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Three marriages, one tragedy and TV's longest career: The extraordinary life of Betty White.

Betty White is asked often about what's behind her recent resurgence in popularity. About why, as she twinkles toward triple digits, the past decade has been among her busiest — a hit sitcom (Hot in Cleveland), movies, TV commercials and cameos.

"I have not the foggiest idea," she previously told The New York Times. "At this point, who would ever dream that you’d be working this much? But I’m enjoying it thoroughly. Why retire from something you love? They’ll retire you fast enough."

She may not understand her appeal. But the rest of us do.

The making of an icon.

As the popular piece of pop-culture trivia goes, Betty White is older than sliced bread. By six years, in fact.

'Bets', as her mother called her, was born in Illinois on January 17, 1922, in the depths of the Great Depression. Her father worked for an electrical company, which saw the family transferred to California when she was just an infant.

He'd make and sell radios for extra money, or whatever goods he was willing to accept as payment from his cash-strapped customers. As an ardent animal lover, that was often a dog.

"The radios didn't eat, but the dogs did," Betty told The Television Academy Foundation. "I think we ended up with 20 dogs at one point... That was not one of his better business endeavours."

The legacy of that beloved backyard kennel has stayed with Betty. 

She's always been a dog owner, is a patron of several animal charities, and has a room in her California home crowded with a zoo of plush toys: "I'm a little strange for stuffed animals. I'm a little strange for any kind of animal," she told Yahoo's Katie Couric, laughing. "Except possibly the two-legged kind."

Betty with her St. Bernard in 1954; one of the many dogs she's called her companion over the years. Image: Getty.

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Betty was just three months out of high school in 1939 when she first entered show business. It was on a somewhat experimental television program in which she and classmates sang songs from The Merry Widow.

Then came the war, and everything stopped.

Armed with a driver's licence, Betty joined the American Women's Voluntary Services, which saw her trucking supplies up through the Hollywood hills to troops stationed at gunning placements and sewing buttons on military uniforms.

After the war, Betty enjoyed a career in radio — singing, hosting and voicing commercials — and got married and divorced twice in the space of five years. First to a pilot named Dick Barker in 1945, then two years later to Hollywood talent agent Lane Allen 

"My second husband was a marvellous man," she told the TAF. "But I was a career lady, and I made that clear. Well, he thought he could change that."

But by then, television was gaining popularity, and Betty was eager to be part of it, husband or not.

Betty (left) with actor Eddie Albert during a broadcast of the talk show, Hollywood on Television, in 1952. Image: Getty.

In the 50s, she hosted a program called Hollywood on Television, which ran for 5.5 hours, six days a week and was entirely ad-libbed. 

It earned Betty her first of 24 Emmy nominations and began what has become the longest-running career in the history of the medium.

The First Lady of Television.

To '60s audiences, Betty White was a game-show staple. It's where she met her third husband, television personality Allen Ludden.

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The pair relished in an 18-year marriage before he died of stomach cancer in 1981.

Betty and Allen after their wedding in 1963. Image: Getty.

Though she's quipped about "fooling around" and went on at least one date as recently as her early 80s, Betty has never remarried. 

As she told Larry King Live in 2010, "When you've had the best, who needs the rest?"

Allen was and remains the love of her life. Animals and show business wrestle for second.

To '70s audiences, Betty White was Sue Ann Nivens, the acerbic, libidinous cooking show host on sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show

To those in the 80s, she was the Golden Girls' Rose Nylund, a wide-eyed grief counsellor who was either the butt of the joke or a step behind it.

The Golden Girls ran for seven seasons and is often ranked among the best television series of all time. Image: NBC.

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But if there's a moment that caught a new generation's attention, it was the 2006 Comedy Central roast of Star Trek legend William Shatner. 

There, with coiffed silver hair and gold-rimmed glasses, was an octogenarian uttering the words "cock ring", making innuendoes about Shatner's nuts, offering a bawdy recount of sleeping with him before the show (fiction, of course) and quips about his weight: "Darling, you were supposed to explore the galaxy, not fill it."

Then came the viral 2010 Snickers Super Bowl commercial in which Betty('s stunt double) was tackled into a puddle of mud. 

It remains one of the most popular and lucrative television ads of all time.


Well and truly back in public consciousness, a Facebook petition circulated online for Betty to host stalwart sketch show Saturday Night Live. The call was answered in 2011 and she became — and remains — the oldest host in the show's decades-long history. 

"I'm 88 years old," she began her opening monologue, "so it's great to be here... for a number of reasons."

That earned Betty yet another Emmy. She's got seven in total, including a Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award.

And prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was still adding film and television credits to her CV — notably, Toy Story 4 in which she voiced a stuffed animal. A tiger named Bitey White. 

The risk of overexposure, she's said, worries her "sick". But she's the only one concerned.

Ninety-nine years of Betty White.

This weekend, Betty turns 99.

The celebrations will be quieter than usual, but only by virtue of ongoing social distancing restrictions in her home state. She remains her healthy, effervescent self.

Asked by PEOPLE what keeps her that way, she replied:

"A sense of humour. 

"Don't take yourself too seriously. You can lie to others — not that I would — but you cannot lie to yourself."

Feature Image: Getty/Mamamia.

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