White seemed to have held every conceivable job in television. The first woman to host a talk show, she was also a writer, producer, and game-show host, as well as an actress. She also had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Born in Oak Park, Illinois, she and her family moved during the Depression to Los Angeles, where White graduated from Beverly Hills High School. Longing to write and act, she was deemed too unphotogenic for movies, so she began a career in radio. She made her first TV appearance in 1939 at age 17, singing songs from The Merry Widow, when the small screen was still an experimental delivery system.
In 1949, still well before TV sets were common in homes, she and Al Jarvis brought their Los Angeles radio show to local TV as Hollywood on Television, a variety show that required its hosts to come up with five and a half hours of new live material each day. She hosted the show for four years and spun off a recurring sketch into the sitcom Life with Elizabeth, which she not only starred in but also produced and syndicated. The 1953–55 series made her nationally famous.
White was married three times, most famously to Password host Allen Ludden, whom she wed in 1963 after serving as a panelist on his game show. Their union lasted until his death in 1981, and she never married again.
Given her ubiquity on TV in the 1950s and 1960s, White took a lot of flack for her perkiness, for a supposed vacuity that represented the worst the new medium had to offer. Of course, she was anything but vacuous, even if it wasn’t always apparent on the small screen. She and Ludden were friends with John Steinbeck (Ludden had been a college pal of the novelist’s wife, Elaine). As a talent scout, White gave early career boosts to both Sam Peckinpah (a stagehand on Life with Elizabeth before becoming a revolutionary film director) and David Letterman, then a wry Indianapolis weatherman who interviewed Ludden and White during a late-'60s publicity tour. She helped the future late-night icon land some of his first national TV appearances on game shows once he moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s.
In face, during their marriage, White was such a frequent guest on game shows—notably, Password, What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth, Pyramid, and Match Game—that fans could be forgiven for thinking she was more renowned for being a game-show panelist than an actress.
That changed when White landed the Mary Tyler Moore Show role of Sue Ann Nivens, the “Happy Homemaker” hostess whose wholesome screen persona belied her man-hungry private life. She played the role for five years and won two Emmys and a permanent place in TV history as a regular on the classic series.
It would not be her last major series. In the 1980s, she was hired to star on The Golden Girls, initially as Blanche Devereaux, the Miami senior who was a slutty Southern belle. But she and the producers felt the role was too similar to Sue Ann, so she switched to the role of Rose Nylund, the quartet’s naïve Midwestern ditz. Rue McClanahan took the Blanche role, while White took home an Emmy and six nominations for playing sweet dimwit Rose over the series’s seven-year run.
White never really went away; she was always in demand for TV guest roles, talk-show visits, and game shows. And yet her career seemed to rev up again in her 80s and 90s. She was displaying a new persona, an old lady who’d disarm observers with her surface sweetness, then drop a bawdy joke or even display homicidal intent (as in the film Lake Placid or her recurring role on TV’s Boston Legal). In 2010, White proved she was up to date by becoming both the oldest-ever host of Saturday Night Live (at 88) and the first ever to win the gig via a Facebook petition.
“I didn’t know what Facebook was,” she joked during her monologue. “Now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it seems like a huge waste of time.” The appearance won White her sixth Emmy.
That same year, she joined the cast of what would be her third long-running sitcom, TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland, where her still crack-comic timing landed her a promotion from guest star to series regular.
By the time she turned 90, White was a beloved institution, whether for her comic acting, her decades of animal-rights activism, or her indefatigable work ethic.
“I’m just going to hang around until they’ll lay me out,” she said in an interview when she was 75. “I won’t get in the way at all, but they can just lay me out on the set somewhere. I love to work.”
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