I’ve interviewed hundreds of TV stars since 1990, and nobody made a bigger, better impression than Betty White.
She kissed me once, and I liked it.
OK, she kissed me on the cheek in the most public of situations — in front of several hundred people (including the stars of “The Big Bang Theory,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “Battlestar Galactica”) at the 2009 Television Critics Association Award. I was there to present her with the TCA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and, in the more than 28 years I’ve covered television, it had to be coolest moment of my career.
PBS is celebrating White’s 80 years in show business — 80 years! — with the absolutely appropriately titled special “Betty White: First Lady of Television” (Tuesday, 7 p.m., KUED-Ch. 7). It’s a warm and glowing tribute, which is also entirely appropriate.
C’mon, who doesn’t love Betty White?
The 96-year-old is an American icon who has made hundreds of TV appearances — everything from her early days in Los Angeles doing live TV 5½ hours a day, six days a week, to umpteen game shows (as both panelist and host) to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “The Golden Girls” to “Hot in Cleveland.”
The woman you’ve seen on TV is by no means an act. Betty is the same person up close — she’s as interested in the people she meets as they are in her.
I don't recall the details of the time we spent chatting before that TCA Awards ceremony, except that she kept telling me how grateful she was, and she asked about my parents, my children and my pets.
(Near the end of “First Lady of Television,” there’s unbelievable footage of noted animal advocate White as she hand feeds and cuddles a bear that’s several times bigger than she is. “I’m the luckiest old broad on two feet,” she says.)
Georgia Engel, White’s close friend who co-starred with her on “Mary Tyler Moore” and later appeared with her on “Hot in Cleveland,” told members of the TCA, “Betty has such integrity, honesty, generosity of spirit, wisdom, and actually self-forgetfulness when she’s in a room of people. She literally forgets herself because she’s so interested in finding out about other people and seeing how they’re doing.”
Steve Boettcher, the director/producer of “First Lady of Television,” got to know White as he filmed and interviewed her over the past decade.
“Betty knew who the crew members were [and] their families,” he told TV critics. “She knew the pets of the crew members. That’s the way Betty is.”
He recalled the first time they set up to interview her.
“Everybody kind of takes a beat when she walks in the room,” Boettcher said. “She looked at every guy in the room, and she goes, ‘I like my odds.’ And the whole crew just kind of falls in love with her at that moment.”
Ryan Reynolds tells a similar story in the special about working with White in the 2009 movie “The Proposal,” in which she played his grandmother.
“She’s just this sweet, lovely older woman who is just beloved by this whole crew and cast and everybody would just do anything for her,” Reynolds says. “And she gets up to leave, and everyone’s sad because it’s her last shot. And she’s just walking out the door to say goodbye.
“And she turns around … and she says, ‘I just want everyone here to know that this is the most fun I’ve ever had — standing up.’”
C’mon, who doesn’t love Betty White?
There's no dark underbelly to The Betty White Story. Nobody is coming out of the woodwork to tell us tawdry tales or recount that time she went on a star power trip.
There’s a bit of sadness in “First Lady of Television” as she recalls her late husband, “Password” host Allen Ludden, who died in 1981. It’s poignant and only makes you love her more.
And, c’mon, who doesn’t love Betty White?