At first glance, the title of the upcoming PBS film "Betty White: First Lady of Television" might seem a stretch.
What about Lucille Ball? Carol Burnett? Or Mary Tyler Moore, whose 1970s sitcom counted White among the greatest TV comedy ensemble of them all?
The title, though, reflects the strong place White holds in the hearts of her fans, who span generations. The Aug. 21 broadcast, featuring Valerie Harper, Tina Fey and Carl Reiner, marks the latest leg in a remarkable victory lap for a performer whose appeal only grows with time.
Everyone thinks they know Betty White, but she could never be typecast during a career that pre-dates World War II.
She brought deceiving vulnerability to conniving cougar Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Decency and kindness flowed through Rose Nylund, who was never as dim or naive as she sometimes seemed to her fellow “Golden Girls.” House caretaker Elka Ostrovsky’s earthy zingers grounded the modern-day, would-be Sue Anns on "Hot in Cleveland."
Sure, White projects an innate goodness. But her success also rests in brilliant comic timing built for the sitcom – a genre she helped forge as the star and producer of the live comedy “Life With Elizabeth,” which ended its run in 1955.
Some 55 years later, White stood on the stage of "Saturday Night Live," after a Facebook-fueled push to make her host, finally the headliner once again. “When I first heard about the Facebook campaign to get me to me to host ‘Saturday Night Live,’ I didn’t know what Facebook was,” she said in her opening monologue. “And now that I do know what it is, I have to say – it sounds like a huge waste of time.”
U.S. & World
At age 96, White is getting her latest top billing from the producers of the fine "Pioneers of Television" series. It hopefully won't be the last hurrah for a performer who's first on the favorites list of many TV lovers.
Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.