and realize how aware she is of everything you’re saying. I think my most exciting privilege of all my animal contacts.”
6. White’s “favorite show,” in fact, was a short-lived animal series she hosted in the 1970s called The Pet Set.
“I would have one of my celebrity friends on and I would do a short interview with them,” said White (pictured above on the show with James Brolin). “They would bring their pet on. Jimmy and Gloria Stewart brought their golden retriever on, and he got so excited on the show that he pulled him arse over teakettle right off the couch! He got so excited about being there!” (Presumably, the dog pulled Stewart over the couch, and not the other way around.) “And I would have a wild spot where I would get an exotic animal up close and how you can handle them. I did 39 [episodes], and I had a good time doing that. That was my favorite show.”
“In the beginning, when I started, television was just that magic box over in the corner where you would see people moving around,” White said. “Well, now the audience has seen every joke, they’ve seen every story, they know exactly where you’re going before you even start. It’s a hard audience to surprise, because they think they’re way ahead of you. So I’m glad I started when I did. I think starting now would be a little difficult.”
8. She will never retire.
“Retire? I’m not sure the meaning of that word,” White said. “I hear it once in a while, out there somebody did it. But no. I’m going to die in the saddle.”