Veteran actress-turned-author Betty White shares some of her observations and humorous stories from her candid new memoir, If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t).
Actress-author Betty WhiteOriginally aired on May 12, 2011
Tavis: So pleased and delighted to welcome Betty White back to this program. The legendary television actress is a seven-time Emmy winner for her many notable roles, including iconic shows, of course, like “Mary Tyler Moore” and “The Golden Girls.”
She’s out now with a terrific new memoir about her life on and off the screen. It’s called, “If You Ask Me – And Of Course, You Won’t.” (Laughter) Before we get to the book, here now a scene from her latest hit series, “Hot in Cleveland.”
Tavis: (Laughs) You’re just ripping those one-liners off.
Betty White: Oh, we have a good time on that show. (Laughter) I love those girls. They are wonderful.
Tavis: Tell me anything you want to tell me about how you developed such great comedic timing.
White: Oh, Tavis, look who’s talking.
Tavis: No, you’re the one.
White: No, it just – I was an only child and I had a mother and father who were just – there wasn’t a straight man in the house, and I mean that in a very nice way. (Laughter) They were fun, and we would laugh a lot. My dad would bring home stories and joke and stuff and he’d say, “Sweetheart, you can take that one to school. I wouldn’t take that joke to school.” (Laughter) So we had a good time.
Tavis: So this started early for you, then. You got it honest, at the home.
White: Yes, yup, yup.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. You and I were talking before we came on the air here and I was just saying to you how much I love the title of the book – it’s so Betty White. “If You Ask Me – And Of Course, You Won’t.” You were starting to tell me how the title actually got to be.
White: Well, the publishers wanted to call it “Listen Up,” and “Listen Up,” it’s just an expression I never use and I wouldn’t. It’s just not me, so I said I wasn’t thrilled with the title, and they said, “Well, what would you want to call it?”
I didn’t know. Off the top of my head, I said, “If you ask -” it’s just a series of short pieces on how I feel on a variety of subjects. I said, “If you ask me – and of course, you won’t -” so they said, “That’s it.” (Laughter)
Tavis: And that’s how the title came to be?
White: That’s it.
Tavis: It’s funny how these things happen sometimes. You love animals so – we discussed this the last time you were here and all your fans know you love animals so much. I get the feeling that if I were a dog or a cat conducting this interview, you might even be more comfortable.
White: I’d take you home. (Laughter)
Tavis: In that case, then, I’m a dog. (Laughter)
White: I love it.
Tavis: I would love to go home. What is it like for the animals living in the Betty White house?
White: I only have one. I have a seven-year-old golden retriever, as you can see by my black slacks, (laughter) but he’s my buddy, my pal, my – I just was in New York on a book tour and I came home and he gets up on the couch with me, but that’s not enough. He’s got to stretch across here, where I can’t get up if I have to.
So it was very late, it had been a very busy trip. The next thing I know, he’s got me pinned down there and I’m trying to catch up on mail, and before you know it I doze off. In the morning, we woke up, he was still across there and it was morning and I’m still in my travel clothes. (Laughter)
Tavis: How did you develop such a love for animals, and what do you get out of that relationship?
White: It’s really my life. It’s always been that way. In the womb – my mother and dad were animal nuts as well, and they just – they’re such a comfort and they’re such – they don’t criticize and they certainly don’t lie to you, and you can’t lie to them. You can lie to anybody else in the world, but you can’t lie to them. And it doesn’t matter if you go to the mailbox or to Tibet, you’ll get the same greeting when you come back. (Laughter)
Tavis: As I mentioned at the top, you’re almost 90 now. You don’t look anywhere near 90, but you’re almost 90 now.
White: I’ll be 90 in January.
Tavis: Ninety in January. Because you’ve been around for so long and have been a part of so many iconic shows, it’s hard to remember how you actually got started in this business. Take me back to the beginning. How did you end up in show business? How did you get into the acting game?
White: I was just lucky. Television was in New York but it wasn’t in Los Angeles yet. It hadn’t moved out yet. When it did, there was a local station, channel 13, and I did a silly little song on the show and then there was a little group of a couple of comedians who had a little sketch show that they did.
A disc jockey, Al Jarvis, saw me, and he called me and he said, “I’m starting a television show and I’d like you to be my girl Friday.” I thought, ooh, gee, another job, because I was getting $5 a job for those other ones. I thought maybe I’ll get another $5. (Laughter)
So he said, “Yeah, so come on in and we’ll talk about it.” Well, it turned out it was five and a half hours a day, six days a week for four years, and that’s like going to television college. No scripts, no nothing. You just went out and fought for your life for five and a half hours, six days a week.
But Al left and went over to ABC two years after the show started, so I inherited the show because I was there. But it was wonderful experience. Whatever happened happened on camera, and you had to face it.
Tavis: What do you take from that kind of experience? What were the takeaways for you being thrown in that way and being live, on the spot, in the moment, every day?
White: You have no alternative. You’ve got to handle it. You can’t say, “I don’t want to play this” and walk off the stage. So you’ve got to think on your feet – you just have to. But what I loved about television, it was this new medium, this miracle over in the corner of the room, and I felt so comfortable with the camera lens because you’re never talking to more than two or three people.
If you’re talking to an audience, a big audience in a theater or a movie audience, but with television if there are more than two or three people in the room they’re talking to each other, they’re not listening to you. So that camera lens became like sitting talking to you. I think that’s what I loved about it.
Tavis: There’s so much stuff in this book, and I want to just pull a few things out that I found completely fascinating and funny. Fascinating – you apparently love crossword puzzles.
Tavis: You’re addicted to them.
White: I’m absolutely addicted. I carry them around in my purse. I’m stuck on the one that the car driving me here, I got halfway through it but I didn’t finish it before – I’ll finish it on the way home. (Laughter)
Tavis: How did you develop a love for crosswords?
White: I don’t know. I love words. Sudoku I don’t get into, I’m not into numbers that much, and there are people who are hooked on that. But crossword puzzles, I just can’t – if I get a puppy and I paper train him and I put the – if all of a sudden I’d open the paper and there’s a crossword puzzle – “No, no, you can’t go on that, honey. I’ll take it.” (Laughter)
Tavis: So are you pretty good at crossword puzzles?
White: I’m not a whiz, but I do them so much that pretty soon you kind of get into the pattern. I love them.
Tavis: I ask that question in part because I am so fascinated – whenever I meet persons who’ve been blessed to arrive at your age and their mental acuity is as sharp as yours is, I always want to know what the trick is to being as sharp as you are when you get to be 90. Is there a connection to crossword puzzles?
White: I’m not that sharp, Tavis, God knows.
Tavis: Oh, come on.
White: But I think crossword puzzles are mental exercise, I really do, because it’s too easy to sit down and turn the set on and watch something and just kind of turn off up here, where with – I can’t put it down until I get it as far as I can go. I do think it’s like exercise.
Tavis: I read somewhere that when you did the now-famous “Saturday Night Live” appearance, for which you won an Emmy award – everybody loved Betty White, the whole campaign to get you to host “Saturday Night Live,” I read somewhere that the cue cards kind of scared you, these big old huge cue cards they stack up.
White: That’s why I turned – I had turned down invitations to host “Saturday Night Live” three times earlier on. First of all, I’m so California and it’s so New York, I thought, well, er. But I memorize stuff or a lib. Cue cards, I – I hate that look when they look in the camera and then they’re reading the cue cards here and the eyes –
Tavis: Darting back and forth?
White: It drives me nuts. Well, they have a cue card man on that show who is – he should be sainted. He said, “Betty, when you’re talking to Tina Fey, for example, right here, don’t ever look at Tina. Behind Tina I’ll be here with the cue cards. Keep your eye on my cards and don’t look at Tina, and she’s doing the same thing behind you.”
Well, first of all, do you want to stand this close to Tina Fey and not look at her? How can you do that? (Laughter) But he was right. I was comfortable. You can’t memorize them. You’ve got maybe 40, 45 sketches and they keep changing, so you have to do cue cards.
I think that’s the thing that panicked me. Well, he took all that panic away by just giving me that hint. I’m eternally grateful.
Tavis: How do you do it for television? How do you do it on your regular show?
White: Oh, you memorize it.
Tavis: You still memorize all this stuff?
White: Oh, sure, that goes with the territory.
Tavis: Good Lord.
White: It’s like doing a play every – (laughter) because we’re in front of a live audience, thank goodness. They give you so much back. But you have to memorize to play it. It’s like doing a little mini play every night.
Tavis: What’s your process for learning your lines, and as you’ve aged over the years, as my grandmother would say, as you become more chronologically gifted –
White: (Laughter) I love that. I love that.
Tavis: – has your process for learning your lines changed?
White: No. I’m blessed with learning easily. I’ve always had a good thing about memorizing quickly, and I just leave the script kind of open somewhere, and as I walk by I’ll just take a swipe at it and then go on about my business and pretty soon it sticks. It kind of is – and I have these wonderful gals to work with. Valerie Bertinelli and Wendie Malick and Jane Leeves, and we have such fun and we’re crazy about each other.
So we all go out there, but every once in a while in front of the live audience there’s this little dead silence and you know it’s somebody’s line, and you think, oh, dear gussy, is it mine? (Laughter) But then somebody starts to giggle and you know it’s theirs, so we have to stop and start over again.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact that you have been so fortunate, so blessed – you tell me – to be a part of so many iconic shows? There are people in this town who hope and pray for one show that goes for a couple of seasons.
White: Oh, Tavis.
Tavis: You’ve been on not just a multiple number of shows, but so many iconic shows.
White: I tell you, I can’t – in fact, I address it in the book.
White: I am so – I say lucky; yes, lucky, but blessed. First of all, I’m blessed with good health and energy. That helps. But the fact that as you say, one in a lifetime is a blessing. To get two big shows – but three, isn’t that abusing a privilege a little bit? (Laughter) Don’t you think I’m pressing my luck?
We’re having such a wonderful time, and each of those groups become – like Mary Tyler Moore and I are still great and dear friends, as is the whole company, and not the Golden Girls anymore, but we – and I can’t still believe that they’re gone, because I as the oldest, so I expected to be the first one to bow out.
Now to have another whole group of this, where you can’t wait to get – now, we did our last show and we’re on hiatus until September. I can’t wait to go back to work.
Tavis: Wow. Since you raised these shows by name, I wonder if you’ll indulge me, and I don’t want to color the question too much. I just want to throw it out there. Tell me whatever you want to tell me, in retrospect, obviously, about the “Mary Tyler Moore” experience, about that show.
White: “Mary Tyler Moore” was – it was my first big hit. But Mary and her then-husband, Grant Tinker, were Allen’s – Grant and Allen were best friends, my beloved Allen Ludden, my husband. So they were the first people, when Allen and I started going together, that he introduced me to.
So Mary and I were great and dear friends, and the casting director one time, there was this happy homemaker character who could do anything, she could fix anything, she could cook anything, she – Cloris Leachman’s character suspected there was a little affair going on because her husband would come home with his clothes cleaner than when he went to work. (Laughter)
So they said the happy homemaker would – they wanted somebody – the sickeningly sweet Betty White type, so the casting director say, “Well, why don’t you get Betty White? It’s a one shot, she’s not going to hurt you.” They said, “Oh, no, Betty and Mary are friends. If it didn’t work, that might make it awkward for Mary.”
Well, I guess they couldn’t find somebody sickeningly sweet enough, so (laughter) they called me finally and said, “Would you do this show, one shot?” Well, the big thrill was we did the show that night and then Allan Burns and Jim Brooks, who created the show, came to me and said, “We’ve got a couple more ideas for scripts. Just hang in there; we’d like to use you again.” Well, it was – what a blessing. You can imagine how thrilled I was.
Tavis: And the rest, as they say, is history.
White: But Allen and I were so close with Mary and Grant, the first year the ratings, when – I didn’t come in until the fourth year. By then it was a big hit. The first year we were all sweating out the ratings and sweating out would they get picked up, would they not get picked up.
You can’t imagine that about the “Mary Tyler Moore” show now, but it was an uphill fight that first year.
Tavis: Do you have thoughts about that, about the way the television business has changed? Back in the day, to your point, back in that day, they would give shows an opportunity, a chance to grow and to try to find their audience. Everything now is about here and now. If you don’t hit this week, you’re gone next week. What do you make of the way the business has changed?
White: I think the audience is the thing that’s changed. Back in those days you were still that miracle over in the corner where people were actually walking around on this little box. Now, the audience, they’ve heard every joke, they know every plotline. They know where you’re going before you open your mouth, and that’s a hard audience to write for and a hard audience to surprise.
So we actors will take credit for oh, yes, I did this and I did that. We can’t do it if it’s not on that page. It’s the writers who make shows work or not work.
Tavis: Does that mean that even though it’s been awfully good to you, that television may be a thing of the past at some point?
White: I don’t think so. I think there’s something about that company in the corner, particularly for people who live alone and stuff. They just automatically go in and turn the set on. I live alone, but I’ve got a golden retriever, so I don’t have to turn the set on. (Laughter)
Tavis: When you mentioned a moment ago how important the writing is to making a show work, it hit me that the reason why a Black man like me gets tickled to death every night to watch episodes back-to-back of “The Golden Girls” is I think the writing on that show – I’m not the “Golden Girl” audience but I love that show because the writing on it was so clever.
White: It was – we couldn’t wait. We’d never see the script – we would film on Friday, but we’d never see the script till Monday so we couldn’t wait to come in and do the table read on Monday morning and see what was going to happen.
And it was – we did 180 shows, and that went on for 180 weeks. We just – it was – we knew how privileged we were. It wasn’t something that we realized afterwards and thought, “Gee, we didn’t know it at the time.” That writing was just spectacular, and you’d taste every minute of it.
Tavis: To your earlier point, what do you make of the fact that you are the oldest of “The Golden Girls” and the last one living and not just living, but still working, with all this acclaim? What do you make of that?
White: Oh, how blessed can you be? I love to work. Everybody says, well – I think it’s wishful thinking – “Aren’t you thinking about retiring one of these days?” (Laughter) So I make them define the word, because I don’t know what the meaning of the word is.
But why retire from something if you’re loving it so much and enjoying it so much, and you’re blessed with another group of people to work with like the gang on “Hot in Cleveland?” Why would I think of retiring? What would I do with myself?
Tavis: You talk about this in the book as well, about we know you and we’ve been talking now about the work that you have done. But just say a word to me about the stuff that you turned down in your career and how you’ve made choices about what was right and what wasn’t right for Betty White?
When I think Betty White, I think when the audience thinks Betty White, we know who Betty White is and we’ve got a sense of who you are now. But that’s because you made choices along the way that allow us to know who Betty White is. But tell me about the things you turned down over the years.
White: I always turned down stuff about drugs, because I don’t think there’s anything funny or cute about drugs. I’ve seen it cause too much trouble with people. So I don’t – at one point they wanted all of us, the Golden Girls, to come back and do a show where we were all on something.
Even in “Hot in Cleveland” one of the scripts came along where Elka, my character, they’d come into her quarters and they’d sniff around and they were a little suspicious that something was going on.
I said, “Please don’t do that. I just don’t want to play that game.” So they, God bless them, they took it out completely. But I won’t do that. Every once in a while there was one Christmas show, it became a big hit, and it was – it started out with Santa Claus was drunk and vomiting on the toys.
It could be me, but I don’t think that’s particularly funny. (Laughter) It’s classy, but I don’t think it’s particularly funny. (Laughter) So I said, “Thank you, no.” Then Jim Brooks, one of the producers on “Mary Tyler Moore,” invited me to do a part in the Jack Nicholson show, “As Good as it Gets,” and there was one scene where they had this adorable little dog that he put down the laundry chute at the end of the hall in the apartment.”
Well, the dog fell on laundry and was fine and all that. I said, “I can’t do that, because in real life somebody will see that and either a kid will think that’s funny to do or somebody who doesn’t like the dog down the hall, and it doesn’t have a happy ending.” I said, “I just can’t.” Jim said, “Betty, the dog is the star of the show. The dog is fine.”
I said, “That dog is fine, but not the dog that somebody copies.” So I turned it down and it became the hit of the – the biggest hit in the world. But I didn’t regret turning it down. I just can’t do that.
Tavis: Wow. I appreciate that integrity.
White: My answers get long, don’t they?
Tavis: No, I love your –
White: I don’t shut up.
Tavis: No, I don’t have enough time. I wish I had more time, I would do this for two or three shows if I had the time. I have a friend of mine who is now in North Carolina. His name is Reverend Gardener Taylor. He is now 93 or 94, and every time I talk to him he tells me all the time, “Tavis, live as long as you want. Just don’t get old.” He tells me all the time, “Live as long as you want. Just don’t get old.”
I raise that to ask you what is the best thing – we read all the time about the challenges of getting old. What’s the best thing about getting older?
White: You’re spoiled rotten. Everybody said, “Oh, you’re almost 90, can I help you?” (Laughter) “What can I do?” You’ll turn around and there’s a chair behind you. Somebody is – whether you want one or not, it’s there. (Laughter) They couldn’t treat you nicer.
Well, my blessing is I’m blessed with good health. If I weren’t feeling good or if I didn’t have the energy, then it’s not that much fun. But this way, you can get away with murder because you’re going to be 90 in January. (Laughter)
Tavis: And aren’t we all the better for the fact, and happy about the fact, that Betty White is, in fact, going to be 90 in January? She has a new book out. It’s called “If You Ask Me – And Of Course, You Won’t.” Love the title, love the book, love Betty White. An honor to have you back on this program.
White: Oh, Tavis, thank you so much. It’s a joy. Believe me, you’re fun to talk to.
Tavis: Well, I’m glad to have you here. That’s our show for – yes?
White: You did say one thing I was surprised at. You’re Black?
Tavis: (Laughter) Ba-dump-bump. (Laughter) That’s our show for tonight.
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