NEW YORK — Betty White, the actress and comedian who became a cultural icon, died Friday, just weeks before her 100th birthday.
White’s death was confirmed Friday by Jeff Witjas, her longtime agent and friend. She would have turned 100 on Jan. 17.
“I truly never thought she was going to pass away,” Witjas told The Associated Press. “She meant the world to me as a friend. She was the most positive person I’ve ever known.”
Witjas said White had been staying close to her Los Angeles home during the pandemic out of caution but had no diagnosed illness. It was unclear if she died Thursday night or Friday, he said.
White, whose career spans over nine decades, became a TV sitcom star in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Golden Girls.” Her appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in 2010 earned her a new generation of admirers.
A celebration was planned for her 100th birthday with a limited-time movie event.
The actress had invited fans to see “Betty White: 100 Years Young—A Birthday Celebration” in almost 900 theaters nationwide on her birthday, Jan. 17.
White has received several awards, including eight Emmy Awards and one Grammy Award.
She also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
White began her television career as $50-a-week sidekick to a local Los Angeles TV personality in 1949. She was hired for a local daytime show starring Al Jarvis, the best-known disc jockey in Los Angeles.
It was then she got a tip to start lying about her age.
“We are so age-conscious in this country,” she said in a 2011 interview with The Associated Press. “It’s silly, but that’s the way we are. So I was told, ‘Knock four years off right now. You’ll be blessing yourself down the road.’
“I was born in 1922. So I thought, ‘I must always remember that I was born in 1926.’ But then I would have to do the math. Finally, I decided to heck with it.”
White proved to be a natural for the new medium. She was bright, pretty and likable, with a dimpled, eye-crinkling smile. A 1951 Los Angeles Times headline said: “Betty White Hailed as TV’s Busiest Gal.”
“I did that show 5½ hours a day, six days a week, for 4½ years,” she recalled in 1975. Jarvis was replaced by actor Eddie Albert, and when he went to Europe for the film “Roman Holiday,” she headed the show.
A sketch she had done with Jarvis turned into a syndicated series, “Life With Elizabeth,” which won her first Emmy. For a time she did interviews on “The Betty White Show” in the daytime, filmed the series at night and often turned up on a late-night talk show. She also appeared on commercials and every New Year’s narrated the Pasadena Rose Parade.
With the glib tongue and quick responses nurtured in the Jarvis years, she was a welcome guest on “I’ve Got a Secret,” “To Tell the Truth,” “What’s My Line” and other game shows — all the way up to the 2008 “Million Dollar Password,” which revived the game once hosted by Ludden, whom she had met when a contestant on his original “Password.”
That was in 1961, and the next year, while touring in summer theater during television’s off season, she starred with Ludden — by then a widower with three children — in the comedy “Critic’s Choice.”
White, who had claimed to be “militantly single” since a 1947-1949 marriage, weakened in her resolve.
“I had always said on `The Tonight Show’ and everywhere else that I would never get married again,” she told a reporter in 1963. “But Allen outnumbered me. He started in and even the children got in the act. And I surrendered — willingly.”
The marriage lasted from 1963 until his death from cancer in 1981.
Off-screen, White tirelessly raised money for animal causes such as the Morris Animal Foundation and the Los Angeles Zoo. In 1970-1971, she wrote, produced and hosted a syndicated TV show, “The Pet Set,” to which celebrities brought their dogs and cats. She wrote a 1983 book titled “Betty White’s Pet Love: How Pets Take Care of Us,” and, in 2011, published “Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo.”
Her devotion to pets was such that she declined a plum role in the hit 1997 movie “As Good As It Gets.” She objected to a scene in which Jack Nicholson drops a small dog down a laundry chute.
In her 2011 book “If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t),” White explained the origins of her love for dogs. During the Depression, her dad made radios to sell to make extra money. But since few people had money to buy the radios, he willingly traded them for dogs, which, housed in kennels in the backyard, at times numbered as many as 15 and made White’s happy childhood even happier.
Are there any critters she doesn’t like?
“No,” White told the AP. “Anything with a leg on each corner.”
Then what about snakes?
“Ohhh, I LOVE snakes!”
She was born Betty Marion White in Oak Park, Illinois, and the family moved to Los Angeles when she was a toddler.
“I’m an only child, and I had a mother and dad who never drew a straight line: They just thought funny,” she told The Associated Press in 2015. “We’d sit around the breakfast table and then we’d start kicking it around. My dad was a salesman and he would come home with jokes. He’d say, `Sweetheart, you can take THAT one to school. But I wouldn’t take THIS one.′ We had such a wonderful time.”
Her early ambition was to be a writer, and she wrote her grammar school graduation play, giving herself the leading role.
At Beverly Hills High School, her ambition turned to acting, and she appeared in several school plays. Her parents hoped she’d go to college, but instead she took roles in a small theater and played bit parts in radio dramas.
Explaining in 2011 how she kept up her frantic pace even as an octogenarian, she explained that she only needed four hours of sleep each night.
And when asked how she had managed to be universally beloved during her decades-spanning career, she summed up with a dimpled smile: “I just make it my business to get along with people so I can have fun. It’s that simple.”